Memos expose doubts and division of print experts in McKie case

Key points

• Divisions revealed in fingerprint case investigation

• Further doubts over SCRO's handling of the case

• Calls for public inquiry increase

Key quote

"There is danger in being drawn into discussion on the details of the internet images and any professional opinion relating to this case can only be based on the original Crown productions." - Harry Bell

Story in full

AN ATTEMPT by the former head of the Scottish Criminal Record Office to discredit fingerprint experts in the Shirley McKie case was later undermined by evidence from his own staff and police, The Scotsman can reveal.

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Harry Bell disputed evidence from international experts that supported Ms McKie's claims of innocence, saying their judgments were based on an inferior copy of a fingerprint sent out over the internet. But The Scotsman has obtained documentary evidence showing one of his own deputies and a senior police officer thought the internet print was of good enough quality for the experts to compare it to Ms McKie's.

The revelation casts further doubt on the SCRO's handling of the McKie case, amid increasing pressure for a public inquiry into what has been dubbed the "biggest challenge to the integrity of fingerprint science in its 100-year history".

It follows news that ministers were warned five years ago of "cover-up and criminality" concerning the SCRO in a secret report by James Mackay, then Tayside's deputy chief constable.

Today, ministers will go on the offensive to try to end the controversy. Cathy Jamieson, the justice minister, and Colin Boyd, the Lord Advocate, will tell the Scottish Parliament they did nothing wrong and that they will not authorise a public inquiry.

Ms McKie was tried for perjury after testifying at the trial of David Asbury, who was convicted of murdering Marion Ross, that a fingerprint left at the murder scene was not hers. She was cleared by a jury and Asbury later had his conviction overturned in a move that cast doubt on the credibility of Scotland's fingerprint service.

Ms McKie launched a damages claim against the SCRO, which resulted in her receiving a 750,000 settlement from the Scottish Executive this month.

While trying to prove her innocence, lawyers representing Ms McKie sent a copy of the fingerprint at the centre of the case to experts around the world. Nearly 200 viewed the print and concluded it was not hers. But in a letter to a senior Crown Office agent in January 2000, obtained by the SNP, Mr Bell cast doubt on the reliability of the experts' claims.

He said the internet images lacked definition and were "not considered to be the best evidence available for examination". He said the SCRO had "expressed the view that ... the internet presentations do not allow them to identify the images in terms of the current national 16-point standard".

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Mr Bell said "the quality of the internet images do not meet that of the actual evidence", adding: "There is danger in being drawn into discussion on the details of the internet images and any professional opinion relating to this case can only be based on the original Crown productions."

That position was backed as recently as last November by four SCRO fingerprint experts who prepared the evidence for the McKie and Asbury trials. In a letter to Lord Cullen, then Scotland's most senior judge, they claimed the internet copies were "incomparable" with the original Crown evidence.

But within weeks of Mr Bell's letter, Detective Inspector Andrew Rolph, of Grampian Police, wrote to his chief constable saying Mr Bell was wrong when he stated the internet copy could not be used to make a proper comparison.

He also claimed he attended a fingerprint working group meeting in December 1999, at which Mr Bell was asked if he would allow the original print to be examined by an expert outside the SCRO. "This he repeatedly refused to do," Mr Rolph claimed in the letter, which has been seen by The Scotsman.

Another document shows the SCRO's view was challenged by one of its own staff in August 2000 - just seven months after Mr Bell's assertion.

The minute of a meeting attended by Mr Mackay says Robert McKenzie, the deputy head of the SCRO's fingerprint section, was "happy" with the internet print seen by the international experts.

Scotland's police chiefs have given their public backing to the fingerprint service.

But the SNP leader, Alex Salmond, said the need for a public inquiry to restore faith in the service was now irresistible.

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He said: "These documents knock holes in the SCRO case, however, the only way any of us are going to get to the truth is through a judicial inquiry. It's only then that we can finally establish the facts."

An SCRO spokeswoman said: "It is recognised that best practice for making an identification is to look at the original photograph or lift of a fingerprint impression from a crime scene. This is the best material upon which to come to a conclusion.

"Without the opportunity to examine this internet image in its original format it would be inappropriate to comment on its suitability for identification purposes."