Lockerbie and Old Lace

What does a thumbprint at the scene of a Scottish spinster's murder have to do with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103?


Last week Scottish officials released convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi from prison because he is dying of prostate cancer. The former Libyan intelligence official was convicted in 2001 of carrying out the 1988 terrorist attack that brought down Pan Am Flight 103. There's a back story to his prosecution, however—one involving the murder of a Scottish woman, a false conviction, and startling accusations that the FBI may have attempted to intervene in a Scottish perjury trial. And all this international intrigue was over a rather small thing: a thumbprint.

In January 1997, 51-year-old bank clerk Marion Ross was gruesomely murdered in the Scottish region of Strathclyde. David Asbury, a construction worker helping with remodeling work on her home, was quickly arrested and charged. Asbury left no fingerprints at the crime scene, but Scotland's famed national crime lab, the Scottish Criminal Record Office (SCRO), matched one fingerprint lifted from a biscuit tin in Asbury's apartment to Ross. Asbury, they said, had stolen the tin and the money it contained after murdering his client.

The only print left at the actual crime scene was a thumbprint on the door frame to Ross's bathroom. According to the SCRO, that print belonged to Shirley McKie, a Strathclyde police detective. McKie, incidentally, was the same investigator who lifted the print off the biscuit tin.

Leaving fresh prints at a crime scene can be a career-jeopardizing mistake for a cop. McKie insisted the print wasn't hers, and that she had never even been inside the victim's home. This presented a problem for Strathclyde police and the SCRO. Either the detective who had found the strongest piece of evidence in Ross's murder was lying, or fingerprint examiners in one of the most reputable crime labs in the world had made an incredibly embarrassing mistake.

The SCRO and Strathclyde police turned again against McKie. She was suspended. Whisper campaigns circulated. One implied McKie was somehow involved in Ross's murder; another that she'd had perverse sex with a married detective at the bloody crime scene and was attempting to cover it up.

David Asbury was tried in May 1997. Shirley McKie testified to the print she found on the biscuit tin, but when asked about the thumbprint left on the door frame, McKie maintained that it wasn't hers. Her testimony directly conflicted with that of other investigators. Asbury was convicted anyway, but the SCRO now faced a reputation-staining scandal. So in March 1998, McKie's home was raided, and she was arrested and charged with perjury.

As the case against McKie began to make headlines in Scotland, fingerprint experts from the U.S. and Europe came forward to compare McKie's thumbprint to the print from the crime scene. One after another, they concluded the two were not a match. If the thumbprint came from someone else, it not only meant that David Asbury might be innocent, it would call the very credibility of the famed SCRO into question. McKie was tried for perjury in May 1999. Three renowned fingerprint experts testified on her behalf against four analysts from the SCRO. McKie was found not guilty.

But her legal battles weren't over. McKie was still fired six months later. Multiple investigations, lawsuits, and counter-suits followed. By 2002, McKie had assembled 160 fingerprint experts from around the world who attested that the print left at the crime scene wasn't hers. That same year, another bombshell: The conviction of David Asbury was thrown out, and he was released. The biscuit tin, it turned out, had been his all along. The SCRO had erred again, this time in matching the print found on the tin in Asbury's apartment to Marion Ross. Ross's killer still hasn't been found. In 2006, a day before her lawsuit was to begin, McKie settled with the Scottish government for £750,000.

Here's where the FBI comes in. As the perjury case against McKie unfolded, the FBI and Scottish officials were building their Lockerbie case against Megrahi and another Libyan, Lamin Khalifa Fhimah (Fhimah was found not guilty). One key piece of evidence was an incomplete fingerprint found on bombing-related documents matched to Megrahi by the SCRO. The McKie scandal now threatened not only the integrity of the famous Scottish crime lab, but the reputed infallibility of fingerprint evidence in general—and thus possibly the case against Megrahi.

According to an investigator for Pan Am Airlines, in 1999 FBI officials urged the SCRO to present a united front against McKie. David Grieve and Pat Wertheim, two American fingerprint experts who testified for McKie's defense, later told a Scottish TV program that the FBI also asked them not to testify at McKie's trial. In 2006, Wertheim and two other experts would publicly accuse the SCRO of intentionally manipulating evidence in McKie's trial to protect the reputation of the SCRO and the integrity of the Lockerbie investigation.

