Page last updated at 17:54 GMT, Wednesday, 16 April 2008 18:54 UK

Ear evidence gets a day in court

By Ben Ando
BBC News

An ear
Different ears can leave similar ear prints, experts said

Even Mr Justice Latham, the senior appeal court judge, admitted to feeling a little "muddy" in his own mind about the complexities of ear print evidence.

Terms like "auricular tubercule", "crus of helix", "nodule of Darwin" and "helix rim" flew around the court number eight at the Royal Courts of Justice in London as experts were challenged over the validity of ear print evidence.

Mark Kempster, now aged 42, is serving a 10-year sentence after being jailed in 2001 for a number of burglaries committed the year before in Southampton.

At one of the houses targeted, police found little evidence other than the neatly preserved print of a left ear on a window pane - they suggested it was where the burglar had paused to listen for activity inside before breaking in.

The occupant, an elderly woman, lost an engagement ring she'd had since the 1930s and a necklace given to her by her husband on their 50th wedding anniversary.

Distort considerably

At Kempster's original trial, evidence was presented that his ear print matched that found at the crime scene, and he was duly convicted.

But at the Appeal court, that conviction was quashed, after the case was referred to them by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, the independent body that investigates possible miscarriages of justice.

Experts called by the defence used brightly-coloured red-and-blue transparencies to show that when compared, Kempster's ear had subtle differences to the print left on the window.

They argued that while numerous prints at the same location can form compelling evidence - as they will tend to reduce margins for error - a single print offers only very weak evidence.

When developed in Holland in the late 1990s, it was suggested that ear prints could be as useful as fingerprints for identifying suspects, and there were several convictions.

However, research since then has shown that unlike fingertips, which when pressed to a surface stay fairly flat, ears will distort considerably.

His family described the case as a miscarriage of justice

It means that two people with different ears can leave fairly similar prints - an argument that was at the heart of today's case.

Kempster's barrister Michael Mansfield QC argued that interpreting ear print evidence was an "art more than a science." He added that the technique was "highly subjective" and "still in its infancy."

The appeal court judges agreed - ruling that in this case, a single ear print was not enough to convict. They decided to give their reasons in full at a later date.

Kempster did not walk free today, however; his three other convictions for burglary were upheld and he is not eligible for parole until later this year.

As they left court, his family described the case as a miscarriage of justice and maintained that he was innocent of all the counts against him.

'Ear print' burglar wins appeal
16 Apr 08 |  Hampshire
'Ear print' burglar loses appeal
11 Dec 03 |  Hampshire/Dorset

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