Fingerprint Scandal: Cover-up goes On

An investigation into the Garda fingerrprint affair reveals the following disquieting results:

• The former Minister for Justice, Patrick Cooney, seriously misled the Dail on the matter, either knowingly or unknowingly.
• Several senior Garda officers were and possibly still are involved in a systematic cover-up of the 'mistaken' fingerprint identification.
• The 'mistake' in the affair was of such seriousness as to question the reliability and integrity of the entire Garda fingerprint section.
• Serious doubts have arisen about several other fingerprint identifications.
• The two fingerprint officers who exposed the 'mistake' have been, and remain, victimised because of their involvement in the affair, while the two officers most responsible for the 'mistake' have recently returned to the fingerprint section, at least unofficially, and the senior of these has recently claimed in court that he is still head of the section.

THERE ALSO arises serious dou bt about the Government's deterrmination and capacity to cope with 'irregularities' within the Gardai. For not alone has the new Fianna Fail administration retreated on its demand for a full enquiry into allegations of Garda brutality but it appears unable to insist on its own, decisions being immplemented by the civil service.

• We have discovered that the Department of Justice partly subverted the decision of the Government to set up a committee to recommend on the treatment of people in Garda custody and to enquire into past allegations of Garda brutality.

The Government decided on Thursday October 13 to set up a committee to recommend what additional safeguards are necessary for the protection of persons against ill treatment in Garda custody 'and for that purpose to seek such information as would be likely to be of assistance to them in making a recommendation as aforesaid'.

The latter part of this decision was clearly understood by members of the Government as the mandate to the committee to enquire into allegations of Garda brutality. The announcement of the committee was witheld for a day so that the proposed members of the committee could be contacted and the details of the terms of reference 'fleshed out'.

The Minister for Justice, Gerry Collins, was out of Dublin on the Friday and it was left to officials of the Department of Justice to prepare the explanatory statement on the setting up of the committee. A procedure was laid down whereby this statement would be checked by other Government officials before release. However the statement was released to the press at the same time as it was handed to these other officials, who immediately perceived that the statement misrepresented the Government's intentions.

The statement makes no reference to the committee's powers to enquire into allegations related to past events and by implication suggests that this is not to be its role. Several ministers have been perturbed by what they regard as sharp practice by Department of Justice officials.

There had been disagreement in the cabinet anyway on the powers and functions of the committee. The more liberal element represented by Martin O'Donoghue and the Attorney General, Tony Hederman, argued for a thorough investigation with full subpoena powers. Gerry Collins fastidiously represented his Department's view but having done so took a more independent and liberal lirie. Opposition came mainly from Des O'Malley, who was concerned about Garda morale and loyalty to the Government.

THE FINGERPRINT scandal dates from the assassination of the British ambassador on July 21 of last year. A workman's helmet was found at the scene of the detonation of the explosion and taken to the fingerrprint section of the Garda Technical Bureau at St. John's Road, Dublin. The helmet was examined by the expert in charge of subversive fingerprints, Detecctive Sergeant Michael Diggin, but he found no marks. Later that evening the head of the fingerprint section, Detective Inspector Liam Byrne, took away the helmet for re-examination, even though he had been informed that Diggin had not discovered a mark. The reation of an exhibit in such circumstances is very unusual.

Some days later Byrne announced that he had discovered a mark on the helmet and he produced photographs of it. He ordered a search of fingerprint files of known subversives to identify the mark and about ten fingerprint experts were engaged on the search for several weeks.

The search was without success and most of the experts were re-deployed on other duties. However Byrne and his closest associate in the section, Detective Sergeant John Garavin, continued the search and eventually 'identified' the mark on the helmet as that of a known IRA suspect.

News of the 'identification' sped euphorically up through the line of command, from Byrne to the head of the Technical Bureau, Chief Superrintendent Tony MacMahon, on to Commissioner Garvey and from him to the Minister for Justice, Patrick Cooney, and then to the Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave. Somewhere along the line the British authorities were informed and so too was the press in both Britain and Ireland.

A suspect had been identified, we were told, and, once captured, a connviction was a virtual certainty. The strain on Anglo-Irish relations was to be eased and the embarrasment of the British ambassador's assassination was to be abated.

However, the officer who first examined the helmet, Detective Sergeant Diggin, who had been scolded for his 'failure' to discover the mark, was suspicious, and he personally examined the mark-against the suspect's fingerrprints. He concluded that the 'identifiication' was wrong and he passed the chart along to one of the most senior experts in the section, Detective Sergeant Pat Corliss. He too concluded that the 'identification' was wrong and he informed Inspector Byrne of his findings. He pointed out in some detail that some of the characteristics on the helmet mark were clearly not identical, as stated, with characteristics of the suspect's fingerprints; that other 'characteristics' identified were not characteristics at all, according to the precise science of fingerprints; and that some of the critical ridge tracings were wrong.

Byrne refused to discuss the technicalities of the identification. Corliss requested that the chart be submitted to another fingerprint expert, Dective Sergeant Martin Hogan, Byrne refused. Byrne said he intended testifying in court, should the suspect be put on trial, that the mark on the helmet was identical with the suspect's fingerprints ..

