T H E
D E T A I L
Monday, September 16, 2002
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
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events as they happen in our field.
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This move will allow me to consider the possibility of html e-mail, import new
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without internet access or who just want to subscribe without the hassle).
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I have contacted possible hosts in California and Atlanta regarding the Adobe
PhotoShop - demonstrating uniqueness course we have all been waiting for.
Also, talks are being held with contacts in Florida. Courses are on the
horizon! For California, I am looking at Nov 29 - December 1. Yes,
that includes a Saturday and Sunday. I will hold the same course later for
those who must have week-day courses. As I said, a contact is
currently working on a host facility for these days, but if you have access to a
facility with 25 computers (university, grade-school) that would allow
law-enforcement to use the lab over the long weekend weekend, follow up with
FITS soon. (888-235-1230 or e-mail email@example.com) The date is
quickly approaching, and those of you from California and nearby need time to
plan accordingly. Others need time to confirm travel arrangements.
Let her know if you have have a facility you feel would work out, and in
exchange for hosting the course you get several free positions! (exact numbers
depend on the quality of doughnuts you provide :) ha ha.
Last week, we looked at the first of a three-part series of articles by Glenn Langenburg
entitled "Defending Against the Critic's
Curse." regarding Dr. Simon Cole. This week, we look at Professor
James Starrs. The entire
three-part article will end up being archived in the "Legal" section of the
"Articles" page of this site, as well as in the Archive section of the Weekly
Detail. If you normally print each Detail, you may wish to wait for the
entire article together, as it will be black text on a white background instead
of the white on black format of this page.
Defending Against the Critic's Curse
Chapter 2, Professor James Starrs
Glenn Langenburg, Latent Print Examiner, Minnesota Bureau
of Criminal Apprehension
Kasey Wertheim and a few others have asked if I would attempt to put into
writing some of the issues I discussed during my presentation at the ABFDE
(American Board of Forensic Document Examiners) entitled "Defense Against the
Dark Arts: Defending Against the Critic's Curse". I have agreed to do so and
will attempt to address the three most vocal critics: Dr. Simon Cole, Professor
James Starrs, and Dr. David Stoney. The purpose of these writings, as was the
purpose of the original presentation, was not an attack on these three
individuals, but rather an objective (as possible) examination of who these
individuals are, what are their major arguments and tactics, and then most
importantly how to defend against their attacks and where to obtain the
information to support your defense against their "curses". This is hardly all
encompassing, and any additional information that you can provide would be most
helpful. Any comments that you may have please email me at Glenn.Langenburg@state.mn.us.
Any anonymous comments that you wish to make, please send to Kasey and he will
forward them to me without any identifiers. Please be critical if you see an
The second of these writings is focused on Professor James Starrs. I have not
had the opportunity to see Prof. Starrs present-yet. I have copies of his
presentations, transcripts, and read many of his voluminous articles, reviews,
and text chapters. In fact my first introduction to Prof. Starrs was in my
undergraduate forensic science program at Michigan State University. Required
reading for the course was Saferstein's Forensic Science Handbooks (Vol. 1 and
2-there were only 2 volumes back then!). In the FSH Vol. 2, the first chapter is
written by Starrs and is titled: "Mountebanks among Forensic Scientists"(1). In
the chapter he described two types of shady forensic expert witnesses: the
academites and the careerists. The academites either outright lie or exaggerate
their education credentials. No one could claim that Starrs is an academite
mountebank. His education and pedigree are impressive to say the least. He is a
tremendously prolific writer, superb legal researcher and historian, and
possesses brilliant insight and ideas. But the second type of shady witness, the
careerist, is the "expert" that bolsters their stature as an expert witness with
a façade of lies or exaggeration regarding their qualifications. I would like to
return to this type of "expert" later.
There are several transcripts available for cases in which Starrs has testified
or attempted to testify. U.S. v. Byron Mitchell, Arizona v. Toribio Rodriguez,
and Pennsylvania v. Andrew Vikara III are related to fingerprints (2-4). U.S. v.
Corey Moore is a firearms/toolmark case involving the exclusion of bunter mark
evidence (the manufacturer's stamping impression made by a tool onto a
cartridge) (5). All of these cases have offered excellent insight into the type
of testimony Starrs provides and his knowledge, or lack thereof, regarding a
particular forensic discipline. I would recommend getting copies of these as
strong resources for defending against Starrs.
Professor Starrs has an impressive background. He first attended Niagara
University, NY (6). He very honorably postponed his studies to serve in the Army
during the Korean War and resumed his studies at St. John's University, NY to
receive a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in English and a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) (7).
Starrs then earned a Master of Laws (LL.M) from New York University, NY. He was
enrolled in, but did not complete, a PhD program at NYU as well (8).
