Friday, 23 June 2017

Forensic scientific dogmatism

[Seventeen years ago, the Crown’s principal forensic scientific witness, Allen Feraday, had just completed his evidence in the Lockerbie trial at Camp Zeist.  Here is a contemporaneous commentary from the website The Lockerbie Trial which was edited by Ian Ferguson and me:]

As one of the Crown's key witnesses gave his testimony this week in Camp Zeist at the trial of the two Libyans accused of the bombing of Pan Am 103, one man, Hassan Assali watched news reports with interest as Allen Feraday took the witness stand.

Assali, 48, born in Libya but who has lived in the United Kingdom since 1965, was convicted in 1985 and sentenced to nine years. He was charged under the 1883 Explosives Substances Act, namely making electronic timers.

The Crown's case against Assali depended largely on the evidence of one man, Allen Feraday. Feraday concluded that the timers in question had only one purpose, to trigger bombs.

While in Prison Assali, met John Berry, who had also been convicted of selling timers and the man responsible for leading the Crown evidence against Berry was once again, Feraday. Again Feraday contended that the timers sold by Berry could have only one use, terrorist bombs.

With Assali's help Berry successfully appealed his conviction, using the services of a leading forensic expert and former British Army electronic warfare officer, Owen Lewis.

Assali's case is currently before the [English] Criminal Cases Review Commission, the CCRC. It has been there since 1997. Assali believes that his case might be delayed deliberately, as he stated to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw in a fax in February 1999: "I feel that my case is being neglected or put on the back burner for political reasons."

Assali believes that if his case is overturned on appeal during the Lockerbie trial it will be a further huge blow to Feraday's credibility and ultimately the Crown's case against the Libyans.

There is no doubt that a number of highly qualified forensic scientists do not care for the highly "opinionated" type of testimony, which is a hall mark of many of Feraday's cases.

He has been known, especially in cases involving timers to state in one case that the absence of a safety device makes it suitable for terrorists and then in another claim that the presence of a safety device proves the same, granted that the devices were different, but it is the most emphatic way in which he testifies that his opinions are "facts", that worries forensic scientists and defence lawyers.

In his report on Feraday's evidence in the Assali case, Owen Lewis states, "It is my view that Mr Feraday's firm and unwavering assertion that the timing devices in the Assali case were made for and could have no other purpose than the triggering of IED's is most seriously flawed, to the point that a conviction which relied on such testimony must be open to grave doubt."

A host of other scientists, all with vastly more qualifications than Feraday concurred with Owen Lewis.

A report by Michael Moyes, a highly qualified electronics engineer and former Squadron Leader in the RAF, concluded that "there is no evidence that we are aware that the timers of this type have ever been found to be used for terrorist purposes. Moreover the design is not suited to that application."

Moyes was also struck by the similarity in the Berry and Assali case, in terms of the Feraday evidence.

In setting aside Berry's conviction in the appeal Court, Lord Justice Taylor described Feraday's evidence as "dogmatic".

This week in the Lockerbie trial, Feraday exhibited that same attitude when questioned by Richard Keen QC.

Keen asked Feraday about Lord Justice Taylor's remarks on his evidence, but Feraday, dogmatically, said he stands by his evidence in the Berry case.

He was further challenged over making contemporaneous notes on items of evidence he examined. Asked if he was certain that he had made those notes at the time, he said yes. When shown the official police log book which showed that some of the items Feraday had claimed to have examined had in actual fact been destroyed or returned to their owner before he claimed to examined them, his response, true to his dogmatic evidence was the police logs were wrong.

Under cross-examination though, it did become clear that Feraday completed a report for John Orr who was leading the police Lockerbie investigation and in that report he stated he was,  "Completely satisfied that the Lockerbie bomb had been contained inside a white Toshiba RT 8016 or 8026 radio-cassette player", and not, as he now testifies, "inside a black Toshiba RT SF 16 model."

As recently as May [2000], the leading civil liberties solicitor, Ms Gareth Peirce, told the Irish Times that the Lockerbie trial should be viewed with a questioning eye as lessons learned from other cases showed that scientific conclusions were not always what they seemed.

Speaking in Dublin Castle at an international conference on forensic science, Ms Peirce said she observed with interest the opening of the Lockerbie trial and some of the circumstances which, she said, had in the view of the prosecution dramatically affected the case.

She asked herself questions particularly relating to circuit boards which featured in the Lockerbie case and also in a case that she took on behalf of Mr. Danny McNamee, whose conviction for conspiracy to cause explosions in connection with the Hyde Park bombings (another case in which Feraday testified) was eventually quashed. She asked herself whether the same procedures were involved.

Danny McNamee may be the most recent Feraday case to be overturned, Hassan Assali believes his case will be the next.

[RB: Hassan Assali’s conviction was quashed in July 2005. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, stated that Allen Feraday “should not be allowed to present himself as an expert in the field of electronics”.]

1 comment:

  1. It is alarming if you in a court can get through with a claim that there are electronic timers especially made for bombs.

    It is not in anyway a better claim that there are rifles especially made for shooting Germans, or rope especially produced for strangulating somebody.

    Fereday - or the judges or the defense - could have tried to walk into an electronics shop and asked for a timer. Not one of the timers offered, pre-made or kits for self-assembly, could NOT be used for making a bomb - except if the maximum delay would be a bit short... Should the shopowner be arrested?

    The famous '555' timer chip would not be the best choice but it can be used for triggering bombs if the budget is low - the retail price is about 5 USD for 100 pieces.

    To my knowledge no arrests have been made among the producers, which may have to do with the fact that it is the most produced chip ever, with 12 companies making it, and approx. one billion pieces pr. year made for decades.