Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Forensics and Feraday

[This is the headline over a report published on the BBC News website on this date in 2005. It reads in part:]

Fresh doubts have emerged over the conviction of the Lockerbie bomber, BBC Scotland has learned.

The evidence of a major prosecution witness who testified during the trial of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi has been called into question.

Three men who forensic scientist Allen Feraday gave evidence against have since had their convictions quashed.

BBC Scotland understands papers on one case have gone to the commission reviewing Megrahi's conviction.

Mr Feraday is now retired after 42 years' experience in explosives.

He told the Lockerbie trial he was in no doubt that a circuit board fragment found after the disaster was part of the detonator.

The trial judges accepted his conclusion.

However, in three separate cases men against whom Mr Feraday gave evidence have now had their convictions overturned.

After the first case, which took place seven years before the Lockerbie trial, the Lord Chief Justice said Mr Feraday should not be allowed to present himself as an expert in the field of electronics.

The latest case to be quashed happened just last month.

Papers relating to the most recent case have now been sent to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which is looking at the Lockerbie bomber's conviction.

The commission will consider whether the Lockerbie trial judges should have given so much weight to Mr Feraday's evidence.

Gerry Brown, of the Law Society of Scotland, said expert witnesses were "essential" in cases like the Lockerbie trial.

"It is like a string of beads," he told BBC Radio Scotland.

"You have to have the beads held together by string, and if the string is weak at one point the beads fall to the ground.

"That is possibly the situation here, and that is probably what is being investigated now by the commission."

Solicitor Eddie McKechnie, who represents Megrahi, said the information raised "serious issues" about the conviction.

"It is a factor that I take very seriously into account on behalf of Mr Megrahi," he said.

"One would have thought that when a professional and a government forensic expert is impugned in a number of cases... then serious issues arise."

Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the bombing, said: "I'm personally not satisfied of Mr Megrahi's guilt.

"I emerged (from the trial) riddled with doubts. This will of course augment them.

"If one finds that three cases have been overturned, it rather undermines one's confidence."

However, American lawyer Jody Flowers - who represents one woman whose husband died in the bombing - said she thought the latest claims were "much ado about nothing".

"I don't think it has much impact at all. I think it is a bit of a belated and half-hearted attempt," she said.

"Any serious challenge to Mr Feraday's credibility or the specifics of his testimony would have been raised at the trial or the appeal, and they were not.

"The court accepted his testimony as reliable."


  1. In court Feraday conclusively stated that the fragment was, materially and structurally, “similar in all respects” to the MST-13 timer boards supplied by Thuring as control samples for comparative purposes.

    In 2009, however, files handed for the first time to defence lawers contained two hand-written notes by Feraday. The first, that the protective layer on PT/35(b) was “pure tin”; the second, that the protective layer on the MST-13 control sample boards was “70/30% tin/lead.”

    The police had themselves four reports: from New England Laminates; from Ferranti International; and from Doctors Wilkinson and Johnson of Strathclyde and Manchester universities.

    Ferranti stated that the “The circuit could have been ‘home made’”.

    Wilkinson and Johnson speculated that the heat of the Lockerbie blast might have evaporated the lead content of the tracks leaving a covering of pure tin. Wilkinson advised that the hypothesis be tested by experiment. No experiments were done.

    The defence asked two independent experts to examine matters. Former government advisor on microelectronics and nanotechnology Doctor Chris McArdle and Dr Jess Crawley, a metallurgist with over thirty five years experience, and former senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University.

    They proved that PT/35(b) could not have come from a Thuring board supplied to Libya in 1985.

    So where did the Lockerbie fragment come from? However and wherever it was made, it remains to this day a rogue piece of evidence unconnected to the batch sold in 1985 to Libya.

    At least three parties to the trial had evidence on their files proving that Feraday’s statement was false: Feraday, the Scottish Crown Office and the police. Their failure to coordinate the available information into a logical pattern indicating that PT/35(b) was not genuine seems extraordinary.

    The contrast between Feraday’s hand-written entries and his assurance to the judges that the control samples and PT/35(b) were similar in all respects suggests that he consciously misled them. If we view him in a more kindly light, he had assumed al-Megrahi’s guilt and extrapolated that there must have been a rational explanation, as yet undiscovered, for the differences between the fragment and the control samples. Both he and the police took no further action in this matter.

