conclusions of forensic examiners may or may not be right—depending on the case—but each wrongful conviction based on improperly interpreted evidence is serious, both for the innocent person and also for society, because of the threat that may be posed by a guilty person going free. Some non-DNA forensic tests do not meet the fundamental requirements of science, in terms of reproducibility, validity, and falsifiability (see Chapters 4 through 6).

Even fingerprint analysis has been called into question. For nearly a century, fingerprint examiners have been comparing partial latent fingerprints found at crime scenes to inked fingerprints taken directly from suspects. Fingerprint identifications have been viewed as exact means of associating a suspect with a crime scene print and rarely were questioned.17 Recently, however, the scientific foundation of the fingerprint field has been questioned, and the suggestion has been made that latent fingerprint identifications may not be as reliable as previously assumed.18 The question is less a matter of whether each person’s fingerprints are permanent and unique—uniqueness is commonly assumed—and more a matter of whether one can determine with adequate reliability that the finger that left an imperfect impression at a crime scene is the same finger that left an impression (with different imperfections) in a file of fingerprints. In October 2007, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Susan M. Souder refused to allow a fingerprint analyst to testify that a latent print was made by the defendant in a death penalty trial. In her ruling, Judge Souder found the traditional method of fingerprint analysis to be “a subjective, untested, unverifiable identification procedure that purports to be infallible.”19

Some forensic science methods have as their goal the “individualization” of specific types of evidence (typically shoe and tire impressions, dermal ridge prints, toolmarks and firearms, and handwriting). Analysts using such methods believe that unique markings are acquired by a source item in random fashion and that such uniqueness is faithfully transmitted from the source item to the evidence item being examined (or in the case of handwriting, that individuals acquire habits that result in unique handwriting). When the evidence and putative source items are compared, a conclusion of individualization implies that the evidence originated from that source,

17

R. Epstein. Fingerprints meet Daubert: The myth of fingerprint “science” is revealed. 75 Southern California Law Review 605 (2002).

18

S.A. Cole. 2002. Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification. Boston: Harvard University Press; Epstein, op. cit.

19

State of Maryland v. Bryan Rose. In the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. Case No. K06-545.



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement