T H E
T A I L
Monday, December 3, 2001
Good morning via the "Detail," a weekly e-mail newsletter that greets latent print examiners around the globe 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.
Last week we looked briefly at how Daubert has changed the face of latent print examiner training. This week, we are looking at an issue that we all know and acknowledge; that is fundamental to understand and describe; that is the backbone of what we do. This week, we are going to look specifically at the importance of biological uniqueness.
I say we all know and acknowledge biological uniqueness because, as latent print examiners, biological uniqueness provides us with one of the foundational principles of our science; individuality. If friction ridge skin was not unique, we would be working in another field right now. The fact is, biological uniqueness allows us the liberty to identify persons through the comparisons we conduct. Of course, the other fundamental principle, permanence, also allows for identification, because if the detail examined in an comparison changed significantly, it wouldn't be much good for identification purposes!
Next, I mention that it is necessary to understand and describe biological uniqueness. As we have explored in past Details, this is especially true since Daubert re-defined what trial judges are to consider when deciding to allow testimony regarding a particular technique. Because of Daubert, examiners suddenly find it necessary to be prepared, on the stand, to explain why friction ridge skin is unique. In the future, this will probably become a part of direct testimony, if it is not already. It may not be sufficient to simply recite the principles of permanence and uniqueness.
For the field of latent print identification to continue to grow in a forward direction, we need to continue to think and act in accordance with the principles of science. One area that growth is directed toward is the area of non-friction skin print identifications. Just last year, an elbow print identification was presented in the Journal of Forensic Identification. I believe any qualified latent print examiner examining the known and unknown prints in that issue would conclude those two prints HAD to have been made by the same area of skin. The question is, what allowed that identification to occur? We KNOW it was a match; how was that established? The answer, at least in part, is biological uniqueness.
From childhood we have been ingrained with the concept that everything is different. Every person, every snow flake, in fact EVERYTHING in nature is unique. Every portion of friction skin is unique, and every portion of non-friction ridge skin is unique. From lips to elbows; from forearms to foreheads. All skin is unique. From ears to noses; from knuckles to knees, all skin is unique. The processes of fetal formation dictate that detail within the patterns present on all human skin are formed under random and chaotic forces, and are therefore individual. How we apply that individuality is the reason I say the answer IN PART is biological uniqueness. There is more to identification than just uniqueness; there is also the philosophy and the methodology of the identification process, both of which must be tested and validated before the technique meets the legal scientific standard. The question becomes IS the philosophy and methodology in place for non-friction ridge skin comparisons and identifications. We will address a portion of this issue next week, as Andre Moenssens brings us his thoughts on the status of lip print identifications, and in doing so addresses concerns regarding non-friction ridge skin identification in general.
But we are still faced with describing the individuality of friction ridge skin; so how do we begin to describe such a complex and technical concept so the average juror (1) believes we know what we are talking about, (2) will actually understand what we are talking about, and (3) won't fall asleep? Obviously, we must have the knowledge to begin with, so study Ridgeology, and look for similar studies that address the fetal formation and structure of skin. I heard somewhere that the January issue of the JFI might contain such information. :) Then we must establish that this individuality, through a reliable process, can permit an examiner to determine that two impressions originated from a common source. This is a very complex issue, one that goes beyond just "knowing" that two impressions match. As we see in the scientific literature, the identification methodology must be sound in order for the entire process to be considered a scientific one. This is the main reason that the science of fingerprints has drawn scrutiny, as we discussed in Details 10 and 11, from those who think the methodology falls short. That scrutiny re-emphasizes the necessity of being able to articulate the ACE-V methodology and exactly how and why ACE-V is important to what we do.
Once we have the knowledge (the structure and formation of skin) and can relate that knowledge to the identification process (through the identification philosophy and ACE-V methodology), we must be in a position to make that knowledge available to the jury in such a way that is (1) believable, (2) understandable, and (3) enjoyable! (Ron Smith taught me that. :) If we fall short in one of these categories, we lose the jury. If our testimony is not believable, our credibility is lost. If not understandable, it looses meaning. And it would sure help if your explanation is enjoyable, because the JUROR is the only person in the courtroom with a vote. (Another Ron Smith tidbit) Because of the importance of testimony in what we do, look for a series of details later in December, addressing specific elements on courtroom testimony for the latent print examiner. Mr. Smith has graciously agreed to provide that information.
Next week we will look at non-friction skin identification, possibly follow it up with a Detail on the identification process, and then we will get into courtroom testimony.
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Until next Monday morning, don't work too hard or too little.