BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: UK
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Monday, 23 October, 2000, 15:43 GMT 16:43 UK
Fingerprint experts 'making mistakes'
Fingerprint evidence is seldom questioned
Senior police officers are recommending fundamental changes in the use of fingerprint evidence.

One of Britain's leading experts in the field has raised a number of concerns about the reliability of the 76-year-old crime detection system.

His fears follow the controversial case of a former detective who was charged - and eventually acquitted - of perjury after fingerprint experts claimed her prints were left at a murder scene.

Geoffrey Sheppard, of the National Training Centre for Scientific Support to Criminal Investigation, believes the system is in need of urgent reform.

He thinks corners are being cut and evidence is not being checked because it is hardly ever examined in court.

Experts suspended

Four fingerprint experts have been suspended in Scotland after Detective Constable Shirley McKie was wrongly accused of being at the scene of a murder in 1997.

Det Con McKie was charged with perjury after she denied having ever visited the house in Kilmarnock where Marion Ross was murdered.

She was cleared after the court heard evidence from independent fingerprint experts that the original analysis had been wrong. Ms McKie has since taken early retirement.

Mr Sheppard believes the implications of what happened to Ms McKie are "globally significant".

He says the fingerprint system is only as good as the people using it, and says they are not being subjected to proper scrutiny.

Fingerprint expert
Concern over standards
He told BBC News Online: "Fingerprint analysis is not an exact science. It's based on human judgement and human beings are fallible.

"It's very rare for mistakes to be made. Any change to the system which makes mistakes less likely has to be an improvement."

From January the Association of Chief Police Officers intends introducing a new system for collecting fingerprint evidence.

Reliable system

In Britain experts look for 16 key points of similarity between two prints. Mr Sheppard believes accurate comparisons can be made without needing 16 exact matches.

Once you've got fingerprint evidence, the case is closed - he's guilty

Geoffrey Sheppard, fingerprint expert
The present, arbitrary criteria for establishing a match has not been changed for more than 50 years

In this country barristers and solicitors very rarely cross examine fingerprint experts on their techniques and findings.

Mr Sheppard said: "Barristers and magistrates feel the same thing: once you've got the fingerprint evidence, the case is closed - he's guilty."

But Bruce Holder, chairman of the Bar Council's public affairs committee, rejected the suggestion that barristers do not question fingerprint evidence.

'Duty to challenge'

He told BBC News Online: "If a defendant denies being at a place where his fingerprints were allegedly found it is your duty to challenge the evidence."

He said any changes which made the fingerprint system more reliable would be welcomed by criminal lawyers.

A new agency is being created to regulate standards among fingerprint experts.

The Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners (CRFP) will introduce new tests for experts and subject fingerprint analysts to regular checks.

Alan Kershaw, chief executive of the CRFP, said pressure to introduce external regulation of forensic scientists followed a number of cases where evidence was found to be flawed.

"There are around 1,000 fingerprint experts in this country. They will be assessed on the strength of their recent work to ensure they are competent and aware of the latest techniques in fingerprint science,'' said Mr Kershaw.

Detective Constable McKie's story is featured in Crime Squad on BBC One at 1930BST on Monday

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

14 Sep 00 | Scotland
Crime office faces shake-up
22 Aug 00 | Scotland
Fingerprint accused bailed
03 Aug 00 | Scotland
Fingerprint experts suspended
Links to more UK stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK stories