By Jasmin McDermott
Police Oracle (UK)
Date – 5th July 2013
Forensic Science Service (FSS) staff involved in a crime scene exhibit mix up that resulted in a man being wrongfully convicted of possessing a live round will have to answer for their actions following claims they were aware the exhibit was a dummy.
Officers from Merseyside Police carried out a search of Thomas Smart’s property in Liverpool in January 2008 and discovered what appeared to be a live round. He was arrested on suspicion of illegally possessing ammunition.
Mr Smart told officers that he bought the round as an ornament and assumed it was not live. However, forensic scientist Philip Rydeard, employed by the FSS, said in a report that it was a bulleted cartridge.
Mr Smart was charged and pleaded guilty. He was given a four-month suspended sentenced and ordered to do 180 hours of unpaid work.
However, following an internal review a a year later in January 2009, staff discovered that there had been a mix up and that the exhibit numbers had been altered.
They apologised for the “quality failure” and admitted that there was the potential for a miscarriage of justice. But they denied that they owed any duty of care and said that Mr Rydeard was immune from any civil proceedings.
A judge ruled in 2012 that the FSS was protected by witness immunity and that the organisation owed no duty of care to Mr Smart. They dismissed his claims of negligence and breach of the Human Rights Act 1998.
However, Mr Smart appealed the decision and additionally lodged a claim of deceit – that forensic staff, including Mr Rydeard, knowingly altered exhibit records to falsely represent that it was the seized dummy bullet.
Lord Justice Moses sitting in the Court of Appeal ordered a full hearing into the case. He said: “Witnesses, if called by the FSS, will have to explain and justify the handling of the exhibits in this case.
“They cannot be protected from being questioned or from accounting for their actions.”
He added: “It must be recognised that, as a result of interference with the exhibit number, the real bullet was falsely attributed to Mr Smart.
“The effect of interference with exhibit numbers, whether it was designed originally to conceal confusion or ‘mix up’ or not, was the same as planting the real bullet in Mr Smart’s premises.
“It is alarming that the course of justice appears to have been perverted by the alteration of exhibit numbers and the failure to disclose that that had occurred or any reason why it occurred.”