Alan McNamara and the ‘science’ of fingerprinting (2002)

Crime Scene by Alan Cleaver, found on flickr and used under Creative Commons Crime Scene by Alan Cleaver, found on flickr and used under Creative Commons

‘Fingerprint burglar’ granted appeal: a businessman who claims he was wrongly convicted of burglary on suspect fingerprint evidence has been granted leave to appeal.

Alan McNamara, 40, of Bromley Cross, Bolton, Greater Manchester, was jailed for 30 months at Manchester Crown Court in June 2001. The trial was told his thumbprint was found on a jewellery box at the burgled Rochdale home.

But he believes his print was actually found on a vase or other item which was bought from his discount shop. Experts have backed his claim, saying the thumbprint has no marks consistent with being taken from a wooden jewellery box. Instead, they believe it came from a smooth, curved surface, such as a vase which was sold at Mr McNamara’s shop.

Michael Mansfield QC told the Court of Appeal in London that there was a “serious question mark” over the reliability of the evidence given by the scenes of crime officer in the original trial. Mr Justice Curtis granted leave to appeal, saying there was an arguable case that deserved the attention of the full appeal court.

Mr McNamara, who was freed from prison for good behaviour in August, wept and hugged his family as the decision was given. He told BBC News Online: “I’m absolutely over the moon – this means my family and I can look forward to Christmas for the first time in three years.

“I’ve had so much bad news in the past that I couldn’t see things changing. But when I realised the judges were giving me leave to appeal the tears started welling up.”

His case has been highlighted by the BBC’s Panorama programme and backed by his Bolton North East MP David Crausby.

The appeal is likely to take place early in 2003.

(Retrieved from BBC News 22 November 2002)


Falsely fingered: if your prints are found at the scene of a crime, it could be enough to send you to jail – unless the media intervene. As Panorama’s Shelley Jofre discovered, fingerprinting is not an exact science.

A single fingerprint is enough to send someone to prison for life. It carries so much weight as evidence that lawyers often advise clients to plead guilty if they can’t explain how their prints came to be found at a crime scene. When Shirley McKie questioned a fingerprint identified as hers, friends and colleagues preferred to believe she was crazy rather than think the experts could have got it wrong.

When I first met McKie two years ago, I was investigating her story for BBC Scotland’s current affairs programme Frontline Scotland. Hers was an extraordinary case that revolved around a single fingerprint.

As a detective with Strathclyde police, McKie was assigned to a murder investigation in 1997. She was then told her thumbprint had been lifted from the room where the murder victim was found. McKie said that was impossible – she’d never been in the house. But four experts from the Scottish criminal record office (SCRO) – the bureau that stores and identifies prints for all Scotland’s police forces – maintained it was her left thumbprint.

Enormous pressure was put on McKie to say the print was hers. Fingerprints don’t lie, after all. Even her father, Iain McKie, himself a Strathclyde police officer for 30 years, admits: “I didn’t believe Shirley for the first few days, and imagine a father having to say that of his daughter. But I’d been told for 30 years that fingerprinting was infallible.”

When David Asbury – the man accused of the murder – was brought to trial, McKie was called to give evidence. She repeatedly denied under oath leaving her print at the crime scene. The rogue fingerprint made no difference in the end – Asbury was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

That should have been the end of the matter. But as her colleagues saw it, McKie had put the murder conviction in jeopardy with her unbelievable tale. A decision was taken to prosecute her for perjury.

Just weeks before her trial, McKie came across Pat Wertheim, a specialist in fingerprint fabrication in the US. He agreed to analyse the print. His conclusion? The fingerprint wasn’t forged, but it wasn’t McKie’s either.

“It was like, ‘I’m not crazy after all’. It’s the one thing I hadn’t considered, that the SCRO had got it wrong,” McKie said.

At the perjury trial, the SCRO maintained they were right. But Wertheim and another US expert demonstrated to the jury that the mark couldn’t possibly have been left by McKie. The verdict was swift and unanimous. Not guilty. McKie made history as the first person in 100 years of fingerprinting to challenge an identification in court successfully.

However, in the weeks after the trial, journalists in search of an easy story used unnamed police sources to pour scorn on Wertheim, claiming he had only two weeks’ tuition in fingerprinting (he has 22 years’ experience and trains police experts here and in the US). The SCRO circulated a memo reassuring the police of the “integrity” of their experts. No one apologised. It seemed it was business as usual for everyone except McKie, who felt forced to leave the job that was supposed to have been her life-long career.

The first programme that producer Dorothy Parker and I made on the subject sought simply to establish who was right in this affair. We tracked down five fingerprint experts in England and asked each of them, independently, to have a look at the evidence in the McKie case. All five came to the same conclusion… the thumbprint was not McKie’s.

In February 2000, three weeks after transmission of our programme, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland asked the chief inspector of constabulary to carry out an inquiry into the SCRO. The resulting report completely vindicated McKie and called for a total overhaul of the SCRO. Yet many were left asking why it took a television investigation to prompt such an inquiry, rather than McKie’s acquittal nine months earlier.

But our investigation didn’t end there. What about David Asbury, the man convicted of the murder? The case against him revolved around fingerprint evidence. The same four SCRO experts who misidentified McKie’s print made the identifications in his case. Could that evidence be flawed, too?

Asbury’s solicitor seemed surprisingly unenthusiastic in pursuing this new lead. Maybe he, too, refused to believe that fingerprint evidence could be fallible. Whatever the reason, when we went to see him after our first programme, he still hadn’t had the prints in his client’s case analysed. Eventually, the BBC arranged for Wertheim to fly to Scotland to do it.

The main evidence against Asbury was a fingerprint lifted from a biscuit tin containing almost £2,000, found in his house. The SCRO experts identified the print as belonging to the murder victim, Marion Ross. Asbury maintained the tin and the money were his, but the print suggested otherwise.

When Wertheim analysed the evidence, along with Allan Bayle, a fingerprint expert formerly of New Scotland Yard, they both came to the same conclusion. The print on the tin had not been left by Ross. The SCRO was wrong again.

We broadcast this latest revelation in a second programme in May 2000. Three months later, the four SCRO experts were suspended from work. Shortly afterwards, Asbury was released from prison pending an appeal, having already served three years of his sentence. Again, the wheels of justice began to move only as a result of journalistic endeavour.

But not every story has a happy ending. Last night, Panorama broadcast the third stage in this investigation, which has now spanned two years. We examined the case of Alan McNamara, a Bolton businessman accused of burgling a house in Rochdale in 1999. He contacted me last summer after he heard about my previous programmes for BBC Scotland.

The only evidence against him is a single thumbprint, which Greater Manchester police say was found on a jewellery box at the crime scene. In contrast to the previous two cases, everyone agrees the print is his. However, when Wertheim and Bayle examined the evidence, they came to the conclusion that the print could not have come off the surface of the box.

Both Wertheim and Bayle presented this view in court three weeks ago. But the examiner who took the print testified that it was definitely taken from the jewellery box. There was nothing else to link McNamara to the burglary. He’s married with a young daughter and has no money worries – in the year of the crime his business made a £100,000 profit. Yet it took the jury just two hours to reach a unanimous verdict of guilty. Such is the strength of fingerprint evidence.

McNamara will be sentenced in eight days. He faces up to four years in jail. The verdict came as a shock to the whole production team, but if anything it has strengthened our resolve to find out the truth in this disturbing case.

Shelley Jofre is a reporter for Panorama. Retrieved from the Guardian, 9 July 2001.

About INNOCENT (138 Articles)
Challenging miscarriages of justice since 1993.

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