November 02 2023
Related ServicesFingerprint Experts
With more than 25 years' experience as a Fingerprint Specialist, Simon Bunter gives a fascinating insight into his typical week.
A strong black coffee is the best way to start any Monday, particularly after having travelled back from London the previous day after watching an NFL American Football game.
My inbox has a few new enquiries from criminal defence solicitors, one of which involves determining whether a palm print has been correctly identified. The trial is in one week and the solicitors need our report by Friday. We send a quote of our fees and explain that if the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) authorise our funds by Wednesday, I could conduct my examination on Thursday and send my peer-reviewed report on Friday, in time for the trial.
The Stage 1 SFRs (Streamlined Forensic Reports) provided by the Crown for all the new enquiries contain very little information; but I will find out much more about the police Fingerprint Examiners’ work when they provide me with copies of their case material and photographs.
In another new enquiry, a solicitor asks whether it is possible for a fingerprint to last for 10 years; her client has been charged with a recent burglary but maintains that his prints must be there from when he carried out maintenance work at the property 10 years ago. I explain that I have worked on several cases such as this and, in some of them, I was able to show that the fingerprints were placed several years earlier, even though the surfaces had been thoroughly cleaned. In one case, I was able to show that the defendant had deposited his fingerprints onto a window frame 15 years previously when he manufactured it in a factory; he had never attended the burgled property. After hearing this, the solicitor explains that she definitely wants a quote for me to examine all the evidence and to visit the property in question.
As well as being a Fingerprint Expert, I am also part of our marketing team and the Forensic Collision Investigation team leader. This afternoon we have a marketing meeting where we discuss strategies and ideas; one of which is for a scientist to write a diary. ‘Simon, would you like to do that?’ I agree but only on the basis that I don’t have to mention the result of my team squash match that night if we get beaten. No assurances are given but I manage to win my match 15-13 in the fifth game and our team wins 4-1 overall. All is well!
All our scientists are required to demonstrate continued competence and one way to do this is to participate in external proficiency tests. I’m provided with 12 questioned marks to compare against 4 reference forms and am required to treat it just like real casework. This involves analysing a questioned mark in detail, annotating all the ridge characteristics I can see in it before I carry out any comparisons. This is an important step in reducing the risk of error from cognitive bias from the clear characteristics in the suspect’s good quality reference prints and provides transparency for how an outcome is reached. This ‘linear sequential unmasking’ technique is rarely carried out by police examiners despite it being recommended in The Fingerprint Inquiry Scotland report (2011) and cited in many academic journals.
After lunch, I receive confirmation that the LAA have authorised our quote to examine the palm print from Monday’s urgent case enquiry. We immediately write to the police Fingerprint Bureau to request that they send all the relevant material to us as soon as possible.
At 5.23pm, I receive an email asking me to attend a court 200 miles away at 10am tomorrow. This would impact on my ability to carry out the urgent work in the palm print case, so I ring the solicitor to check I am definitely needed. They check with Counsel and explain that, although the trial starts tomorrow, I won’t be needed until the following Monday at the earliest.
As soon as I login to my email, the police Fingerprint Examiner has already forwarded digital copies of the requested material to us. This means I don’t have to travel to the Fingerprint Bureau and can get to work on the examination straight away.
Included in the police material is the Fingerprint Examiner’s Stage 2 SFR, which has not been forwarded to instructing solicitors. It records that the ‘pattern, ridge flow and 16 ridge characteristics’ correspond between the questioned mark and the defendant’s right thumb print. As strong as that evidence appears on paper, billions of people share similar patterns and ridge flow even though their fingerprints are different overall; the most important aspect of the comparison process is the ridge characteristics and to what extent they correspond.
Just like the police Fingerprint Examiner, I find a total of 16 corresponding characteristics, however, my initial analysis notes show that I had only observed 8 of these characteristics in the mark before comparison. This shows that the defendant’s reference fingerprint has influenced me into ‘seeing’ the other 8 characteristics. As such, I assign these characteristics less evidential weight when evaluating my findings and deem the most appropriate outcome to be ‘inconclusive’. The police Fingerprint Examiners’ notes do not contain any reference to which characteristics they initially found on the mark and which they had only found during the comparison. Such an approach can result in the strength of the fingerprint evidence being exaggerated.
It is my turn to cook for our family ‘Pasta Night’, so on the way home I stop at our local discount supermarket, endure their queueing extravaganza and buy extra garlic.
I complete my palm print report for the urgent case and pass it to my colleague for peer review. From 2nd October 2023, we have to ensure that all of our reports contain a Quality Declaration stating which Forensic Science Activities (FSAs) the work falls under and whether we are accredited for that work and, if not, what mitigations we have in place. I forward the report to the solicitor who reads it, confirms they will be serving it on the prosecution and suggests I be on standby for court on Monday.
The solicitor later rings back to explain that the trial has been adjourned in order for the police Fingerprint Examiner and I to produce a Section 10 statement summarising our areas of agreement and disagreement. I have produced many of these statements over the years but it is often the first time for the police examiner.
On Monday I will telephone to let them know that we have to produce the joint statement. We’ll discuss what we want to put in the statement and then I will write a draft version and forward it to them to check. Very often these statements help speed up the trial process and mean there is no need to attend court to give evidence in person.
The end of a busy week. I’m thankful that I rarely have to work at weekends, so will be spending some quality time with my family!
At Keith Borer Consultants, we have a team of Casework Consultants who are experts in a wide range of forensic evidence types. Colleagues work from our main office in Durham, a satellite office in Huntingdon, or from home. Call us on 0191 332 4999 if you wish to speak directly to one of the team – they will be happy to provide a free, initial assessment of the scientific evidence in your case. Alternatively, send an email to email@example.com, including details of your requirements and pertinent case papers (Forensic Statements, Police Report, Counsel’s Advice) and we’ll aim to have an estimate with you within 24 hours.
BSc(Hons), MCSFS, ChFP (Fingerprint), FFS