Monday, 25 March 2013

Unreliable forensic science and scientists

[The following are excerpts from an article in today’s edition of The Scotsman by Professor Fiona Raitt of Dundee University:]

… anyone attending the Forensic Society conference in Edinburgh last week was left in no doubt that there are serious concerns about the use and admissibility of expert scientific evidence in the Scottish courts. The main problem identified was the lack of a clear rule on reliability.

The desire to ensure that only reliable science is admissible is obvious – but how can you tell it is reliable, and whose job is it to find out? It is also vital that it is communicated effectively to the fact finder, whether that is a judge or jury. Miscarriages of justice have occurred due to unreliable science, unreliable interpretation of science and unreliable practices of “experts”.

Our history and the problems faced in other jurisdictions tell us that Scotland is not uniquely protected from bad science or dubious experts. We are, though, unique in the common law world in failing to review our systems to proof them against weak practice.

While the fingerprint inquiry set up in the wake of the Shirley McKie case was an important start, it had a very specific remit. That degree of investigation and rigorous analysis is what is required for the practices surrounding the rules for the collection, management and admissibility of forensic science.

The Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland QC, told the conference: “Expert evidence used to be rare in criminal trials. Now it is the norm.” It is his aim, he said, to avoid miscarriages of justice arising from errors in expert evidence. (...)

Unlike other countries, Scottish judges have no role to act as gatekeepers to prevent unreliable evidence being admitted. We let the adversarial process, ie the opposing parties, choose the experts and determine what is admitted. But lawyers rarely have a higher educational background in science and some, we heard, are anxious about examining witnesses in areas of expertise with which they are unfamiliar. That serves no-one well.

[The Lockerbie case provides textbook examples of unreliable forensic science and unreliable forensic scientists. Here are a few relevant names: Thurman, Hayes, Feraday.]


  1. It would help if these guys had just been moderately intelligent.

    Feraday wrote two forensic reports and then a sworn statement saying that there were only two possible positions the bomb suitcase could have been loaded in. Neither of these two positions was the bottom case in the stack, that is the mystery suitcase seen at Heathrow.

    However he made two crashing errors. First, his preferred "near-upright" position was in fact physically impossible itself having regard to other evidence he had in his possession. Basically the forensic examination of the other recovered luggage proved that the bomb suitcase had been lying flat or nearly flat, with the handle pointing to the back of the container. Feraday's "near-upright" position wasn't anywhere near flat, and had the handle pointing upwards.

    His second position was possible, and that's the one the Crown managed to persuade the Court to accept. However there was a third possible position Feraday apparently never thought of. The position where the bottom case in the stack was the bomb suitcase, and it had merely slid four to six inches to the left. It's not exactly unlikely that a shiny, slightly convex, hard-sided suitcase might slide four to six inches to one side during a turbulent flight. There was a 90 mph gale blowing at cruising altitude that night, obviously it was a turbulent flight.

    But the entire ivestigation from the spring of 1989 prodeeded on the basis that Feraday's findings ruled out the suitcase on the bottom of the stack. The one on the bottom was introduced at Heathrow, but they didn't investigate that possibility. The two positions Feraday advanced were both feeder-flight items, so they went after the feeder flight.

    Of course the bomb was in the bottom suitcase. It's bloody obvious when you analyse the entire evidence database Feraday had access to. In my opinion the prosecution themselves realised that eventually, and that's why so many basic pieces of evidence seemd to be lost down the back of the sofa instead of being presented in court.


    Please note you for the future: Mebo take hard pains to present soon, a official confirmation about the "evidence-fraud" of
    PT-35), staged by expert Allen Feraday (RARDE).

    The allegedly found of an Mebo MST-13 timer-fragment (PT-35) had nothing to do with the attack on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie.
    The manipulated MST-13 timer fragment was fabricated from a non-functional circuit board (platine)abused for political reasons, in order to implicate Libya in the "Lockerbie Tragedy" !

    MEBO timer, are electronic switching clocks, no detonators or fuses - for military and private applications.

    by Edwin and Mahnaz Bollier, MEBO Ltd. Telecommunication Switzerland. URL:

  3. The forensic scientists assigned to the Lockerbie investigation undoubtedly ought to be called into question. On the other side however, the police criminal investigation, things don’t fare much better. Frankly, neither do the judicial personnel.

    All the evidence was there by March 1989. The biggest clue of all, right there underneath eveyones nose.

    And yet no one does a thing. As far as we can see anyway.
    Instead, for six months, while everyone is desperate for a lead, any sort of clue, the most blatently obvious clue, is determinedly ignored. Or missed.

    An extra bag is described in container 4041, its provenance unknown, and if one accepts its description, it is also unaccompanied. Not to mention its last known position in 4041.

