Glasgow & West Scotland

Inquiry on Shirley McKie case blames 'human error'

A public inquiry into the Shirley McKie fingerprint scandal has found she was a victim of "human error" and there was "nothing sinister" at work in her case.

The former police officer was accused of perjury after a fingerprint found at an Ayrshire murder scene in 1997 was wrongly identified as hers.

She was cleared and awarded £750,000 in compensation over the bungle.

The Scottish Police Services Authority, which controls fingerprint services, has now apologised to Ms McKie.

The case, which dates back more than 10 years, is one of the most controversial handled by the Scottish justice system and raised questions about the integrity of the fingerprint service.

Procedures overhauled

Ms McKie, from Troon in Ayrshire, was accused of perjury after she insisted a fingerprint found at the home of murder victim Marion Ross did not belong to her.

She always denied entering the property but four fingerprint experts maintained that the print belonged to her.

A subsequent inquiry by HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary in 2000 backed Ms McKie and recommended an overhaul of procedures at the then Scottish Criminal Records Office (SCRO).

Image caption Shirley McKie was falsely accused of leaving her fingerprint at a murder scene

The four experts at the centre of the controversy were then suspended from duty but the following year the Crown Office ruled out any criminal action against them.

Ms McKie successfully sued the then Scottish Executive and SCRO over the affair and was awarded £750,000 in compensation.

In 2006, the four fingerprint officials at the centre of the case were offered a deal to leave their jobs.

Three of them accepted redundancy in March 2007 and one of them, Fiona McBride, declined and was eventually sacked. She later won a case for unfair dismissal.

A Scottish Parliament committee later examined the case, with MSPs concluding there were "fundamental weaknesses" in Scotland's fingerprint services.

Ministers in the Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive resisted calls for a public inquiry into the affair.

The Scottish National Party set up the probe after winning the 2007 Holyrood election.

'No impropriety'

The inquiry, under chairman Sir Anthony Campbell, was charged with reporting on how future "shortcomings" could be avoided.

It got under way in 2009 and heard evidence from 64 witnesses in 250 hours of hearings spanning 57 days.

In his key findings, Sir Anthony said there was "no evidence" that Ms McKie had entered Miss Ross's house and that a fingerprint mark at the scene had been "misidentified by SCRO fingerprint examiners due to human error" and there was "nothing sinister" about this.

He said there had been "no impropriety" by the fingerprint examiners who misidentified the print as "these were opinions genuinely held by them".

The inquiry also found there was "no conspiracy against Ms McKie in Strathclyde Police" and the force had taken "all reasonable steps" to confirm the identification of the marks with SCRO.

Sir Anthony said the misidentification of two prints relating to Ms McKie and Miss Ross "expose weaknesses in the methodology of fingerprint comparison and in particular where it involves complex marks".

He said fingerprint examiners were "presently ill-equipped to reason their conclusions as they are accustomed to regarding their conclusions as a matter of certainty and seldom challenged".

The inquiry found there was no reason to suggest that "fingerprint comparison in general is an inherently unreliable form of evidence but practitioners and fact-finders alike require to give due consideration to the limits of the discipline".

Sir Anthony's report also made 86 recommendations "for future action".

Among the key recommendations was that "fingerprint evidence should be recognised as opinion evidence, not fact".

Training recommendation

Examiners, he said "should discontinue reporting conclusions on identification or exclusion with a claim to 100% certainty".

The inquiry also recommended that examiners should receive training which emphasises that their findings are based on personal opinion and that these differences should not be referred to as "disputes".

Sir Anthony said that "a finding of identification should not be made if there is an unexplained difference between a mark and a print".

He also recommended that the Scottish Police Services Authority (SPSA) - which now incorporates the former SCRO - "should develop a process to ensure that complex marks, such as those in the McKie case, are treated differently".

Following publication of the inquiry report, Tom Nelson, director of forensic services at the SPSA, said the organisation had apologised directly to Shirley McKie and her family.

Mr Nelson said: "As an organisation, we accept the findings of the inquiry and we expect all of our staff members to do the same.

"We accept that Shirley McKie did not make the mark known as Y7.

"We have today apologised directly to the McKie family for the errors that took place in the late 1990s and for the subsequent pain that has caused them."

Following Mr Nelson's apology, Iain McKie, Ms McKie's father, said: "He just apologised on behalf of the SPSA. He accepted the recommendations of the report in full. He apologised to Shirley and myself and our family for the mistakes that were made in the past.

"Its an extremely important apology because it's the first time I have ever heard anyone say sorry. This is the first real apology that has been made in 14 years.

"I feel I can move forward myself now."

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites