Monday, February 20, 2006

A black mark against Scottish justice

Made by a fingerprint - or a fingerprint case, I should say. The provincial story of a Scottish police officer Shirley McKie, who was falsely accused of lying over fingerprint evidence, has thrown the international world of fingerprint analysis into disarray and discredits both the Scottish Executive and the Scottish legal system:
"Scotland's fingerprinting agency has become a worldwide embarrassment, according to an expert.

Forensic scientist Allan Bayle was speaking before the launch of a new website supporting the former police officer, Shirley McKie.

She is suing the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Criminal Records Office after being wrongly accused of leaving her fingerprint at a murder scene.

Ms McKie and her father have campaigned for reform of the fingerprint system.

She was cleared of lying on oath in 1999 after insisting that a fingerprint found at the scene of the murder of a Kilmarnock woman was not hers."
What the implications for the world of fingerprint analysis is I don't quite understand but from what I can follow, it's the SCRO's failure to disclose how it arrived at its conclusions in this case that is casting a shadow over the whole world of fingerprint analysis.

Jack McConnell's insistence that 'an honest mistake has been made' and that 'this has been accepted by all sides' hasn't pleased very many people - largely on account of the fact that it is patently untrue. Shirley McKie's father isn't at all satisfied, and neither is the SCRO for that matter.

Every concerned party - and these extend way beyond Scotland - wants an enquiry into this matter before further damage is done to the reputation of the Scottish legal system and the standards of Scottish forensic criminal investigation. Everyone except the Executive - including the Lord Advocate, rather blurring more than is traditional the constitutional space between the judiciary and the executive. In an extraordinary intervention, he dismissed calls for an enquiry with the most dismissive and frankly bizarre remarks about this branch of forensics:
"On Friday, the Lord Advocate said 'there have always been, and there remain, conflicting expert views on the issue of identification of the relevant fingerprints'. He had concluded in 2001, after Tayside Police reported, 'that the conflict in expert evidence was such that there could be no question of criminal proceedings'.

McKie's supporters said his comments meant fingerprint evidence could never again be relied upon in a Scottish court. Iain McKie, Shirley's father and also a former police officer, said: 'The Lord Advocate is ... saying it is perfectly reasonable to have a difference of opinion between experts, with one saying it is an identification and another saying it is not - and that they can equally be correct. This means there is nothing to stop every person in Scotland convicted on fingerprint evidence from appealing on the basis that the fingerprint evidence used against them was only an opinion."
The facts of this case are beyond my competence but if either the Executive or the Lord Advocate were trying to dispel the sense of a systematic cover-up, they've got a pretty eccentric way of going about it.

It's an embarrassment of the highest order; one that the Scottish Executive surely can't evade indefinitely. Not my favourite politician but credit is due to Alex Neil of the SNP for his insistence that the Executive give an account of themselves in this matter. Can we get the lid lifted on the culture of complacency, nepotism and corruption that is the Scottish political scene? Because it's been a long time coming. Monklands yielded not a damn thing, yet everyone knew. We need attention from outside. Scots tend not to get as misty-eyed about the Labour party or local government as the English, in my experience. There are excellent reasons for this.

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