|Police expert questions the
reliability of fingerprint evidenceBy Ian Burrell, Home Affairs CorrespondentThe infallibility of fingerprint evidence has been questioned by Britain’s leading police expert, who is calling for an overhaul of the system to prevent people being jailed for crimes they did not commit.
The national head of police fingerprint training warned that “corners were being cut” and he feared that subjective assessments of prints were not being thoroughly and independently checked before being sent to court.
Geoffrey Sheppard, who is based at the National Training Centre for Scientific Support to Crime Investigation in Durham, said the fingerprint system was not infallible “because we are all human beings and we all make mistakes”.
Mr Sheppard’s comments come as police chiefs are preparing to drop the fingerprinting system after 76 years, and introduce a more rigorous, American-style method in forces across England and Wales.
He was speaking out in response to the case of Detective Constable Shirley McKie, 37, who was charged with perjury after fingerprint experts wrongly claimed she was at the scene of a murder in Kilmarnock in 1997. Ms McKie repeatedly denied she was there.
Four senior fingerprint experts from the Scottish Criminal Records Office, who gave evidence at her trial, are suspended pending the outcome of an investigation into the case.
Mr Sheppard said the McKie case was “globally significant”. He feared that other police fingerprint bureaux might have developed a culture where fingerprint analysis was not properly checked, in the knowledge that it was almost never challenged in court.
Home Office guidelines state that fingerprint evidence must be based on the assessments of at least three people, two of them fingerprint experts.
But Mr Sheppard said: “I think corners have been cut for many reasons; time, peer pressure, all sorts of things. That’s where mistakes have been made.
“It’s like most things. Where rules are imposed, some people have the attitude that they are there to be bent. I think that’s what is happening. I don’t think rules are being broken but I think they are being bent almost to the point of breaking.”