The field of firearms and ballistics is traditionally perceived as a man’s world. However, if there’s anyone to shake things up, it’s our in-house firearms expert Ann Kiernan. Ann joined the company as a Senior Firearms Scientist in September 2021, and with over twenty years’ experience in the field, she is a highly-skilled firearms and toolmarks expert.
Reflecting upon years of experience as an expert witness, Ann recalls the first time she dismantled a gun, and reflects on some challenging jobs in Afghanistan and Iraq.
When did you decide that you wanted a career in firearms?
“I joined Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI) in 2001 after I finished my masters in forensics. The job opportunities in Ireland were very limited.
“You have to be a member of the Garda Síochána (the police) to work within the technical bureau. So I ended up working in a research and development (R&D) company first. I was actually working three jobs at the time, and I decided to stick with the R&D veterinary pharmaceutical company for just over a year – but then I realised it just wasn’t for me. I wanted something more hands on.
“I applied for a job at FSNI and got a position within the evidence recovery unit. I was working in that section for nearly two and half years, and the opportunity then arose for someone in firearms. I transferred across to firearms, not knowing if it was for me or not… bearing in mind that I’m from the south of Ireland and this was up in the north, which was technically a ‘no go’ area because of the troubles.
“My father wasn’t happy that I was going to work in the north, but he let it go. I came home one Friday evening, went into the gun cabinet and started dismantling a shotgun. Of course, my dad said “seriously?!”. It took me around a month to actually get the shotgun back together again, but I thought ‘this is cool and I want to do this’.
“And that was that, I started my career in firearms! In just over eighteen months I was headhunted to go across to the mainland UK, and I decided to go just for a year… which turned into eleven and a half years overseas, and despite being back on my home turf now, twenty years later I’m still UK-employed.
“I absolutely love it [firearms]. It’s so different, it’s hands-on. It’s different now in that I don’t get first dibs at the pie because I’m mostly doing review work, but I’m grateful for the experiences that I’ve had. I joined Forensic Alliance, formerly LGC, which is where I worked with Angela Gallop. I have great admiration for her work and her cold case reviews.”
What have been the most challenging parts of being a firearms scientist?
“The toughest parts were when I was in the midst of the Military cases, back in 2007-9, when we were the first port of call for the military deaths.
“There were days when we’d go down to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford and assist with three or four post-mortems per day. It was quite intense, but I’d never have gained the experience that I have today if it wasn’t for the intensity of those years.
“I was very lucky and fortunate to have such good mentors throughout my career, from Chet Park (RIP) to Ed Wallace. These two individuals rubber stamped my love for firearms. They mentored me, brought me on, taught me my boundaries and limitations… I’ll never forget those lessons.”
How has forensic science changed throughout your career?
“When I joined Forensic Alliance, the private industry was just developing. Forensic Alliance was the first private entity outside of the Forensic Science Service (FSS) in the UK, and then you had other companies popping up which resulted in the closure of the FSS.
“The whole structure of firearms investigations and forensics has changed dramatically. Since the closure of the Home Office’s FSS laboratories, there’s been a huge loss of expertise in the forensic fields because few people have the relevant experience to fill the positions.
“It’s primarily because there is so much emphasis on turnaround times and quantity rather than the science itself. There’s not enough resources there to keep the training/mentoring (junior staff) to a high level, which is an issue across the forensic market.”
What does a normal day look like for you?
“Primarily I review cases now. They’re cases that have already been investigated by the prosecution, so it’s a solicitor or an advocate that contacts me because they have a client charged with XYZ – it could be a simple charge of possession of a firearm without any licence, or it could be something more serious like an attempted/fatal murder. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will have received all the prosecution papers and the case is probably going to court next week, prompting the defence to think ‘we need to review this and we need to get an answer.’
“They will ask me to review what the prosecution has done. It can be a paper review, where I get all the documents required as part of a case and review a scientific report. By doing that I usually obtain a copy of the scientist’s original examination notes and photographs, and essentially provide an opinion on whether I agree or disagree with their conclusions.
“In most cases, with regards to classification, I often agree, however there are areas where an item is wrongly classified. The firearms legislation in the UK is a complicated if you do not understand the different aspects of firearms, and the topic of debate is usually where the item falls within this and if it falls foul of it. The legislation changes constantly, so it’s important to keep up-to-date with the changes so that correct advice can be given to the solicitors. Solicitors/Counsel want advice to argue mitigation, or interpretation of the legislation. This can lead to a lesser sentence or consideration of exceptional circumstances.
