A fingerprint specialist who twice failed to match a palm print from the Kingsmills massacre getaway minibus told an inquest that he had “no answer” for his error.
Ten Protestants were shot by the IRA at Kingsmills in south Armagh as they drove home from work in a minibus in 1976.
A legacy inquest into the atrocity opened in Belfast in May 2016 but was adjourned shortly afterwards when a PSNI fingerprint expert, prompted by media coverage, checked a palm print taken from the getaway vehicle in 1976 and unexpectedly matched it with suspect ‘S54’.
Pressed by angry families as to why it had taken 40 years to match the palm print to a suspect, the PSNI said that S54’s print was only provided to police in Northern Ireland by the Garda in late 2010.
Senior officers said two opportunities were then missed to make a match, one in 2010 and the other in 2014.
The inquest was adjourned in June when shocked relatives heard Jeffrey Logan, head of the PSNI Fingerprint Bureau, revealed that a live audit of the Historical Enquiry Team’s (HET) fingerprint officer’s work was under way and had found further issues of concern.
A dip sample of 10% of his work found errors in 12 out of 70 cases, Mr Logan said today. The fingerprint officer who carried out the searches, Dennis Thompson, also took the stand as the last scheduled week of hearings began.
Sean Doran QC for the coroner walked Mr Thompson through computer records of the database searches he carried out against the palm print in 2010 and 2014.
However Mr Thompson, who joined the RUC in 1970 and moved to its Fingerprint Bureau in 1976, was unable to give any explanation as to why he would have failed to match the print to S54.
He assured Mr Doran that he would have manually compared the print from the minibus with that of suspect S54.
Mr Thompson failed to make the matches while working as the sole fingerprint specialist with the HET from 2006 to 2014. “There is nobody more disappointed than me,” he said.
In some cases marks can be missed and you could go back and say “that is why that was missed”, but he had thought through the case and was unable to come up with an explanation.
“I am disappointed that I missed it in 2010,” he said. “It meant I had wasted all my time with all the other suspects, which was also disappointing.”
He added: “I have thought about it since Jeffrey [Logan] rang me to say that I had missed it and I have no answer to it.”
Mr Logan suggested that possible reasons for the mistake could be human error, that Mr Thompson worked alone and that he was not part of a quality assurance system operating in the PSNI. Police have yet to probe why the errors were made, he confirmed.
Although suspect S54 was arrested, the Public Prosecution Service dropped the case in February as it could not tie the getaway vehicle on which the palm print was found to the scene of the massacre.