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Monday, September 10, 2001

Welcome to the sixth "Detail," a weekly e-mail newsletter that greets you every Monday morning. The purpose of the Detail is to help keep you informed of the current state of affairs in the latent print community, to provide an avenue to circulate original fingerprint-related articles, and to announce important events as they happen in our field.

Congratulations "gdurgin" for the winning last week's BidNow item: Galton's "Finger Prints." The auction ended last night after meeting the reserve of $399.99. What a steal! The second copy of Finger Prints has arrived, and is currently for sale at the CLPEX.com bookstore. It was from a private collection, and is in very good condition: http://www.clpex.com/bookstore.htm. Thanks for those who participated in this week's CLPEX BidNow auction... and I look forward to offering next month's unique BidNow item. I will announce what the item is in the first Detail of the month.

Last week we doubled our distribution!... There are now well over 200 of you receiving The Weekly Detail!!  Thanks for your positive feedback and encouragement... I hope to continue to provide a valuable service to a great group of people.

BREAKING NEWz you can UzE...

We have addressed the current round of attacks on the science of fingerprints in recent Details... Well, here is another one that, as far as I can tell, was published to the "Why Files" on the internet just last week.  It also appears to be a public relations article for Simon Cole's new book.   Read the Article HERE.  One of the pages in this article deals with our subject today; Objectivity.  However, the rest of the content is mostly based on several arguments which seem to do nothing but confuse the public as to the reality of our science.  I  plan on sending an e-mail from their feedback page at some point this week and expressing my opinions about the content of their article.  

Here is another article that appears to be a David Stoney special.  This article goes a slightly different direction, but there are only a few basic, fundamental attacks that are being used against fingerprints.  This article concentrates on the DNA comparison.  The previous article addresses, among other concepts, individualization using statistics (which would involve probabilities), "proving" biological uniqueness, identification from partial, smudged prints, practitioner error, and standards to prevent error. 

I plan on devoting an upcoming Detail, maybe next week or the week after,  to the discussion of the major concepts we see being used against the science of fingerprints, and expanding on each one.  If you would like for YOUR thoughts on one of these concepts to be included in the Detail, just shoot me an e-mail.  I'm easy to find!  :)  Of course, you can always log on to the discussion forum afterwards, and give your thoughts.

IAI "Call for Papers"  Curt Shane, Program Coordinator for the IAI, asked me to issue a Call for Papers so we have a great program for latent print examiners at the upcoming IAI conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.  If you would like more information about presenting a paper or conducting a workshop, please contact Curt Shane at edplanner@theiai.org

Our feature in this week's Detail is part two of the first original article on CLPEX.com.  Last week we looked at part one of "The Team?"  Wes Sossomon expands further on the concept of objectivity in this week's Detail:

The Team? Part II

The obligation to conduct objective evidentiary examinations and provide unbiased testimony ultimately, first and last, rests with the individual examiner. Latent print examiners have the duty to conduct examinations according to well-established scientific protocol, apply experience and competent training to such examinations, and present testimony regarding any conclusions subsequent thereto within the limits of the science. While all of us are interested in seeing justice done, a conviction for the sake of a conviction and the "solving" of a case, does not amount to justice unless it is based upon the truth. Therefore, the only personal interest an examiner should have in any particular case is to establish the truth. Now, the truth seems to be a reasonably simple concept; yet we have all seen examples in which the truth was the least important. Rather, the focus was upon whichever side could spin the facts and evidence in favor of their position. Latent print examiners, above all others, should remain above such practices and dedicate themselves to do what is expected. That is, to identify friction ridge skin prints with the sole purpose of establishing the truth.

Despite the contrary opinions of some who are not latent print examiners, friction ridge skin examinations are absolute and these findings are the only ones possible: The questioned and known prints were made by the same source; The questioned and known prints were not made by the same source; and, The questioned and/or known prints lack sufficient detail to allow a conclusion to be made. When conducting an examination the examiner should never lose sight of the fact that lives are, in most instances, literally at stake. Friction ridge skin evidence is so compelling that it has the potential to be the sole factor in deciding whether or not a person accused of a crime is ultimately deprived of his or her liberty. When we stop and think about it, this is an awesome, awesome burden and we have to approach our work with it foremost in mind.