    The question also arises as to whether Thomas Hayes was aware of Feraday’s annotations and Williamson’s findings when - acting in a consultancy role - he drafted sections of the final forensic report.

    When in 2007 the SCCRC produced its conclusion that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred, it was unaware of Feraday’s annotations and his misleading evidence at trial. They seem also to have been unaware of the Ferranti International report. Their information base therefore contained no information to undermine the provenance of PT/35(b). We may wonder what their view would be now that Feraday’s notes, Williamson’s records, and reports from five reputable scientists are available for scrutiny.

    The story of fragment PT/35(b) is a fascinating example of how miscarriages of justice can be brought about by organisational momentum – a “group-think” of assumed guilt - and how evidence can be mis-interpreted or mis-represented in support of that assumption.

    Britain’s record of terrorist trials using evidence by RARDE scientists has proved an uncomfortable experience for the nation. The cases of The Maguire Seven, The Guildford Four and The Birmingham Six indicate that for some at RARDE the presentation of incorrect evidence had become an unfortunate habit.

  2. Space did not allow the inclusion of the following concerning PT/35(b).

    In spite of Ferranti's conclusions that the fragment had indications of being "home made" DI Williamson appeared to find no reason to question the origin of PT/35(b). His continuing faith in the provenance of the fragment seemed, however, to be contradicted by his own internal memo of 3rd Sept 1990 to Chief Superintendent Henderson, which included the following:

    • “Tin Test: Without exception it is the view of all experts involved in the PCB Industry who have assisted with this enquiry that the tin application on the tracks of the circuit [of pt35/(b)] was by far the most interesting feature. The fact that pure tin rather than a tin/lead mixture has been used is very unusual.”

    • “Further to the discovery (i.e. pure tin on tracks and pad) it has been established that on the large contact pad or the circuit the pure tin has been overlaid with an application or tin/lead which suggests that the wire has been soldered to this part of the circuit.”

    • “Enquiry has been made with numerous companies throughout the United Kingdom involved in the printed circuit board manufacture, in an effort to learn more on the use of tin and the reason for its application to the tracks but these enquiries have so far proved negative, there being no companies known in the United Kingdom involved in the manufacture of printed circuit boards who continue to use pure tin in the manner that tin has been applied to Production PT 35.”

    The opinion of the SCCRC that they had found no evidence to cast doubt on the provenance of PT/35(b) indicates that they were not shown the above.

    1. Superb summary of the detail, kudos.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Actually, I believe it's certain that the SCCRC weren't shown the above. They submitted their report in 2007. The documents in question weren't disclosed to the defence until (I believe) 2009.

  3. Feraday's credibility and the specifics of his testimony were indeed questioned at the trial. My best recollection of that is in relation to his assertion that the bomb suitcase hadn't been the one on the floor of the container.

    Richard Keen pressed him quite hard on that point (though as it happens, not nearly hard enough). Feraday was "adamant" that only two possible packing positions for the bomb suitcase were possible. He produced diagrams which he admitted were badly drawn but which he had never tried to have corrected. Keen raised the point that Feraday had been criticised in a previous trial for being "dogmatic" in relation to something the court heard was in fact incorrect (whether or not a particular timer must have been manufactured with terrorist activity in mind). Feraday said that when he was certain of something, of course he said so.

    This is an interesting philosophical question as regards evidence in general. Most normal people will admit to a small doubt about something, or a small possibility of error. Wilfred Borg of Air Malta is a case in point, when he wasn't prepared to state categorically that it was completely impossible for anyone to smuggle a rogue bag on to a plane at Luqa airport (so, "Mr. Borg's evidence admitted this was possible."). Major Mifsud the meterologist is another, where he allowed for only a 90% probability that it had remained entirely dry in Sliema on the evening of 23rd November 1988, opening the door for the judges to decide that it had in fact rained that evening.

    Scientists are particularly prone to this. It's in our training. Everything is expressed as p values. There's always a p<0.001 possibility that your results don't mean what you think they mean. It's always possible that someone else will appear with further and better data and cause your theory to be revised. You strive for truth while understanding that you will never quite attain it. Naive scientists go into the witness box an allow this attitude to show.

