How Gerry Collins got involved in the Garda's worst scandal
Questions are again to be asked in the Dail about the fingerprint affair in spite of Gerry Collins' confidence last May that his statement on the 23rd of that month finally disposed of the matter.
For Collins' statement raised more questions than it answered and seriously called into question, for the first time, his own resolve to get to the bottom of I the matter. Since then the victimisation I of the two fingerprint officers, who exxposed the fingerprint falsification, has i continued, with both officers being reemoved from the fingerprint section. In addition further information has beecome available to Magill, which raises cause for further disquiet.
The most serious of these is that, I contrary to Collins' assertion in the Dail on May 23, there are serious grounds for I suspecting that false fingerprint evidence may have been given in other cases and even that people may well have been convicted on the basis of false fingerprint evidence Collins said that full inquiries had been made and that all experts in the fingerprint Bureau were "united in the view that there are no grounds for fearring that such a thing may have taken place".
It was untrue to assert that all experts in the Bureau were united thus and it is difficult to understand how such a statement could have been made at all, for all experts in the Bureau were never asked their opinion on the matter.
Furthermore, it would have been immpossible for anyone to make an asserrtion to that effect for the fingerprint charts are usually not retained. This means that no check can now be made of the basis of fingerprint evidence in past cases.
In the cases in which it was possible to check the authenticity of fingerprint evidence in past cases, it was shown that in one case a false identification was made and in three others identifications were made in circumstances in which it was impossible to determine a sufficient number of characteristics. Again Gerry Collins misled the Dail in his statement ort three of these cases.
Collins has twice assured the Dail that steps have been taken to ensure that mistakes in fingerprint identifiications cannot recur. This too is untrue and, in fact, it is arguable that the exact opposite is the case: that the steps that have been taken to ensure that if false identifications are again made, nobody will protest and false evidence will be given unchallenged. No change has been made in the procedure of fingerprint identification, other than to re-affirm the former requirement that all idenntifications and checked and re-checked (i.e. one fingerprint officer makes an identification, this is then checked by another and then re-ehecked by a third officer). This requirement was always in force and adhered to by all fingerprint officers, except the former head of the Bureau and his associate. Thus no new safeguards hsve been introduced.
However, the victimisation of the two officers who exposed the false idenntification in the British ambassador case, is a discouragement to all officers in the Bureau to protest when they see irreguularities occurring.
There is ope further disquieting twist to this aspect of the affair. In one of the cases in which a false identification was made - a case involving the murder of a Cork woman, Nora Colohan, and in which a man named O'Driscoll was charged - the newely appointed head of the Bureau, Inspector Pat McDonagh, was aware that an identification was immpossible from the fingermark available. In spite of this he remained silent when the former head of the Bureau gave eviidence in court of identification.
McDonagh has recentfy been proomoted, while an officer senior to him in terms of experience was first passed over and then effectively. demoted beecause he spoke out on the British ammbassador case.
The fingerprint affair is a complex inntricate one and as the issue is again to be revived it is necessary to go through the narrative step by step. But first it should be appreciated that fingerprints are an exact science and that it is virtually immpossible for two competent fingerprint experts to disagree on an identification Øgenuine mistakes in fingerprint indentiification by competent experts are thus almost impossible.
1. On the day of the assassination of the British ambassador, July 21, 1976, a workman's helmet was found at the scene of the assassination. It was taken to the Fingerprint Section of the Garda Kilrnainham.
2. There it was examined by Dt. Sgt. Michael Diggin, who found no mark on it.
3. Later that evening the helmet was examined by the head of fingerprints, Dt. Inspector William Byrne. He found a mark on it. A search of the fingerprint files was undertaken to identify the mark.
4. An officer of the Investigation section, involved in the murder hunt, mentioned to the fingerprint officers that one of the suspects was a Martin Taylor of Co. Tyrone.
5. Shortly thereafter, Byrne's assocciate in the section, Dt. Sgt John Garavin, conclusively "identified" the mark as that of Martin Taylor. Byrne checked the identification and agreed.
6. There was jubilation in the Techhnical Bureau. The information was passsed on to the Garda authorities, the Department of Justice and the British police.
7. Byrne and Garavin completed the necessary documentation of the murrder file in Dublin castle and a warrant for the arrest of Taylor was issued.
8. The officer who first examined the helmet, Diggin , checked the "idenntification" charts and immediately saw they were wrong. He showed them to the most senior officer in the section, Dt. Sgt. Pat Corless, and he agreed.
9. They went to Byrne and told him that the "identification" was false. He refused to discuss the technicalities of the issue and said he was prepared to go to court with his evidence.
10. Corless and Diggin approached the head of the Bureau, Chief Superinntendent MacMahon, who said he stood by Byrne. Eventually he agreed to hold a meeting of senior fingerprint officers, all of whom agreed the "identification" was wrong.
