Expert's 'unique earprint' evidence overturned as courts clear man of murder

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The Independent Online

A man who spent seven years in prison after being convicted on the evidence of an earprint he was alleged to have left at the scene of a murder was cleared by the courts yesterday.

Mark Dallagher, 31, a former small-time burglar, was jailed for life in 1998. A jury found him guilty of smothering Dorothy Wood, 94, at her home in Huddersfield in 1996. Police arrested him soon after the attack and he served two years on remand. He had allegedly left a unique earprint as he listened at a window before breaking into the property.

But in 2002 the Court of Appeal found his conviction was unsafe because reliability of earprint evidence had not been properly tested at his original trial at Leeds Crown Court. The judges immediately ordered a second trial.

But yesterday the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case after the emergence of new evidence, including DNA, that showed the earprint could not belong to Mr Dallagher.

Yesterday Mr Justice Mitchell, sitting at the Old Bailey, formally found Mr Dallagher not guilty. He told Mr Dallagher, who has been on bail since last summer: "I hope you continue to live peacefully in Essex." Mr Dallagher replied: "Thank you."

Mr Dallagher is understood to be considering seeking compensation from the Home Office for what his lawyers have called a miscarriage of justice. His counsel, James Sturman QC, said: "This is another example of the dangers of police following science too closely."

Mr Dallagher had always protested his innocence. "He would wish to say that the killing of Dorothy Wood was a wicked crime but it had nothing to do with him," Mr Sturman said.

In Mr Dallagher's original trial the prosecution had called on expert evidence from Cornelis van der Lugt that an earprint found at the crime scene was Mr Dallagher's. The defence did not call an expert to challenge the allegation.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the police decided a completely new investigation should be launched after the retrial was ordered, said the judge.

He told Mr Dallagher: "This most unfortunate saga comes at long last to an end. The prosecution have given reasons for discontinuing and inevitably the defence have replied, to some extent criticising the prosecution."

The judge said that the "scrutiny and examination" of earprints was in its "infancy" when the case was brought against Mr Dallagher. But he said that, through no fault of the prosecution, no defence expert was called to rebut this.

West Yorkshire Police and the CPS said that the Court of Appeal had "made no criticism of the way in which the Crown had presented its case at the first trial".