Analysis: Fingerprint experts need to re-examine their certainty – and culture change will take time

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The Campbell inquiry has finally put to bed one of the longest-running disputes in the forensics world by determining that “mark Y7” is not from Shirley McKie.

The question many people will be asking is how could this be – aren’t fingerprints certain, even infallible?

The FBI used to think so until the Mayfield case where it misidentified a fingerprint in the Madrid bombing.

The McKie affair is often referred to as the “Scottish case” in the forensics world and you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a distinctively Scottish problem.

But like all “disasters” of this type, unearthing cause, effect and contributory factors is complex and tricky.

An international survey by the University of Strathclyde showed that more than 80 per cent of fingerprint experts believe identification is certain. The issues go well beyond Scotland, and other countries would do well to consider the inquiry recommendation that fingerprint examiners should discontinue claims of 100 per cent certainty.

There appear to be two sets of interrelated factors that resulted in the McKie case. Some of these were local; others were more about the fingerprint profession and how it goes about its business.

The local factors included a serious error of judgment in relation to mark Y7 in an organisation that was poorly managed, under-resourced, inadequately trained and culturally arrogant.

But errors are not the preserve of Scottish experts, as mentioned above.

The case of R v Smith, reported by the appeal court of England and Wales earlier this year, showed some striking similarities to the issues in the McKie case.

In a number of highly critical comments, the court of appeal compared fingerprints unfavourably with “modern forensic science”. It appears that the Campbell inquiry has reached a similar conclusion given their recommendation for the adoption of formal quality standards.

Ironically, the UK opted out of a European agreement to implement this standard last year.

The quality procedures can be implemented quickly but it will take years to change the culture in a fingerprint profession that has been resistant to such suggestions for decades.

As we pore over the detailed deliberations of this inquiry, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that, fundamentally, fingerprints remain sound and reliable evidence.

What is required for public confidence in this area is for fingerprints to be examined to the same standards of other forensic evidence and an end to their procedural, cultural and professional separation from the rest of forensic practice.

Professor Jim Fraser is Director of the Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Strathclyde