Scotland on Sunday Sun 5 Mar 2006
Scandal: former police constable Shirley McKie...

Scandal: former police constable Shirley McKie was charged with perjury over fingerprint evidence.
Picture: Robert Perry

UN law expert joins calls for McKie probe


A LEADING critic of the Lockerbie trial has become the latest figure to call for a judicial inquiry into the Shirley McKie case, amid claims by police, forensic experts and senior legal figures that the scandal has led to a massive crisis of confidence in the Scottish justice system.

Hans Kochler, president of the International Progress Organisation, who was appointed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as one of two international observers for the Lockerbie trial, said a full public inquiry was the only way to restore faith in the process of law in Scotland.

It follows the publication of a secret report by one of the country's top police officers, which accused Scotland's fingerprint service, the Scottish Criminal Records Office (SCRO), of "unbelievable...arrogance...and complacency" in which reputations of officials were put before the course of justice.

Kochler warned that the refusal of ministers to reveal the facts behind the McKie case was now damaging Scottish justice's international reputation even further.

"There is now a growing body of opinion among international lawyers and international experts that the integrity of the Scottish criminal justice system is in serious doubt," he said.

The report, by former deputy chief constable of Tayside Police, James Mackay, accuses fingerprint experts of manipulating evidence and covering up errors after they had wrongly identifying Detective Constable Shirley McKie as having been present at a crime scene.

Police and forensic experts not connected with the scandal believe the mistakes were covered up because admitting to the errors would leave them open to further scandal.

Kochler added: "It seems very clear to an external and impartial observer that if you have experts who investigate forensic evidence and crime scenes and their evidence is shown to be unreliable, you have a problem.

"If after scrupulous investigation, as in this case, that error appears to be subject to manipulation, cover-up and collusion then the problem is much more deep-rooted."

Kochler warned that the case had raised doubts about the position of the Lord Advocate in Scotland, who sits in the Scottish Cabinet while deciding on prosecutions in the public's name.

He said: "It seems the system fails to maintain the separation of powers it lays claim to between the government, the state prosecutor and the judiciary. From my role as an observer, I formed the view that in the UK, the establishment and the power behind the establishment can influence judicial matters in a way that is impossible elsewhere."

The question marks over the affair are now being aired within Scotland's justice system. One senior source close to the Mackay investigation said: "It is a source of some frustration and anger among police officers and forensic examiners, who have done their jobs professionally, with honesty and integrity, that the Crown and Executive have failed to take appropriate action."

Another fingerprint expert added: "Those fingerprint experts who work outside the SCRO office are getting increasingly frustrated at being tarred with the same brush."

Lawyers added that the effects of the affair had now seeped into the way trials were being conducted. Jim Keegan, one of Scotland's busiest solicitor-advocates, said: "Over the past year or so, the suspicion has grown that there are chronic problems at the SCRO and that everything they handle has to be heavily scrutinised."

He added: "In a drugs case I defended, my client was acquitted even though his fingerprint was found on the outside of a bag containing drugs. The marking-up of the print was a shambles and no one could have followed it. However, our expert confirmed the print had been correctly identified. Despite this, the jury, perhaps aware of doubts about the calibre of the Crown case, acquitted."

QC Donald Findlay, who defended McKie in her perjury trial in 1999, added: "Fingerprint evidence used to be considered as sacrosanct. Now I would be more inclined to challenge it. For all we know, people may have been convicted wrongly on fingerprint evidence, and that is an appalling business," he added.

In a speech to his party's National Council in Perth yesterday, SNP leader Alex Salmond said: "The issues raised by the fingerprint scandal are 10 times as important to the future of Scotland as those that led to the Holyrood inquiry."

"The issues in the McKie case go right to the heart of the justice system in Scotland."

Ministers insist they will not budge and say the justice system has cleaned up its act since the first events of the McKie affair, now nearly nine years old.