07 June 2011

Fingerprints of Stupidity

The forensic analysis of fingerprint evidence continues to be under attack from the judiciary. This time in Smith, R. v [2011] EWCA Crim 1296 with the appeal court saying,
"(7) General issues relating to fingerprint evidence
In the light of the issue in relation to [the fingerprint examiners] qualifications and the way in which the evidence was adduced at trial, we consider it important that we should identify some of the features which have become apparent to us. None have been material to the decision we have in fact reached in this case as to the safety of the conviction, but as they are important to the way in which fingerprint evidence is adduced where the print is not clear; we set them out :

i) Most forensic science services have for some time been provided by organisations wholly independent of police forces. There are also a number of private providers of forensic science services. In contradistinction, fingerprint experts are organised in Fingerprint Bureaux which fall within the organisational structure of each police force. This may be a distinction that is justified; it may be possible for independence to be assured by strict standards of control on quality and by accountability.

ii) There is no opportunity for a person outside a police Fingerprint Bureau to become fully qualified as a fingerprint expert by training in England and Wales or for having that person's competence recognised by the police forces.

iii) Police forces do not recognise the qualifications or competence of those who have obtained these overseas. It is for a judge to decide whether a person is a competent expert, not the police. Because of the course the trial took, the judge did not have to rule on whether Ms Tweedy, who obtained qualifications overseas, was a competent expert.

iv) It is essential for the proper administration of justice that there are independent persons expert in fingerprint examination; almost all who do this are retired from police Fingerprint Bureaux. The position is in marked contrast to other forensic science disciplines. There may be good reason for this distinction; for example the fingerprint bureau of other forces may be able to provide expert evidence for the defence.

v) No competent forensic scientist in other areas of forensic science these days would conduct an examination without keeping detailed notes of his examination and the reasons for his conclusions. That universal practice of other forensic scientists was not followed by the Nottinghamshire Fingerprint Bureau. There may be reasons for this, but they were not explained to us.

vi) As neither the original examiner nor those who confirmed his examination made any notes of their reasons and did not identify the points of comparison contemporaneously on a chart, it was not possible to see whether their reasoning was the same. We were told that this was not done because those who made the subsequent identification should make that identification without knowing the views of those who had previously examined the print. Although we accept that identification by two other persons who do not know the conclusions of the original examiner or the other examiner form an important safeguard, we do not understand that reasoning. There would be nothing to prevent the earlier examiners sealing their conclusions until the completion of all the examinations. We do not know whether there is any other justification for examiners not making detailed contemporaneous notes that can be the subject of transparent examination in court where the identification of the mark is in issue.

vii) The quality of the reports provided by the Nottinghamshire Fingerprint Bureau for the trial reflected standards that existed in other areas of forensic science some years ago and not the vastly improved standards expected in contemporary forensic science.

viii) The presentation of the evidence to the jury made no attempt to use modern methods of presentation. The presentation to this court was similar; a large amount of time was wasted because of this. It was incomprehensible to us why digital images were not provided to the jury; the refusal of NAFIS (to which we have referred in paragraph 43) to permit a digital image to be supplied to the court was a further example of the lack of a contemporary approach to the presentation of evidence. The presentation to the jury must be done in such a way that enables the jury to determine the disputed issues.

This is one of the very few cases where fingerprint evidence has been challenged at a trial since 1999 and, as far as we are aware, the first since then to come before this court on an appeal where this court has had to hear fresh evidence. It is not unsurprising that the points we have raised identify practices which differ so markedly in England and Wales from modern forensic science practice in other areas of forensic science.
There is plainly a need for the points that have arisen in this case to be the subject of wider examination. We have been told that an enquiry by the Rt Hon Sir Anthony Campbell into the case of HM Advocate v McKie known as the Scottish Fingerprint Enquiry has heard extensive evidence in relation to fingerprint evidence in Scotland. It is not for us to comment more than we have done at paragraph 61 in relation to the practices that have come to our attention in this appeal. In our view, however, there is a real need for the ACPO, the Forensic Science Regulator and the recently established Fingerprint Quality Standards Specialist Group to examine as expeditiously as possible the issues we have identified, to assess the position and to ensure that there are common quality standards enforced through a robust and accountable system."

Why has it got to this state? Shouldn't this have been done years and years ago?

In view of what you've just read, what is the probability that somone has committed a crime given that they've been convicted of the that crime?

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