In June of this year, Scottish officials opened yet another inquiry into the McKie scandal—the FBI has an ongoing investigation as well—promising to look not only at possible criminal conduct by the SCRO, but the possible interference by the FBI and Scottish investigators looking into the Lockerbie bombing. As Megrahi returned to Libya to die last week, that inquiry continued. In the meantime, the FBI was embarrassed in another international terror case when its own vaunted crime lab falsely matched a print from the bombings in Madrid to Oregon attorney Brandon Mayfield. (For a more thorough summary of the McKie case, see Jim Fisher's excellent book Forensics Under Fire.)

The McKie case shows how far law enforcement agencies can be willing to go to protect a high-stakes conviction. The SCRO was willing to ruin the reputation of a police investigator, falsely try her for perjury, and let an innocent man rot in prison to cover up its mistakes. If the allegations against the FBI are true, its investigators attempted to suppress justice in an innocent woman's perjury trial to protect the Lockerbie investigation. As elements of the McKie case kept falling apart, and in an increasingly public manner, the previously sterling reputation of fingerprint analysis rightly underwent a correction.

If the world's most reputable crime labs can make such high-profile mistakes, it's a safe bet that just about any other police department could, too.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

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  1. possibly implicating in a cover-up FBI and Scottish investigators who feared the case may undermine the prosecution of the chief suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

    Why do I not find this in any way incredible?

  2. For some reason, it seems less depressing when it happens to foreign people.

  3. Is there any legal reason we can’t try al-Megrahi in the US?

  4. Why does Scotland hate America?

    Somebody had to say it.

  5. Wow, two Balko articles in one day that don’t completely make me want to swallow Drano?

  6. SCRO made a presentation of the McKie evidence to a group including Arie Zeelenberg, the head of the National Fingerprint Service of the Netherlands, and Torger Rudrud, the assistant chief of police in Norway. The presentation claimed 45 points of similarity between the latent and known prints. In a report on this presentation and evidence, Rudrud and Zeelenberg “criticise the SCRO experts’ quality of analysis and accuse them of ‘ignoring’ points which show the prints could not have been made by the same person, and wrongly ‘promoting’ points to make it appear that they matched.” They say, “Without valid reason in this presentation we see that ‘noise’ is upgraded to similarities if convenient.” They were fitting the noise. “Point seven and point eight are marked by SCRO as similar characteristics. It is clear at first sight that they are located outside the contour of the latent and beyond the outskirts of it … it is most likely the pattern of the wood we are looking at. In fact, the same applies to point 11” (McDougall 2006).

    McDougall, L., 2006. Shirley McKie: Was it Really an Honest Mistake? Sunday Herald, 12 February 2006.

  7. “Wow, two Balko articles in one day that don’t completely make me want to swallow Drano?”

    X, remember what Lt. Frank Drebin said, “Sure you can drink some Drano; it’ll clean you out but it’ll leave you empty inside.”

    That was when Priscilla Presley was hot and not Botoxed to the Pelosi’th degree.

    1. Not botox. She stupidly allowed someone she thought was a doctor inject her with collagen and it was some fake collagen compound that was not approved and caused an immune reaction. This is from memory. Just google it.

  8. As a Scot I can point to some minor errors here – Stratchglyde is the region not the town where it happened, McKie’s alleged fingerprint wasn’t in blood but just in fingerprint & the biscuit tin was in Asbury’s home but allegedly had the victim’s fingerprint on it. Beyond that I don’t know enough to venture who did what.

    On the bombing, however, I am fairly sure Megrahi is innocent. The investigation of this was entirely fixed on Syrian employed Palestinians right up to the moment Syria joined us in the Kuwait war, at which point, with no new evidence, it shifted to Libya. The evidence against Megrahi personally is pretty close to non-existent but somebody had to be arrested if Libya was to be nailed.

    Releasing him now is not justice but it is as close as we can now manage.

  9. Neil, If the article is otherwise accurate, then it is clear that McKie’s finger print (in blood or otherwise) was not on the door frame. So, it appears that she did not do anything wrong. Asbury was released, so he apparently was exonerated.

    I know nothing of Megrahi, so I will take your word on his count.

  10. I vaguely remember a circuit board at issue too. The prosecution was claiming it was a printed circuit board that the Libyians bought from a european maker, Swiss maybe. But they showed a picture of that circuit board and it was clearly hand made. Big ole beads were connecting the components. It wasn’t a printed circuit board as they claimed.

  11. If Megrahi was imprisoned based on false evidence, then he needs a re-trial – not released on grounds of compassion.

    And I suspect a lot of Scots hate the US because, like many around the world, they have been propagandized by fanatical leftist professors who have a near totalitarian monopoly of 95% of Humanities Departments in universities here and abroad.