Byrne again asserted that he was prepared to testify that the mark on the helmet was made by the suspect at a meeting in Mac Mahon's office attended by seven officers, including Byrne and Corliss, some weeks later.

Corliss had gone to Mac Mahon around the middle of October and informed him that the fingerprint identiification was wrong and that Byrne was unwilling to reconsider the matter. He asked Mac Mahon either to call in outside experts or to circulate the chart to other fingerprint experts in the office to get their assessment. Mac Mahon refused both requests, saying that as the affair was an internal matter it would be wrong to involve outsiders and that if some of the internal experts agreed and others disagreed it wouldn't solve anything.

ABOUT A week later, during a a casual encounter between Mac Mahon and Corliss the former agreed to hold a meeting of senior fingerrprint officers to discuss the affair. This was the critical meeting. It took place around the first week of November in Mac Mahon's office and in attendance were Chief Superintendent Mac Mahon himself, Detective Superintendent Dan Murphy, head of the investigation unit, Inspector Byrne and Detective Sergeants Corliss, Diggin, Garavin, Hogan and Me Donagh,

Mac Mahon opened the meeting with an uspecified allegation that 'leaks' were occurring from the fingerprint section. He claimed Seamus Sorohan, S.C. had some information .on the continuing internal controversy, which he revealed during the course of a cross examination in a case involving a Vivion Hayden, who was accused (and convicted) of incendiary bombings of cinemas in Dublin.

Patrick Cooney: misled the Dail

Actually Sorohan had heard nothing but as he was highly suspicious of fingerrprint evidence being given in the case by Inspector Byrne, he insisted that Byrne marked up a fingerprint chart from start to finish under supervision in an anteeroom of the court. It was a highly unusual request and understandably gave rise to suspicion by the Garda aughorities. Howwever, in the event Byrne performed the chore with remarkable professional efficiency and aplomb.

But to return to the meeting in Mac Mahon's office - Corliss requested permission to refer to the marked up enlargements of the helmet mark and the suspect's fingerprints but this was refused so he was forced to make his case verbally. However as all the other fingerprints experts in the section had unofficially seen the enlargements by that stage, this wasn't much of a handicap.

Only Byrne and Garavin continued to insist that the identification was correct. The other four experts, Corliss, Diggin, Hogan and Me Donagh, disagreed. Mac Mahon and Murphy were not fingerrprint experts and thus were not commpetent to adjudicate. In spite of this, however, Byrne refused to change his mind and stated that he was prepared to go into court and testify that the identiification was correct. Mac Mahon went along with Byrne's stand and, therefore, nothing changed.

Around this time indirect contacts were made with the Garda Commissioner, Edmund Garvey, to inform him of the affair. And even though it is virtually certain that Garvey was made aware of the fingerprint irregularity, nothing ensued. .

AT THE beginning of December, Diggin, who now had become obsessional about the affair, on a hunch, checked the helmet mark against his own fingerprints and discovered that it was he who had made the mark.

He immediately informed Corliss of his discovery. Corliss made his own investigation and confirmed Diggin's findings. They went to Mac Mahon, who called Byrne into his office and when informed' simply muttered 'after five months'.

Mac Mahon expected Corliss to be satisfied that he had finally established that the identification was wrong and that matters should be left rest then. However Corliss was disturbed about the serious and significant mistake, and the adamant refusal of the authorities to yield in the face of overwhelming expert advice. In addition, serious doubts had arisen about a number of other fingerrprint cases and Corliss wanted these examined.

Mac Mahon was irritated by Corliss's insistence in pursuing the matter, and he refused him permission to examine the fingerprint charts in four contentious cases.

Unrest continued in the fingerprint section during the following few months, but nothing transpired until the Irish Times published on March I of this year a report on the mistaken fingerprint identification. It was only then that the authorities found it expedient to order an enquiry to be coducted by Deputy Commissioner Patrick Me Loughlin.

Me Loughlin is an officer of unimpeachable integrity and is almost certain to replace Edmund Garvey as Commissioner within the next two years. However, he must have felt somewhat compromised in conducting an investiggation into a department he once headed, the Technical Bureau, and he was also handicapped by not having fingerprint expertise. However, we have learned that he did engage outside fingerprint expertise, possibly from Scotland Yard, and that his report was very thorough and, of course, disquieting.

DR. JOHN O'Connell, TD asked the Minister for Justice, Patrick Cooney, a number of questions in the Dail on March 16 arising out of the Irish Times report. In reply, Cooney said:

'Last October my Department received from the Garda Siochana information to the effect that a fingerprint discovered on a helmet near the scene of the murder of the British ambassador and Miss Judith Cook had been linked with a parrticular person. The Garda stated that the identification was not conclusive and needed to be further checked when better samples or copies of the fingerprints of the person concerned would become available ....

'No more definite identification than that which I have indicated was at any time subsequently communicated to my department, and I understand that the better copies or samples of the fingerprints of the person conncerned which were being awaited had not in fact been obtained before the issue was otherwise resolved by the discovery that the fingerprint on the helmet was a fingerprint of a mem ber of the Technical Bureau.

