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Kingsmills forensic blunders that meant massacre palm print was not matched to prime suspect

Kingsmills families tell of anger after police apologise for missing key piece of evidence

By Suzanne Breen

Published 22/09/2016

The funeral service for five victims of the Kingsmills massacre at the Presbyterian church grounds in Bessbrook
The funeral service for five victims of the Kingsmills massacre at the Presbyterian church grounds in Bessbrook
The scene of the 1976 atrocity

Police and forensic scientists failed at least three times to match a palm print found on the Kingsmills massacre getaway van with the suspect whom the PSNI now believes it belongs to.

The Belfast Telegraph can today reveal the catalogue of errors that the authorities made in identifying the print and so possibly charging the suspect six years ago.

The Garda failed to match the recovered palm print with the suspect in 2010, and a forensic scientist employed by the PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team wrongly marked the suspect's palm print as negative in 2010 and 2014.

The families of the 10 men killed in the 1976 IRA massacre last night accused those who had investigated the atrocity of "breathtaking incompetence".

They said they are so disillusioned and distrustful of the authorities that they will now consider bringing in their own independent forensic science expert to review the entire case.

IRA victims campaigner Willie Frazer said: "We are talking here about major mistakes made by police investigating one of the most heinous crimes of the Troubles. If a high-profile investigation into mass murder was handled so disastrously, then imagine how bad investigations into low-profile killings were.

"We hope to bring an independent forensic expert in to review everything the police have done, or failed to do, regarding the palm print over the years. It will cost us a lot of money, but there may be no other way."

The PSNI last night apologised to the families for the forensic errors and said it fully accepts their "concerns and frustrations". Assistant Chief Constable, Mark Hamilton, said the force remained committed to securing "truth and justice".

The palm print was found on an inside window of the getaway van, three days after the massacre. However, it was over 40 years later - just after the Kingsmills inquest opened in Belfast in May - that it was identified as belonging to a 59-year-old south Armagh republican.

The suspect was arrested and questioned by detectives about the attack last month. He was released pending a report to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS).

At a briefing for the victims' families last Friday, the head of the PSNI's Fingerprint Bureau, Jeff Logan, admitted that gardai and the PSNI had mistakenly failed to match the palm print three times.

In July 2010, the PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team sent marks, recovered from the crime scene, to gardai to be checked against their database of suspects, but the result came back negative.

Four months later, the Garda sent the suspect's palm prints to the PSNI. A fingerprint expert employed by the HET checked it but got it wrong.

In October 2014, the crime scene mark is searched on the IDENT1 system (UK wide search facility). The suspect came in at number three on the suggested respondent list, but the file is wrongly marked as negative by the fingerprint specialist.

This was the same HET expert who mistakenly failed to match the print four years earlier. He didn't get a second opinion of his report, and doesn't appear to have been required to.

While fingerprint experts employed directly by the PSNI had their work subjected to a dip sample - a random selection of their reports were checked by another fingerprint analyst - there was no such sampling of HET experts' reports, and nobody from the PSNI Fingerprint Bureau reviewed their work.

The HET expert has given a statement to police on his mistaken identification. It is understood that a computer audit trail will reveal how long he spent on the task in both 2010 and 2014.

The unidentified palm print came to public prominence when the Kingsmills inquest opened in May. The crime scene mark was searched on the UK IDENT1 system, and again the suspect came in at number three on the respondent list.

However, this time the mark was identified as belonging to him within 15 minutes. Three other experts looked at the mark independently and agreed it belonged to him.

The PSNI has told the families that a palm print sample taken from the suspect after he was arrested last month also matches the crime scene mark. Detectives sent a file to the PPS three weeks ago, and are awaiting a decision on prosecution.

Mr Frazer, said: "This palm print from the van has existed for 40 years. We need to know when gardai took the suspect's palm prints. Did they have them in 1976?

"If they didn't, we want to know why the RUC didn't arrest this man and take his prints as he was a major suspect in the atrocity.

"Nobody seems to have done this.

"It's not rocket science, it's basic police investigation."

Colin Worton, whose 24-year-old brother Kenneth was killed, said: "I don't hold out much hope for the new police investigation.

"They told us a file on the suspect had gone to the PPS but they refused to say if they had attached a recommendation to prosecute or not. Many of us are from security force backgrounds so it gives us no joy to admit we feel very let down by police."

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton, head of the PSNI's Legacy and Justice Department, said that police had met the families "as part of our commitment to being open and transparent".

He added: "We fully accept the concerns and frustrations felt by the families in relation to how this atrocity has been investigated, particularly the mistakes that have been made in relation to the identification of the palm-print.

"We apologise again for the errors but we would reassure them we remain committed to supporting the ongoing inquest and playing our part in securing truth and justice for everyone involved."

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