“The other aspect of my job which I love is cold case reviews. I’ve been working on quite a lot of coroners cases from the seventies, which is challenging in itself because the scientific records are severely lacking in detail in comparison to the ones we have today. There are new techniques and there’s also new recording processes. For example, the forensic casefile of a job that was done in the seventies might just contain a draft report - no exam notes, no pictures… and it makes you wonder how they reached the reported conclusions.
“It’s a lot of looking for a needle in a haystack, because a lot of coroners inquests, especially Northern Ireland ones, are historical inquiries where the families are looking for answers. With coroners inquests, you have normally three experts per field instructed, one for the coroner, one for family and another for the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Sometimes, the evidence initially reported upon is no longer available to examine, and the jobs entail reviewing witness statements, photographs, revisiting the scene (even though the incidence happened over 50 years ago- visiting the scene to appreciate the layout and topography is vital in understanding the sequence of events, and possible trajectories). In addition, cold case reviews assists with understanding what was initially reported, and possibly identify areas that may not have been considered the first time round.
“You then have different experts. For example, in firearms you could have three pathologists - all acting for different parties. In most cases, we all come to a joint statement of facts.”
What advice would you offer to someone who’s new to the field?
“Be willing to learn from experienced peers, willing to accept challenges and be active in doing your own stuff on the side. Keep your research journals read, push for your training and get as much experience as possible.”
“It’s also important to learn from your mistakes and stick to your limitations within your field of expertise.”
What is the most memorable case or scene that you’ve worked on?
“There are many. One of the main advantages of being a firearms expert is that sometimes you get called to attend to a scene, and as an individual, you are normally involved right until the very end. You get to learn all the different avenues the investigation is going in, and you present your evidence to assist the court in understanding the science of ballistics.
“All of the military cases I really enjoyed, because there was so much in them. I was working parallel with the pathologists.
“There are two particular cases that really stand out. I had a trip to Afghanistan and another one to Iraq. Both of those trips were milestones. I remember for the trip to Basra I had to sign a disclaimer that the company I was working for didn’t want me to go. Naturally this was understandable because of the risks. Ultimately company advised against it and didn’t want me to go – but of course I was going!
“I was out in Iraq for three days, and I remember getting in a Black Hawk and being fired upon. You could see the shots coming at the helicopter, and it was a case of get out of the helicopter and run for cover. It was such an adrenaline rush!”
Do you prefer the practical aspects of your job, such as dismantling guns, or the review side of things?
“I still do hands-on, but I don’t work on live scenes anymore. I do reconstruction. For example, some of those coroners cases will include revisiting a scene forty odd years later and trying to get the level of the land”.
“With cold cases you need to take into consideration what has changed, what hasn’t changed, the environment, and what could be done with the evidence now with new techniques available. Of course, the best part of my job historically was actually attending a live scene. This is because you get to appreciate what is happening, you get to record your response to the scene…ultimately if it’s not recorded then it can’t be relied upon – whether it’s twenty years down the line or a defence expert coming along and reviewing it more recently.
“I really miss that part of it. I still do hands-on dismantling of guns if I’m undertaking an examination, but it’s the live scenes and being in the midst of it that I enjoy.”
What skills does someone in your field need to have?
“You need to have the background knowledge both theoretically and practically. You learn more hands-on in firearms and from peers than you will ever from a book.
“As a firearms expert, I have very close peers around the world, so I usually attend an international conference on an annual basis. I also have individuals I can contact around the world if I need to run something by them.
“I think it’s important to have the aptitude to make those contacts and maintain those contacts, because it’s important always have someone to call upon to ask questions to. You must gain respect of those individuals to be included in their circle. It’s a very small world and my advice would be to get as much practical hands-on experience as you can, and then use that experience to develop contacts.”
How does Forensic Access compare to the other companies that you’ve worked for?
“Forensic Access seems to be a lot more personal which is good, I love that.
“I know many of the scientists at Forensic Access because I’ve worked with them in the past to some degree. So there are a lot of names that are familiar within the company, and I think the strong connection that Forensic Access has with the pathologists is incredibly beneficial.”
Are there many women in the field of firearms?
“Our presence is growing! When I started, there were two. Alice Waters had just started in the UK at the same time I started, and now she’s one of the head experts in the Metropolitan Police.
“It was very male oriented and dominated before that, but I think if you look at the US in comparison, there are now many more female experts compared to male experts. There are at least four female firearms experts in the Metropolitan Police, if not more, so it’s onwards and upwards!”
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