    And no one does a thing. Its as though Bedford, Kamboj and Sidhu's statements are of no relevance to the enquiry. Just like Manly's evidence that disappeared into obscurity, no one show any interest in the circumstances at Heathrow.

    Then, when it comes to the FAI, where we see unsavoury and wholly unnecessary conduct of Mr Hardie, who does his upmost to undermine and confound John Bedford’s evidence relating to the introduction of the mysterious bag into AVE4041 and indeed its characterization of size, colour and positioning.

    Of course, by Zeist, Mr Hardie’s misdirection 10 years earlier at the FAI would plainly not suffice in a criminal court of law. A new scenario was required, albeit with a few vital statements and witnesses omitted.

    This is far more than just any ordinary incompetence. This was a determined and concerted effort at incompetence for over a decade.

  4. Hi Eddie!

    It's another weird coincidence. Both the forensic scientists and the police ignored or overlooked the Bedford suitcase, apparently independently.

    Nothing in the police memos or reports shows any awareness at all of anything worthy of concern in the Bedford/Kamboj evidence. They knew about the arrangement of the luggage in the container (though they were very hazy about how many suitcases were in the back row), but at best they seem to have imagined that Kamboj had placed the front two cases while Bedford was away.

    So who knew about the detail of these statements, the detail that indicated these two suitcases at the front might have been placed by an unauthorised person? Did anyone realise, when Hayes reported a couple of weeks later that the bomb might have been in a brown hardshell suitcase, that Bedford had described one (or both) of these suitcases as a brown Samsonite hardshell? I would love to know the answer to that. They all behave as if they have no idea about this evidence.

    Feraday and Hayes also behave as if they have no idea of this evidence. Not the slightest hint of any particular reason why the bottom suitcase in the left-hand stack might merit particular consideration. Hayes picked out these bits of brown hardshell as probably the bomb suitcase, but seems to have no idea at all that the words "brown hardshell" (and even "Samsonite", when he later identified the bomb suitcase as a Samsonite) had ever been used to describe that suitcase.

    In which universe does this make any sense at all?

    It could come down to, who knew? Adrian Dixon, who took the statements, wasn't part of the inquiry. He just took the statements and sent them to Lockerbie. Not his job to think about what he wrote down. Someone at Lockerbie read the statements and entered them into HOLMES. Who? Someone probably made some sort of précis or summary of the evidence, to assist the investigators. Who?

    Maybe someone took one look at Bedford's evidence and said, we must bury this to protect Heathrow from having to take the blame for this. Except, why?

    Maybe, I don't know, but maybe, the boss cops already believed the bomb must have come in on the feeder flight, and didn't think the Heathrow interline statements were all that important. Maybe they asked some lowly minion to prepare a summary report on how these few cases were arranged in the container, and that's all he did. So nobody knew these cases were suspicious, or even that at least one of them was a brown Samsonite.

    So the boss cops went on believing that a Frankfurt-made bomb must have come in on the feeder flight. And they told the forensics guys that, so the forensics guys didn't even glance at that bottom suitcase.

    It's a stretch. It's implausible in the extreme. But it's the only way I can think of that explains what happened as pure incompetence, rather than a deliberate decision to turn suspicion away from Heathrow right at the very start, with the obvious corollary that the case would never be solved and the terrorists would get clean away. And that's kind of implausible as well.

    Then in 1990, when the investigation was absolutely committed to Malta and a re-think to look at a previously unconsidered and uninvestigated Heathrow loading was really unthinkable, the Crown had to gear up for the FAI, and the original Heathrow statements were taken out and dusted down.

    Did Andrew Hardie and the Crown actually realise, then? Or did they really believe the "bomb not on bottom layer" forensics story was bankable, and they better just try to muddy Bedford's evidence to prevent it being a distraction?

    We can't possibly know the answer to this. This is why we need a full, in-depth, independent inquiry.

  5. The suggestion that lawyers are reluctant to question the forensics because they lack a science background is telling.

    Is this why Megrahi’s defence team failed to question whether the ‘fragment and identifiable clothing’ could have survived a ‘450g semtex explosion’?

    But then again do you need a science background to ask elementary and common sense questions - and if in doubt get your own expert advice.

    Or did they think asking questions, they were ‘not qualified’ to ask would have looked like they were ‘trying too hard’ to acquit Megrahi?

  6. Hi Rolfe!

    There’s an interesting exchange that occurs during the opening of day 16 of the FAI, the same day John Bedford was heard, over a claim by the crown of ‘contempt of court’ against the editor of the Sunday Telegraph for an article entitled ‘Lockerbie Whitewash’. The Telegraphs editor stated he was simply making public the concerns of an unnamed relative of a victim who had learned from two separate sources that any “in depth” inquiry around security at Heathrow was being actively dissuaded by the Crown. Subsequently, the claim was dismissed by the Sheriff, but in light of what we now know, this inference seems to follow in the same vein as the forensic analysis and the police investigation who ignored, or stifled, any thought of Heathrow culpability.