    So instruction is all about race, class, and gender warfare, and colonialism and the evils of the corporate controlled world (blah, blah, blah).

    Never mind that the West hosts the most accepting and tolerant people in the world, and is a giant cultural melting pot – regardless of leftists trying to keep the hate and divisions alive for political expediency.

    And never mind that free-market capitalism (and ONLY free-market capitalism) has provided the wealth and abundant free time and technology for angry leftists to use in their endless game of promoting ignorance and discontent.

  12. Even now, when it is obvious that Libya had nothing to do with PanAm 103, the media is a afraid to even mention that Iran did. Here are two links which explains the truth.

  13. “””If Megrahi was imprisoned based on false evidence, then he needs a re-trial – not released on grounds of compassion.”””

    But prosecutors often won’t refile charges if the evidence that secured the conviction becomes unworthy. In this case, the fingerprint evidence that helped secure the convicion is in jepordy due to shotty work by the SCRO. For some, it’s easier to let him walk than face a retrial that 1.exposes a faulty crime lab and 2.risks showing you jailed an probably innocent man.

  14. In this case, the fingerprint evidence that helped secure the convicion is in jepordy due to shotty work by the SCRO.

    That, my friends, is an RC’z Law that deserves to be a neologism. I am totally using it. Thanks, Tricky.

  15. Scottish town of Strathclyde


    You beat me to it, though actually having to work and not screw off on the internet all day is my excuse.

    Just a minor disagreement with you, but a major one with Balko.

    As a [Yank] I can point to [a major] error here – Strathclyde is the region not the town where it happened,…

    If the author of a news article or opinion piece cannot get such a simply verifiable fact correct or knows so little about a country to confuse a town with a major political division, why should anyone believe that any of the other “facts” in the article are correct?

  16. “If Megrahi was imprisoned based on false evidence, then he needs a re-trial – not released on grounds of compassion.”

    The Scots judicial system had already determined that Megrahi had grounds for an appeal, but those things take time. Doctors gave him only three months to live, he would be dead long before any sort of appeal had an outcome.

    I think the murder took place in Kilmarnock, which technically is Ayrshire not Strathclyde. However, Strathclyde Police are responsible for the entire area. It’s an easy mistake to make for a non-native to make.

  17. I think the murder took place in Kilmarnock, which technically is Ayrshire not Strathclyde.

    I believe that most, if not all, of the area that used to be within the county of Ayrshire now falls under the Strathclyde Regional banner. However, they have dicked around with the boundaries of the different regions and districts enough that one might have to know the exact date to know what bit of land was in what region. Mind you, some of the dicking around of the boundaries was a good thing. Removing Helensburgh from the urban loonies of Dumbarton District Council and putting it under Argyll & Bute was a good thing.

    As an aside, I could not help but chuckle every time I used to see the Strathclyde Regional Council sign with the statement “nuclear free zone.” What a hoot! Until 1992 Strathclyde probably had the largest concentration of nuclear weapons outside of the US and USSR and that is not to mention that nuke power plant that is over on the Ayrshire coast at Hunterston.

  18. That trial seems to have had quite a few things wrong with it. A couple of years ago one of the key witnesses admitted he had lied (not sure if this is the best source, but one I found quickly):

  19. Jesus Christ. If Marion Ross was murdered, there could only be one suspect: the actor who played the oldest Cunningham kid who was written out of Happy Days in season 2.

  20. BoscoH

    I don’t understand this comment, is it a joke?

    The person convicted of the murder was in the victims house on the Saturday, his prints were found on other items in the house, his car was seen outside, he had no valid reason to be there.

    Her body was found on the monday.

    When interviewed he decided not to tell the police about this until he had no option.
    When asked straight if he killed Marion Ross it took him 40 seconds to reply ‘no’.

    Almost immediately after the murder occurred, the person eventually convicted ran away from home, leaving a suicide note.

    The Mackay report notes that blood found on his watch matched the blood group of the victim, a lot of circumstances here, no?

    Obviously the appeal court heard some pretty compelling evidence to free him? No actually, his appeal went uncontested.

    Something very murky is going on with this case, just not what the author of the article thinks.

    For context here is how Pat Werthiem recently described the alleged incident:

    “A person in authority at the FBI asked me to drop the Shirley McKie campaign in August, 1999. I have never disclosed his name, nor do I intend to do so now. He is a personal friend who asked me, in private, to discontinue my public discussions of the McKie case. At the time, I believed it to be unofficial, but I no longer believe that to be the case.”

  21. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets

  22. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets

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