Fingerprint Evidence Credibility in Court
Updated 15 September 2005
This is not news. The existence of practioner error is a reality of life whether you are talking about rocket scientists, mathematicians or news reporters. What appears newsworthy about fingerprints is, if examined closely, merely recycled challenges in the disguise of "only-now-possible" Daubert hearings. Legal checks and balances have existed for many decades to help insure proper evidence is presented in court by fingerprint experts. As with every profession, it will never be perfect... but inferences that the latent print examination discipline is bankrupt of professional standards and operates without scientifically sound fundamentals are ludicrous.
Several recent television/radio shows and news articles indicated that some persons interviewed were bashing forensic applications of fingerprint identification. Among those interviewed have been:
- An author (Simon Cole) who has written a book (at least partially based on lurking on the Internet and monitoring persons he believed to be fingerprint experts). In a special court hearing just about him, Simon Cole was offered the opportunity to carefully present information supporting his claimed knowledge and expertise about why fingerprint testimony is suspect. The judge ruled, ..."Even applying the Federal Court's Daubert Standard, what Dr. Cole has offered here is 'junk science"...
- A Law Professor (James Starrs) who is embarrassed because his wizard-like prediction of the utter collapse of fingerprints has not occurred. In 1996 Starrs foretold the utter collapse of fingerprints as scientific evidence:
"The word is out and it is enough to startle, perplex and lay fingerprint examiners low. The short of it is that fingerprint identifications are worse than on the ropes. They are down and verging on being counted out. This citadel of forensic science is not only fissure-ridden. It is veering towards collapse..." (by James Starrs, from the front page of his "Scientific Sleuthing Review," Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter 1996).To add insult to injury, in recent years James Starrs' personal appearances on the witness stand, displaying inimitable verbosity, have failed to convince any court that his reasoning about latent print examiner testimony is sound.
Like snowflakes, there exists a scientific foundation in the study of how fingerprints are formed and their uniqueness. However, unlike the limited studies involving scrutiny of many thousands of individual snowflakes, fingerprint observations and comparisons number in the billions and have been independently conducted by thousands of agencies worldwide on a daily basis for most of the past century. Friction ridge identification far outdistances ALL other forms of forensic identification (including DNA) insofar as sheer number of samples collected and comparisons against other samples.
Claims that until very recently, the science behind the methodology of fingerprint identification could not be challenged are unfounded. I am but one fingerprint expert, yet even I encountered an anti-scientific attack to fingerprint identification methodology in court nearly two decades before the recent Daubert era of fingerprint challenges:
In 1981 during a state court trial (not an admissibility hearing) in Kankakee, Illinois, Defense used some of the same arguments recently attempted... and with the same results. Defense's champion against me (and Illinois State Police fingerprint expert James Wentworth) was Professor James W. Osterburg from the University of Illinois. Like David Stoney (used by Defense 18 years later in US v. Mitchell), Osterburg was the author of articles on the calculation of fingerprint probabilities based on individual characteristics. Defense claimed that the expert opinion offered by Wentworth and myself could not be considered reliable because that opinion was not based on scientific methodology using statistical analysis. Additionally, Osterburg (who was never a fingerprint expert in any crime lab) presented testimony that he did not feel that his own scientific statistical calculations involving the incriminating fingerprint supported an identification.Although my earlier experience pales in comparison to the gigantic effort involved in the first (1999) fingerprint Daubert hearing, it is one of many examples of how Defense is repackaging old arguments for modern Daubert style challenges. Unlike 1981, the Internet and ease of merging electronic documents means that Defense can now multiply their challenges like rabbits. Fortunately, the same technology enables the Government to leverage efficient use of its exhaustive work defending fingerprints in US v. Mitchell and US v. Llera-Plaza.
As seen at http://onin.com/fp (click on Daubert), there have recently been numerous legal challenges to the reliability of fingerprint expertise... all unsuccessful. Despite inaccurate portrayal that fingerprint experts have enjoyed protection from attack on their expertise during the past 90 years, the checks and balances in the American justice system have always enabled challenges to individual expertise (i.e., personal training, experience and ability) and to the methodology (as mentioned in the 1981 case above).
Some readers may believe the sky is falling insofar as future use of fingerprints in court. The sky is not falling. The latent print examination community continues to prove the reliability of the science in spite of the existence of practitioner error. Math is not bad science despite practitioner error. Moreover, air travel should not be banned because of occasional crashes due to pilot error.
Viewers, listeners and readers might get the idea that no quality assurance exists in any manner. The recent shows and articles fail to mention that 100 percent of the fingerprint experts in 100 percent of the accredited laboratories in America are proficiency tested every year. For 24 years, a voluntary certification program has existed, and many laboratories require individual fingerprint expert certification for journeyman status. For 20 years, there has existed a laboratory accreditation program requiring annual proficiency testing of forensic scientists including fingerprint experts.
In a worst-case
involving a person wrongfully incriminated by fingerprint evidence,
Defense can easily
locate their own expert. And, for much less money than it costs to
to challenge fingerprint reliability in a Daubert hearing, an
identification can be independently reviewed by an expert with
credentials equal to the government's experts.
There have always been challenges to practitioners and expert reliability. The novelty now is to package challenges in the Daubert/Kumho format (in addition to conventional attacks). An example of the continued faith in forensic fingerprint applications was the October 2000 ruling for the Daubert hearing in U.S. v. Havvard. The court ruled that under Daubert criteria, "...latent print identification is the very archetype of reliable expert testimony..."
There will probably be some court, somewhere, which will have reservations about fingerprint identification. One day an expert and prosecutor will try to defend the science without doing their homework, and Defense will win a favorable ruling in that court. That has not yet happened because all challenges have been able to use the foundations laid during the US v. Mitchell and US v. Llera-Plaza Daubert hearings.
Some Latent Print Examiners are employed in laboratories or agencies choosing to ignore professional and national/international standards for expertise. As has always been the case, Defense is free to challenge the training, experience and ability of individual experts in court... free to point out that their agency does not participate in certification/accreditation, etc. With the click of a mouse button, Defense can find their own "certified" expert for an unbiased and independent review of an incriminating identification.
This message does
purport to represent the official position of the US Department of
Army, Army Criminal Investigation Command, Army Crime Lab, FBI,
Association for Identification or any other entity with which I am or
(this page has been updated multiple times since June 2001)