WHO killed Marion Ross? The 51-year-old spinster who was stabbed in the eyes and throat at her Kilmarnock home in 1997 was the first and most tragic victim of the Shirley McKie affair. As large sums of money are thrown around by ministers and law officers desperate to save their reputations, who has had time to think of her?

An apology would be nice.

The other prime victim is David Asbury, who was sentenced to life for Miss Ross's murder. He was eventually acquitted in 2002 after the unreliability of the fingerprint evidence at his trial was finally exposed by Shirley McKie, who had in turn been accused of perjury for denying that her own print was at the murder scene. An "honest mistake" according to the First Minister, Jack McConnell. Some honesty, and some mistake. Five years in jail for a crime he didn't commit? How do you put a price on that?

The Sun newspaper added a further twist by identifying the man police now believe may have been Miss Ross's real murderer - Patrick Docherty, a local criminal who is now in prison for suffocating another woman, Margaret Irvine, six miles away in Galston, Ayrshire, in 2003. You couldn't make it up.

Or perhaps you could. For what might Inspector Rebus have made of all this? Over a pint or 10 at the Oxford Bar, his mind would have turned to likely scenarios. How might this extraordinary sequence of events have started?

Perhaps the local police, convinced of Asbury's guilt, went looking for the evidence.

Finding an unknown fingerprint at the scene, they sought to identify it so as to eliminate its owner from the inquiry.

The Scottish Criminal Record Office checked local police officers who might have been there and found a similarity with that of Detective Shirley McKie.

Hey, get Shirley to agree that she had made an unauthorised visit to the scene, and bingo. Result!

But McKie wasn't having it. Difficult.

Woman in a man's job; had to fight to win professional recognition, and so on.

Even her dad, a former police superintendent didn't believe her at first. Admit it, he said, put it behind you. This made her even more determined.

And now, nine years later, here we are with the Lord Advocate, Colin Boyd, in parliament mumbling through his apologia, head down, like a wee boy, ruling out a public inquiry because it would compromise the independence of the prosecution service and undermine confidence in the criminal justice system.

Well, if the justice system can't cope with the truth, it doesn't deserve any authority. And what confidence can people have in a system which effectively admits a miscarriage of justice but refuses to have it brought to public attention? If Boyd's Law is to stand, and actions of the police, the SCRO and the prosecution service must be immune to scrutiny, then most independent inquiries would be impossible. Forget the Guildford Four, the Birmingham bombers.

What we witnessed in the Scottish parliament last week was the last desperate attempt by politicians, hopelessly out of their depth, to bluff their way out of a legal mess they have failed to manage. Hoping that somehow this will all just go away. But the more they try to achieve "closure" the more they open the scandal up.

This is such an astonishing case, more bizarre and improbable than any work of detective fiction. And I confess it took me a long time to grasp what it tells us about our criminal justice system: that it would rather destroy innocent lives, and allow crimes to go unpunished, than face up to its own fallibility.

What we do know is this: Shirley McKie was falsely linked to a murder.

When the misidentification was exposed, an elaborate edifice was constructed in order to cover up criminal behaviour.

David Asbury was tried for murder on fingerprint evidence which was very probably known to be unreliable when he entered the dock.

Scottish law officers, through nine long years, used every trick in the legal book to prevent Shirley McKie establishing her innocence in court. And then, five minutes before her case was finally heard, the Scottish Executive bunged her pounds-750,000 (plus around a million in costs) in an attempt to buy her silence with public money.

The case for a full public inquiry is unanswerable. The public needs to know exactly what went on here. We need to know exactly how the "honest mistake" was made, when it was made, who knew about it and whether they knew when David Asbury was indicted. The Justice Minister, Cathy Jamieson, told parliament last week that "we all know what went wrong". We manifestly do not.

WE need to understand how the cover up was constructed and who authorised it. We need to hear from the officials in the fingerprinting service about how they came to make the mistake. Staff at the SCRO are anxious to put their side of the story.

Jack McConnell insists that there have been so many inquiries into the McKie case that another one would be a waste of time and money. But the most important of those reports, by James Mackay, of Tayside Police, was kept secret for six years. You can have all the internal inquiries you want, but if the results are kept confidential, they cannot command public confidence.

Who exactly saw the Mackay report in 2000? Ministers claim never to have seen it, but that simply beggars belief.

Civil servants from the justice department would have made it their duty to see it. Are we now to regard civil servants as accessories to the cover up identified by James Mackay?

These questions are not going to go away. As the Faculty of Advocates Criminal Bar Association, and senior figures such as Lord McClusky, the former Solicitor General, have said, an independent judicial inquiry is the only way that public anxieties about the justice system can be laid to rest. Look, if we can have an inquiry into the building of a parliament, then how can the Scottish Executive resist an inquiry into a miscarriage of justice that demolished the lives of innocent individuals and has cost a small fortune in tax-payers' money?

And if the police are now so sure about the identity of Marion Ross's true killer that they are prepared to tell The Sun, doesn't parliament and the public also have a right to know how and, more importantly, when they discovered him?

Until this is out in the open, the ghost of Marion Ross will continue to haunt the Scottish Executive and the Crown Office. And we will never know for sure who killed her.