11. In an attempt to defuse the situaation it was suggested that a further copy of Taylor's fingerprints should be ob-. tained. However it was agreed that the availability was" adequate and that Taylor did not make the mark.
12. On a hunch, Diggin checked his own fingerprints against the mark found on the helmet and found that it was he who had made the mark - he had touchhed the helmet when he had completed his examination.
13. Diggin informed Byrne and MaccMahon of this discovery and only then did Byrne agree to withdraw his "idenntification". The fingerprint documenntation on the case was withdrawn from the Dublin Castle murder file.
14. Even then the Garda authorities took no action against Byrne and Garaavin and it seems that nothing would havehappened had not The Irish Times carrier reports in March 1977 of the fingerprint error.
15. Patrick Cooney, then Minister for Justice, misled the Dail on March 16, 1977 by stating that the identiification was "inconclusive" and that the officers involved were awaiting further copies of the suspect's fingerprints when the mistake was discovered.
17. Following the change of Governnment and before Collins had an opporrtunity to read the McLaughlin report, the Garda authorities moved not only Byrne and Garavin but also Corless and Diggin from their responsibilities in the fingerprint section.
16. Following the press reports and the Dail questions, a Garda inquiry was undertaken by the then Deputy Commmissioner (now Commissioner), Patrick McLaughlin. His inquiry seems to have been limited to recommending new proocedures for fingerprint identification.
18. The matter was referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who substantiated the above account of what happened but he refused to prosecute Byrne and Garavin or their superiors for attempted perversion of the courts of justice.
19. Collins told the Dail on May 23 last that while Byrne and Garavin were guilty of minor erros, the records in his Department showed that it was told iniitially that the identification was inconnclusive and that they were awaiting better copies of the suspect's fingerrprints.
21. Byrne is moved to a senior job in the Special Branch, Garavin is moved to the Central Detectice Unit in Dublin Castlejggin and Corless are Castle, Diggin and Corless are moved to the two toughest stations in central Dublin.
20. The following day Collins correccted this statement by saying that the Departmental records stated merely that the initial "identification" was inconnclusive - the information regarding the need of get better copies of ths suspect's fingerprints came later.
Central to this whole controversy is whether the "identification" of the mark on the helmet, made initially by Byrne and Garavin was conclusive. Both Cooney and Collins have since said that it was inconclusive and this has been the defence of the officers concerned as well.
The evidence that the identification was conclusive is as follows:
(a) they stated that it was conclusive at a meeting of all senior fingerprint offiicers, as well as on a number of other occasions, to Corless and Diggin.
(b) in their documents prepared for the murder file, they stated that their idenntification was conclusive. These docuuments are now unavailable but the offiicers in Dublin Castle who handled them could testify what they contained.
(c) followint their "identification" a warrant was issued for the arrest of Martin Taylor.
(d) they drew up identification charts which showed supposedly 12 points of similarity between the mark and the fingerprint - these charts are not drawn up if the identification is inconclusive. (e) there was absolutely no basis for an inconclusive identification - it was obvious from the identification chart that Taylor did not make the mark. While Byrne and Garavin had drawn up 12 points of similarity, there were in fact only two and three were such obbvious points of dissimilarity that iIt was obvious even to a relatively untrained eye that there was no basis whatsoever for an identification; conclusive or innconclusive.
The point then arises, how could there be a record in the files of the Department of Justice, as Collins says, which states that the information it oriiginally received was that the identifiication was inconclusive.
Surely, if the identification was connclusive, the Garda authorities would not understate the extent of their "break through" on such a critical case. And since there is overwhelming evidence that the identification was conclusive, it is inconceivable the authorities would have been told otherwise.
However there is one possible, albeit partial, explanation for this discrepancy. When fingerprint experts made an idenntification they complete a form which states, inter alia, that if the fingerprints on which the identification has been made were obtained before the com-. mission of the crime in question, then a fresh set of fingerprints need to be taken. This is not at all because of any doubt or reservation about the connclusive nature of the identification. It is simply because if this procedure were not adopted then the fingerprint offiicers on giving the evidence in court would be indicating to the judge and jury that the suspect either had a preevious conviction or was otherwise under suspicion in connection with another crime.
Collins may be using this technicality to mislead the Dail about the nature of the identification in the British ambassaador case. Alternatively, the document which he has been shown is not, as he states, an authentic contemporaneous record of what the Department was innformed when the "identification" was first made.
It is more difficult to understand how Cooney could have been in any doubt about the nature of the initial "identification". He surely must have remembered the precise terms of the information he was given and he would surely have remembered that there was no initial talk about the identification being "inconclusive".
Although Collins has curiously gone to some pains to exonerate Cooney from charges of misleading the Dail on the matter, he has inadvertently suppplied evidence to the contrary. In addiition a statement to his May 23 address, Collins said that while the contemmporaneous note in his Department statted that the identification was subjected to a reservation or qualification, the innformation about the need to get a better set of the suspect's fingerprints came later.