All of us have experienced the exhilaration of identifying a latent print from a scene of crime as having been made by a suspect. And, of course, we give such an identification the weight that it deserves. However, we sometimes tend to be disappointed when we eliminate a suspect as being the donor of a crime scene print, but it should be remembered that this finding is just as significant as an identification. It is within our province to not only determine whether or not a particular print was made by a particular person, but also to insure that such evidence is not misrepresented as being something other than what it actually is.

The perception that government employed latent print examiners are incapable of presenting unbiased testimony regarding latent print examinations has gained prominence due to a small number of well-publicized cases in which misconduct has been substantiated. Practitioner error or outright fabrication of evidence are included among some of the more common attacks on latent print examiner testimony. However, the defense is not the only side capable of stretching the truth. Take the following dialogue as an example:

DIRECT EXAMINATION

 

Q.  Now you have testified, sir, that you identified a latent fingerprint recovered from this glass jar that has been identified by a crime lab chemist as containing methamphetamine, is that right?

A.  Yes.

Q.  And you have testified that this latent fingerprint was made by the defendant?

A.  Yes.

Q.  So, in other words, the defendant was at some point in possession of the methamphetamine?

How would you answer this last question? The implication is obvious, but can the examiner accurately conclude one way or the other if the defendant was at some point in possession of the drugs? How about this answer:

A.  At some point the defendant touched the glass jar and left the latent print.

How about this answer:

A. Oh, yes. Definitely.

Hopefully, a semi-competent defense attorney would object to high-heaven about the last question, but this scenario or a similar one could very easily happen in any courtroom in the world. The point here is that it is the examiner’s duty to testify within the scope and limitations of the discipline and the facts of the examination. He or she should not fall victim to the subtle and sometimes not so subtle questions by the prosecution who is attempting to glean more from the evidence that what actually exists.

A recently published example involves the case of Alan McNamara who was imprisoned upon his conviction for allegedly having committed burglary. According to the published article, the primary evidence sustaining the conviction was a single fingerprint that authorities stated was recovered from a specific item at the scene of the crime. Upon examination of the print and evaluation of it in consideration of the attendant circumstances of its recovery, a latent print examiner with 25 years of experience in the police force concluded that the evidence print could not have been recovered from such item as stated. In his own words, according to a recent news article on the case, this officer commented "I was not allowed to take the stand for the defence when I was in the force, and the only way I could give evidence was to leave." Given the implication that the print evidence in this case was, at best misrepresented and, at worst, a purposeful fabrication, as concluded by this examiner, why was he not required to simply present evidence; notwithstanding for whom?

Having pointed out that this type of prosecution tactic does occur, it would be wholly unfair to not also point out that this is not necessarily the rule. In general, attorney’s are very highly competitive personalities. They abhor "losing" and devote their entire selves to "winning." This perceived competition thrives in an adversarial system. The latent print examiner must not be lured into this competitive arena. He or she must be above it and, from the very beginning, be dedicated to the exhibition of professional, ethical conduct that puts others on notice that the only interest is establishing the truth as determined by a forensic examination and that what is true is true, regardless of any attempts by anyone else to distort it.

For the most part those prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges who exhibit professionalism and are bound by the canon of ethics, recognize those forensic examiners who are bound only to their duty and remain above the "win or lose" mentality. Experience has shown that these are the examiners who are most sought out so that either side may gain knowledge of the truth about an examination of evidence. The truth sometimes is a bitter pill to swallow. If it can be established it usually falls in favor of one side over the other. But, that is not the primal concern of the examiner. It is only the examiner’s interest to determine it. Arguments as to which side it best benefits fall within the purview of the attorneys.

In conclusion, latent print examiners are members of a team. Not the prosecution team nor the defense team, but rather the team of professionals who’s sole interest is in conducting evidentiary examinations in an honest, straight-forward fashion according to scientific protocol. This does not mean that there is any "secret society" which members must protect the sanctity of at all costs. It means adhering to the strict moral and ethical requirements of the field in which we practice, and occasionally it may mean identifying and expelling those who do not meet these high standards of conduct.

 

There is a place on the discussion board for comments regarding OBJECTIVITY and latent print examiners.  Please feel free to comment on this week's Detail.

UPDATES ON THE SITE THIS WEEK:
Added a few more books to the Bookstore.
Updated the Training schedule.
Added an Article: The Team, by Wes Sossomon

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Until next Monday morning, don't work too hard or too little.
Have a GREAT week!

 

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