Frank Skuse

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Frank Skuse (born ca. 1934)[1] is a British former forensic scientist for the North West Forensic Laboratories based in Chorley, Lancashire. His flawed conclusions, eventually discredited, contributed to the convictions of Judith Ward and the Birmingham Six.[2] Others who claimed they were wrongfully convicted on Skuse's evidence include Ann Gillespie, a native of Donegal, who served almost 10 years of a 15-year sentence for conspiracy and explosive charges after a bomb exploded in a home she and her sister were visiting in Manchester.[3]


As an employee of the Home Office North-West forensic science laboratory, Skuse helped investigate the Summerland Fire. He concluded that the fire had started in a plastic mini-golf hut.[4]

Judith Ward[edit]

Skuse used the Griess test in which the presence of NO2 (nitrite ions) is detected in a sample by formation of a red azo dye. He used the extraction solvent ether. He analysed samples from Ward using thin layer chromatography in addition to the Griess test.[5]

Birmingham Six[edit]

Skuse used the results of the Griess test to claim that Patrick Hill and William Power had handled explosives. Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry tests at a later date were negative for Power and contradicted the initial results for Hill.[5] Skuse's 99% certainty that Power and Hill had explosives traces on their hands was fundamentally opposed by defence expert Dr Hugh Kenneth Black FRIC (ex HM Chief Inspector of Explosives, Home Office). Skuse's evidence was clearly preferred by The Hon. Mr Justice Bridge, the trial judge.[6]

Questions of competence[edit]

In 1981 and 1982 line managers at Chorley forensic science laboratory referred to a deterioration in the performance of Skuse and in January 1983 he was removed from reporting cases to court.[7]

In October 1985 a World in Action documentary In The Interests of Justice concluded the real Birmingham pub bombers had gone free.[8] Days after the TV programme, the Home Office retired Skuse,[9] aged 51, from the Civil Service on the grounds of "limited effectiveness".[1]

Throughout the following year 350 of Skuse's cases, dating back to 1966, were re-examined by the Laboratory Director.[7] On 1 December 1986, another "World in Action" documentary: A Surprise Witness made public the doubts about Skuse's methods.[7][10] Skuse was subsequently portrayed by David Ryall in the 1990 docudrama Who Bombed Birmingham? [11]


Birmingham Six appeal[edit]

In 1991 The Court of Appeal stated that the Griess test should only be used as a gateway or preliminary test and that:

Dr Skuse's conclusion was wrong, and demonstrably wrong, judged even by the state of forensic science in 1974.[12]

Caustic soda is used to break down the molecule of nitroglycerine to produce nitrite ions. The concentration is crucial to the test. If Skuse had used a dilute solution as he claimed, the test would react positive only on hands dripping with nitroglycerine,[13] which was an absurdity.[14] A stronger solution would react positive to any number of chemicals. Contaminants suggested included laboratory detergents used to wash the test containers and some soaps, as well as the nitrocellulose polymer used on playing cards.[citation needed]

Judith Ward appeal[edit]

In 1993 The Court of Appeal stated:[15]

Scientific evidence showed that the samples taken by Skuse were 57 hours after the last bomb, and as such there could be no suggestion of explosives on Ward's hands.[5] Skuse relied on one TLC test spot which was not pink, causing the judges to question his handling of the Griess test as well.[citation needed]


The successful appeals ended sub judice issues. In March 1993, Skuse, wishing to prove he had not negligently misrepresented to the court, won an appeal allowing him to sue Granada TV for libel over the World in Action programmes. The action was partly funded by Sir James Goldsmith.[16][17] he sued [[Granadais defence was that it was possible for someone to be wrong without being negligent.[18]

The libel action was dropped in October 1994 following attempts by scientists on both sides to reproduce the tests Skuse carried out. No damages or costs were awarded. Ian McBride, producer of the 1985 programme, stated "We stand by our programme".[16] His total legal bill was estimated at £290,000[19] In May 1995 his solicitor, Peter Carter-Ruck, commenced proceedings for £130,000 in unpaid fees.[20]


  1. ^ a b HC Deb 12 June 1990 vol 174 cc261-70,, 12 June 1990.
  2. ^ The Birmingham Framework – Six Innocent Men Framed for the Birmingham Bombings by Fr. Denis Faul and Fr. Raymond Murray (1976).
  3. ^ "I don't want English pardon", The Sunday Times, 27 November 2005.
  4. ^ The Guardian, Clear advice on Oroglas from America, 21 November 1973.
  5. ^ a b c Beverley Schurr. "Expert Witnesses And The Duties Of Disclosure & Impartiality: The Lessons Of The IRA Cases In England" (PDF). Retrieved 5 August 2007. 
  6. ^ R v McIlkenney (1991) 93 Cr.App.R. 287.
  7. ^ a b c HC Deb 17 March 1988 vol 129 cc1209-10,; accessed 6 April 2017.
  8. ^ World in Action: In The Interests of Justice (1985),; accessed 6 April 2017.
  9. ^ New Scientist, 16 February 1991.
  10. ^ University of Hull Catalog] DMU/1 Birmingham Six Case Papers.
  11. ^ ITN Source Archived 9 January 2013 at WebCite
  12. ^ R v McIlkenney (1991) 93 Cr.App.R. 53-54.
  13. ^ R v McIlkenney (1991) 93 Cr.App.R. 297.
  14. ^ R v McIlkenney (1991) 93 Cr.App.R. 298.
  15. ^ R v Ward (1993) 96 Cr.App.R. 1.
  16. ^ a b "Pub blasts scientist drops libel action", The Independent; 18 October 1994.
  17. ^ "Skuse wins right to sue", The Times, 31 March 1993.
  18. ^ "Birmingham Six scientist says he has new evidence", The Times, 5 October 1994.
  19. ^ It could be you: a sure-fire way to lose a million, Times Higher Education, 24 March 2000.
  20. ^ "Scientist sued", The Independent, 27 May 1995.