    Experienced expert witnesses are different. They've been there before and they know that the slightest expression of doubt will be seized on to discredit their testimony. So they develop other strategies. The good ones don't betray their principles, but rather develop forms of words to express the degree of certainty they feel, such as "I'm as certain as I possibly can be that this is the case." Others simply roll up and make categorical cast-iron assertions, because they know that's the way to win the case. If the expert witness said this was a certainty, then how can the bench or the jury dispute that?

    Feraday seems to have been in the latter camp. He presented himself and his HNC as an expert authority, and particularly prior to the turn of the century the court wasn't going to challenge that. It was definitely the way to win, if the expert on one side was "adamant" while the expert on the other side was carefully couching his language to allow for a <0.001 probability that he was wrong. He did it at the FAI and he did it in his written statement for the civil action in the USA (the Platt court) and he did it at Camp Zeist. Keen challenged him, but not forcefully enough.

    The "two postulated positions" argument was bogus. Keen produced a third possible position for the bomb suitcase, suggested by Gordon McMillen of the NI forensic service (about the only sensible contribution McMillen seems to have made to the defence). McMillen's third position was actually the correct one, but neither he nor anyone else analysed the evidence to the detail necessary to prove it. Which to my mind is the biggest tragedy of the entire Camp Zeist farce.

    1. [continued] It's instructive to read the court transcript of the relevant exchange. Keen asks Feraday what he would say if he (Keen) could show him a third position. Feraday says he doesn't believe there is one. Keen tries to describe the left-side-up positioning, but he doesn't have a baggage container and a suitcase to demonstrate what he means, and he doesn't even have a scale diagram to show the court. He's left trying to explain what he means with nothing but Feraday's badly-scaled diagram to help him.

      Feraday doesn't come in with a clear and confident explanation of why that position can be ruled out. Instead he starts to waffle about needing to see it demonstrated with an actual case and an actual baggage container, and anyway he hadn't really thought about that position because [more waffle] and he doesn't really think the left side would be high enough.

      In fact the left side will easily go high enough, as the diagrams Adam Larson drew for my book clearly demonstrate. Even a proper scale diagram would have done it, and for something as important as this, surely a full-scale demonstration with the floor of the container (which was brought into court) and the control Samsonite suitcase should have been arranged. But no.

      Keen just backed off, as if Feraday not expressing absolute certainty with reasons was enough. As usual, he wanted uncertainty when he could have had certainty that would have proved both accused to be innocent. What he needed was an expert witness to go up against Feraday and point out forcefully that the third position was absolutely possible and give his clear opinion that the condition of the floor in no way precluded that position to have been the location of the bomb suitcase. Even without the utterly conclusive evidence of the Carlsson and McKee suitcases, that position could have been established as eminently possible and so cast doubt on the entire foundation of the Crown case. No such witness was called.

      Not for the first time I find myself wondering if Keen and Taylor actually wanted to win that case. Both of them put on a big show in relation to points that didn't matter, but repeatedly backed off from points that did. Even when Keen muscled in to try to cover for Taylor's spineless cross-examination of Gauci, he didn't do a particularly good job. Maybe they just thought the evidence was so threadbare (especially after Giaka was discredited, which was something they did manage to get right), that they didn't need to try.

      Well, for the money they were being paid, they damn well should have been trying. They missed stuff amateurs on the internet have been pointing out for years. Keen has been well rewarded, anyway.

  4. Google "The FBI polygraphers will clean-up this mess"

    Well, here is what happened. I was involved with Operation Ringwind, which is the team that actually went out and assassinated the people in the very first letter I mentioned to you. I know the names. I try and remember them out of memory, and the notes I make throughout my life. Our operation was with McKee and the other gentlemen who were killed on Flight 103. We actually trained these people at Camp Perry, Virginia. And we also trained them out of Fort Story and at Mint Farm Hill, which is the Intelligence Center. And we briefed them on everything. The object of this unit was to eliminate everyone that was involved in October Surprise.

    Everyone who had information pertaining that was not militarily, to do away with them. With the military people that were involved, and there were a variety of generals and colonels and so forth, it was handled in a different way. They had training accidents, or they were put so far into retirement that they didn't know what the hell was going on.