This directly conflicted with what Cooney told the Dail on March 16, 1977 when he said that when the Garda authorities informed his Department of the identification, they had "stated that the identification was not conclusive and needed to be further checked when better samples or copies of the fingerrprints of the person concerned would become available".
The issue about the need to get a furrther set of fingerprints arose at a much later date and, as stated in paragraph i I above, it was irrelevant (the copy of the suspect's fingerprints which was availlable was perfectly adequate and from that it was absolutely apparent that the suspect did not make the mark on the helmet).
The significance of Cooney's error in this context is that had the contemporraneous record mentioned anything about the need to get a better set of prints, then there would be substantial proof that the initial identification was in fact inconclusive. Collins reveals that the record didn't mention that and that this additional information came later. Cooney has been less fastidious with the facts, even on the basis of the evidence of his staunchest defender - Collins.
A number of other cases involving . false fingerprint identification have arisen, since the controversy on the British ambassador case began. And in each of these cases there is further evidence of cover-up by Collins.
The first of these was the case of the murder of Garda Fallon in 1970. Eviidence of fingerprint identification was given against one of the defendants, Dillon. The identification was wrong Dillon did not make the mark. Collins said in the Dail in connection with this case that while the mark may have been of the accused person, the photographic evidence of the mark would not justify identification. This is wrong. The photoographic evidence would have justified identification had the right person been found. Instead the wrong person was identified - there can be no argument about this identification being connclusive.
The second case was the murder of Nora Colohan in Cork in 1973. The perrson accused was named Q'Driscoll and Byrne gave fingerprint evidence idenntifying a mark on a dresser in the murrdered woman's kitchen with his fingerrprints. It was impossible to make an identification from the mark. Collins approvingly quotes Byrne and Garavin as saying that the original of this mark was never inspected by anybody, who subsequently challenged the identifiication. True, but the current head of the fingerprint section, Pat McDonagh, did inspect the original mark and he believed it was mistaken, even though he is now reported to have told the DPP that he can't remember.
In another case involving the murder of Larry Phelan near a railway line at Sallins, Co. Dublin, an identification was made when the mark was of such number of other cases involving false poor quality that an identification was impossible. The person identified was a UDA man who has since been killed in an explosion in Northern Ireland. Collins blithly dismisses this case by sayying that the question of foliowing up such a conclusion did not arise and that in any event the suspect's fingerprints cannot now be checked. However it was obvious to fingerprint experts both in Dublin and Belfast (a photographic copy of the mark was sent to the RUC fingerprint section) that the mark could not possible have been identified.
Finally, in the Elizabeth Plunkett case, identification of the body was made through the identification of a palm print. The quality of the mark print was again so poor that identificaation was impossible. The significance of this case is that it occurred after the controversy arose about the British ammbassador case. Collins has not commentted on this case because it was sub-judice.
Collins' cavalier of these cases ennforces suspicions of his active involveement in the cover-up.
In his May 23 bail statement Collins r , said: "it is clear that for some years past there has been within the Bureau ,_ (fingerprint section) a regrettable atmossphere of dissention and, perhaps, what amounted to personality clashes ..... (which) damaged the capacity of the Bureau to contribute effectively to the detection of crime and put at risk stanndards that must at all times be observed in order to ensure that an innocent perrson is not convicted".
It is the bogey of dissention that has supposedly justified the victimisation of Corless and Diggin over the affair but it seems to be unsubstantiated. There was never a clash at any time between Diggin and any member of the fingerrprint section. There was some rivalry between Corless and Byrne some years ago, after Byrne had worked abroad for a while and then returned to resume direction of the section from Corless who had been in charge in his absence. However whatever friction there might have been at that time it seems to have evaporated, for Byrne was responsible for Corless getting a glowing recommenndation for promotion.
We have been informed by a number of sources within the section that there was no dissention until' the controversy over the British ambassador case arose, In any event it is surely ludicrous to imply" as Collins did, that mistakes in fingerprint identification might have been caused by dissention within the Bureau.
It seems clear that Corless and Diggin have -been victimised because they exxposed. a, malpractice and for nothing else. There could be no clearer indicaation to other officers in the force from the Garda authorities and the Minister that they were expected to keep their mouths shut whenever they perceived wrong doing.
From the weight of evidence availlable it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that both Paddy Cooney and Gerry Collins have both participated in the cover up. Because of the seriousness of the issues involved (had the suspect been convicted on the basis of the false fingerprint evidence, he could have been hanged) it is probably that if this happpened in any other democracy in the western world, the Ministers concerned would have been driven out of both office and politics.
Apart from the Ministers, it seems bizarre that the Garda officer directly responsible for what happened, Chief Superintendent Tony MacMahon, is still head of the Technical Bureau, Had he taken action when Corless and Diggin first went to him the matter could have been dealt with at that level, He didn't and instead he has participated both in the cover up and in the victimisation of the two officers who exposed the scanndaL