, I am infomed that, before the fingerrprint was identified as that of a member of the Bureau, the view had already been expressed by two members of the Bureau that the earlier, qualified, identification was not correct. A difference of opinion amongst fingerprint experts does not of itself appear to me to be significant, expecially in relation to prints of poor quality, though obviously the position would be otherwise if an identification had been positively made and put forward as conclusive in court proceedings. In this case, however, the officer in charge had decided that the matter must be left in abeyance until a better quality copies or samples to which I referred earlier were obtained. Before that happened, as I have said, the issue was otherwise resolved.'

This statement bears only a vague relationship to the actual truth of the matter. The following points are worth making:

1 In October the Department of Justice identification was not informed that the fingerprint identification was not conclusive. It was informed precisely what Inspector Byrne was claiming, viz. that a positive identification had been made. Indeed thare is no such thing as an inconclusive identification, and Mr. Cooney's statement is nonsense to any fingerprint expert. A leading fingerprint expert, Andre A. Moenssens, who has written the definitive text book on fingerprints entitled 'Fingerprint Techhniques', writes: 'in finger printing, then, there is no such thing as a "probable" identification, there is no such thing as experts arriving at conflicting connclusions on identities.' (page 262).

2 Better samples of the suspect's fingerprints were never sought from any quarter, simply because the ones availlable to the Gardai were quite adequate. The point is ridiculous anyway, for photographs of prints are invariably excellent, otherwise the photographic expert is required to take another photograph.

3 A difference of opinion amongst fingerprint experts is of the utmost significance. Moenssens writes: 'When a competent technician uses the required margin of safety in establishing identity (presence of sufficient number of idenntical characteristics in both prints), it is virtually impossible for another equally competent technician to disagree.'

4 It was the full intention of the fingerprint expert in question to testify to the accuracy of the fingerprint identiification in court, solely on the basis of the information at his disposal, so Mr. Cooney's assurance that this would not havt happened was misplaced.

Whereas it is conceivable that Mr. Cooney could have been misinformed, either by the Garda authorities or Department of Justice officials, or both, about the latter three points, it is inncredible that there was any doubt in his mind about the nature of the communiccations from the Gardai about the fingerrprint identification in October.

THERE IS some confusion about when Gerry Collins received the Me Loughlin report and became fully aware of the scandal. However, it appears that just before he received the report changes were made in the fingerrprint section of quite serious significance. Inspector Byrne was relieved of his duties as head of the section and put in charge of CID courses, a purely nominal appointment as there are no such courses in operation at present. Detective Sergeant Garavin was moved into the photographic section. Both these changes could reasonably be interpreted as a response, however belated, by the Garda authorities to the Me Loughlin report. However, Corliss and Diggin were also moved. Corliss was put in charge of fingerprint records, and Diggin was also put into the photographic section. Clearly, there was a warning there to any member of the force not to make a 'nuisance' of themselves, however serious the issues involved may be.

However, it appears that for Byrne and Garavin, at least, the transfers may be merely temporary. By the last week of October both were coming back to their own offices in the fingerprint

section, though neither was doing any work. But there is an even more interestting sidelight on this. In a robberyviolence case in the Circuit Criminal Court on Thursday September 22 last, Inspector Byrne said on oath, in reply to a question from defence counsel:

'You are head of the fingerprint department.'

'Yes.' (Evening Press, September 22, 1977)

Inspector Byrne also gave that court an intriguing version of the identification mistake. He said:

'There was no error in identification.

It was a fingerprint made mistakenly, no doubt, by a member of the fingerprint department who did not realise at the time he had left a fingerprint on the object.' He later went on to say that it was he who identified the fingerprint as being that of the detective. (The Irish Times, September 23, 1977).

The case is currently under review by the DPP, but the indications so far are that he will not issue criminal prose' cutions.

THE FOLLOWING questions need to be answered in relation to the affair.

1 How could a senior fingerprint expert make a mistake of the magnitude made in this affair.

2 Why did Inspector Byrne and Chief Superintendent Mac Mahon consistently refuse to allow other fingerprint experts examine the charts.

3 How much did Commissioner Garvey know of the affair before the mistake was corrected, and, once corrrected in December, why did he not then order a full investigation into the affair.

4 Who supplied Patrick Cooney with the information contained in the answer to the Dail question on March 16 and how could he possibly have been in any doubt about the nature of the communiccation from the Gardai in October about the fingerprint identification.

5 What other investigations are being conducted into the other fingerprint 'identifications' about which suspicions have arisen.

6 Why have Corliss and Diggin been victimised and even by this stage not restored to their former positions.

7 Who is now head of the fingerprint section, Inspector Byrne as he testified· under oath, or Detective Sergeant Gerry McDonagh, who was verbally informed by Mac Mahon that he is now head of the section.

8 What new procedures have been laid down to ensure that such mistakes can not happen in the future.

Until these questions are answered adequately serious doubts will remain about the integrity and reliability of the Garda fingerprint section, much to the detriment of a great number of conscienntious and highly qualified experts there.