In the High Court of Justice Court of Appeal before Lord Justice Bakerloo, Mr. Justice Waterloo and Mr. Justice Vindaloo.
1. On 27 February 2007, Sir Beowulf Rugby was found murdered in the library of his home at Slingsby-on-Sly. The door was locked on the inside and there were no other means of ingress or egress. The Slingsbyshire Police were baffled.
2. The butler was charged and convicted. He appeals on the ground that there was something not quite pukka sahib about the fingerprint evidence. We granted a hearing.
3. Before going further, it is necessary to give a brief history of fingerprints in the British Isles. Fingerprints are believed to have been invented by the Giants and introduced to Britain by the Vikings and Celtics. By the Middle Ages, fingerprints were all over the place. To quote from Chaucer’s “Housewife’s Tale”:
Wot sondry fynggyrs eek whorlling soot/ wypoff yr prynts, ye big galloot.
4. The Elizabethan belief that fingerprints are unique and unchanging is reflected in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”:
Let aardvarks come and go, so constant be the furrows of thy fingers.
5. Fingerprint comparison standards were established by the Royal Society for the Propagation of Fingerprints, founded by Queen Victoria. In 1918, the Home Office established the Inland Fingerprint Board which decreed that if 12 similar ridge characteristics were identified, the match was proved beyond all doubt. The number was raised to 16 and then to 42 until it was discovered that no one understood what a ridge was.
6. In 1988, Parliament created the Commission for the Oversight of the Administration of the Review of the Management of National Training and Police Improvement Fingerprint Administrative Agency for England and Wales. Under present standards, following the 1999 DIY Act, each local police force decides for itself what if anything constitutes a fingerprint.
7. In the course of investigating Sir Beowulf’s murder Mr. Nigel Digit, the fingerprint officer of the Slingsbyshire Police, found 200 prints in the library, mostly around the whiskey decanter. He concluded that they did not belong to anyone. His report read in full:
Bupkis. Bugger all. Nada.
8. Sir Beowulf’s butler came under suspicion when, upon being asked when he had last seen his master alive, he replied, “Depends on what you mean by alive.” He was immediately cautioned that anything he said would be used against him, as well as anything he didn’t say.
9. Mr. Digit wrote a second report reading in full:
Butler did it. Fingerprint on doorknob.
10. Mr. Digit explained to us at the hearing that he had changed his conclusions because the Slingsbyshire Police had acquired new technology. Thus, he was now able to examine the fingerprints through a magnifying glass.
11. Mr. Digit’s final report read in full: “I carefully observed the amount of detail, taking particular note of how some things are in some places and other things are in other places. I have no doubt that the print on the doorknob was made by the butler.”
12. At trial, Mr. Digit told the jury that he had identified 12 points of similarity between the appellant’s print and the print on the doorknob. On cross-examination, he was asked to show where these points of similarity were. Mr. Digit responded that the photograph was so dark it was impossible for anyone but an expert to see them. Mr. Digit’s evidence was adjourned to enable him to get his film developed at a different drugstore.
13. The defence proffered Ms. McNamara Tweedy, a fingerprint expert with 30 years of experience. The Crown challenged her qualifications, saying that not only was she not a member of any British Police Force, she had been trained in Florida, a part of America. The defence was forced to withdraw her.
14. When Mr. Digit obtained a clearer photograph, the defence pointed out that it showed a number of ridge characteristics on the doorknob print that were not on the appellant’s print. Mr. Digit explained that the appellant must have touched the doorknob twice, so that it was actually a double print. The appellant was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
15. At the hearing, we asked Mr. Digit why his original report had not said anything about a double print. Mr. Digit responded that no one had asked.
16. The defence proffered a new expert at the hearing, a Mr. Trent Elbow, retired officer of the Hornbostle County Police Force. Mr. Elbow told the Court that what Mr. Digit had identified as ridges were in fact furrows, and that what he said were furrows were actually ridges. Dr. Digit responded that what he said were ridges were ridges and what he said were furrows were furrows.
17. The Crown conceded that it might affect the reliability of the fingerprint identification if the ridges were, in fact furrows and the furrows ridges.
18. Meanwhile, the Court read in a magazine that fingerprints are no longer taken by rolling fingertips on inkpads, but by a method called Livescan which stores digital images on the National Automated Fingerprint System (NAFIS). We requested to have the appellant’s prints downloaded onto a disk to view on our screens. We were told that NAFIS does not permit this and the Court had to be content with smudgy photographs.
19. We think a conviction based on this kind of evidence is unsafe. We accordingly quash the conviction.
For a fuller version, see R. v. Smith, decided last year by the British High Court of Appeal, quashing a murder conviction as “unsafe” because of the fingerprint testimony. A model of seething understatement, the decision suggests that it’s really not cricket for a fingerprint examiner to make it up as he goes along.