    Another thing about the FAI: why was Patricia Coyle’s bag never referred to at the Inquiry? Reports during 1989 imply initially that the damage sustained by Ms Coyle’s or perhaps Ms Noonan’s bags gave rise to the thought that one of these bags may have been compromised. Ms Coyle’s bag was identified during 1989 and subsequently both bags were dismissed as being the potential primary suitcase. Nonetheless, Ms Coyle’s suitcase was identified as being very intimately involved in the explosion in 1989 and its omission from the Inquiry of forensic evidence and thoughts on this bag’s speculated position (which at this stage was directly on top of the bomb bag) in 4041 is curious in itself. Was this yet another attempt to obscure the true scenario of the baggage positioning in AVE401?

    Given what is known of the investigation and everyone’s attitude towards the potential of a Heathrow introduction during 1989/1990, one can’t help feel there was very good reason for the absence of this evidence at the FAI. Certainly by 1999 the Crown were only too aware that there was irrefutable and conclusive evidence that Bedford’s ‘brown Samsonite’ was the primary suitcase. I think this was also the position 10 years before, but a contrived scenario of how the baggage could be construed in AVE4041 had not been suitably concluded.

  7. That's interesting Eddie, I overlooked that. Of course, suspicions that Heathrow was being deliberately "overlooked" don't prove that it was actually deliberate as opposed to monumental incompetence and bull-headedness. It would be really interesting to get hold of that newspaper article. Is it something you can source?

  8. I've had a browse through the database Rolfe, but so far I'm only getting results from other sources that refer to this original report in the Sunday Telegraph. Still looking..

    I accept that Heathrow being 'overlooked' could well be attributed to, as you say, simple incompetence or bull-headedness on the part of some of those tasked with the investigation. However, it's the wholesale incompetence, that apparently every aspect of this investigation was plagued with, which becomes difficult to swallow.

    And certainly not every aspect of the investigation seems afflicted with this apparent lack of interest or inactivity.

    When Hayes concluded in late February '89 that the primary suitcase was a 'brown Samsonite hard shell' suitcase, we simply don't see any incline at all by investigators to follow this up on what is already known. Certainly not with the efforts undertaken with other aspects of evidence discovered.

    So, Hayes notes the primary suitcase in late Feb '89, and everyone apparently then sits there for the next 6 months, only breaking their silence occasionally to blame the Germans, but anxiously awaiting some kind of clue. Right up until the Maltese clothes and B8894 surface in August.

    Meanwhile, since January 7th when Adrian Dixon took his first statement from John Bedford, there's irrefutable evidence of an unnacounted for brown samsonite, right there at Heathrow in 4041. Worse still, a discrepancy as to how this bag was loaded into 4041 has not been satisfactorily resolved.

    Now, these statements by Bedford and Kamboj would be entered into the HOLMES system as all the others were at the time - including Manly's report of the break-in which was entered at the end of Jan. What the hell happened then? Presumably not just those heading the investigation had access to this HOLMES system?

    Nevertheless, we are to accept that across all the structures of the investigation and those who may have had access to this system, no one noted this huge clue hiding in plain sight?

    Or was Bedford's statements and any refernce to a brown samsonite at Heathrow that day somehow get 'filed' elsewhere along with Manly's report?

    Of course, they had to call Bedford (and Kamboj) for the FAI, and at least broach this contentious issue. Unlike Manly's evidence which remained 'filed' elsewhere.

  9. From Wikipedia:

    "HOLMES 2 (Home Office Large Major Enquiry System). HOLMES 2 is an improvement of the original HOLMES system that was introduced in 1985. HOLMES enabled law enforcement agencies to improve effectiveness and productivity in crime investigations.

    Like HOLMES 2, it was an administrative support system which was primarily designed to assist Senior Investigation Officers in their management of the complexity of investigating serious crime. To this end, HOLMES carefully processed the mass of information it was provided with and ensured that no vital clues were overlooked."

  10. Bear in mind, Manly's statement was in HOLMES as well.

    It's either criminal conspiracy or criminal negligence, I suppose. It seems impossible that anyone could be that negligent by accident, but on the other hand it's hard to think of a strong enough motivation for a deliberate conspiracy to ignore that evidence at that time. That's one of the reasons we need an independent investigation into what happened.

    Later, there must have been knowing suppression - starting in October 1990 at the very latest. What I find hard to guess is whether they actually realised then or later that this actually was the bomb and decided it was just way too embarrassing to give up on Malta by then so they better just cover it up, or whether they were so sold on the nonexistent Malta evidence that they thought they were merely burying an inconvenient coincidence that might be useful to the defence.