He has taught law and forensic sciences at George Washington University, D.C.
for over 30 years, and was one of the co-founders of the Department of Forensic
Science (9). He has written several chapters in books, including "Scientific
Evidence in Civil and Criminal Cases" (10). Starrs is a distinguished fellow of
the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS) and sits on the editing board of
the Journal of Forensic Science (11). He has penned scores of articles and
reviews on a wide range of forensic topics and legal issues. He supervised the
investigations of several high profile cases, including the Sacco and Vanzetti
case and the identity authentication of the corpse of Jesse James (12). His
curriculum vita is over 20 pages long (13). As noted by one judge, "With a
pedigree like that [Starrs] is getting in the door-he may not get to testify in
the trial, but he's coming in for the [evidentiary] hearing" (italics added)
Professor Starrs tends to raise similar issues that Simon Cole raises ("falsifiability",
error rates and the proficiency testing exams, subjectivity of the
identification process, etc.). Rather than rehash these issues again, I will
examine three telling issues about Starrs' qualifications as an expert in
forensic science and fingerprint methodology.
1) Professor Starrs is a forensic scientist
2) Starrs possesses expert knowledge of various forensic sciences and
methodologies, including fingerprints
3) Misstatements, incorrect facts, and general ignorance of fingerprint science
These three issues are discussed below, accompanied by a possible defense.
III. ISSUE 1
Professor Starrs is a forensic scientist and possesses expert knowledge of
various forensic sciences and methodologies, including fingerprints
Before proceeding to testify as an expert witness, Starrs must qualify as an
expert witness. With his impressive credentials and long list of
accomplishments, he tends to be very convincing that he is an expert and a
This is simply not true and prosecutors have been very keen to address this
issue. Starrs is an instructor of forensic science and an author of forensic
science related writings. Teaching forensic science and law does not make him a
forensic scientist. Even initially when he and four others were founding the
Forensic Science program at GWU, Starrs was brought aboard to represent the law
school (15). Furthermore, as a distinguished member of AAFS and the JFS
editorial board, he represents the jurisprudence (legal issues) division (16).
Starrs completed a few undergraduate science courses approximately fifty years
ago (17). Other than that, he has no formal scientific training. He has never
worked in a forensic laboratory. He does not attend crime scenes (18). He has
not taken any formal instructional course in fingerprints (19). His background
is English and Law. No matter how he attempts to colorfully paint his
background, his understanding of forensic science is limited only to academic
understanding without the training, education, or experience to support his
claim. Starrs does not perform any scientific examinations, nor is he qualified
to. He has published no scientific, controlled research studies. He has
coordinated forensic investigations (Sacco and Vanzetti, e.g.) and forensic
exhumations (Jesse James, e.g.), but any scientific examinations in these cases
were performed by actual forensic scientists, who submitted their reports and
findings to Starrs for collation and integration into the legal and historical
research performed by Starrs (20, 21).
IV. ISSUE 2
Starrs possesses expert knowledge of various forensic sciences and
methodologies, including fingerprints
Starrs has written half a dozen articles regarding fingerprints (22). He has
researched and read many writings regarding fingerprint issues. He has worked
"in the trenches" and "shoulder to shoulder" with fingerprint experts and
gleaned a great deal about the methods examiners use (23). Therefore he is a
qualified expert in fingerprint "issues" and methodologies. (Note: he has made
the same arguments for his expertise of DNA and firearms/toolmarks examinations)
This is nonsense. In U.S. v. Corey Moore, the A.U.S.A.'s (Asst. U.S. Attorneys)
state it very well:
"If accepted, this claim to expertise based on Professor Starrs' association
with experts would mean that any intelligent lawyer who works "shoulder to
shoulder" with experts subsequently will be qualified to testify in their stead.
The absurdity of this proposition speaks for itself." (25)
No amount of book learning, writing, or instructing can replace actual
experience and understanding from actually practicing a method. He may
understand the general premises, and clearly he understands the historical and
legal aspects of fingerprints, but to claim to understand the
methodology-without ever having performed it-is beyond any reasonable claim and
certainly borders on his own accusations of other experts and so-called
V. ISSUE 3
Misstatements, incorrect facts, and general ignorance of fingerprint science
Starrs, through his readings, research, conversations with preeminent
fingerprint experts, etc. can give detailed testimony about the workings and
methodologies of the fingerprint discipline.
Though this author has great respect for Starrs' works, insights, eccentric
humor, and critical-ever-watchful eye, that admiration is quickly diminished
when one reads his testimony and he lays bare his very shallow understanding of
our discipline. The best defense for this are the trial transcripts from The
State of Arizona vs. Toribio Rodriguez. I counted over 23 incorrect, incomplete,
or completely untrue statements made by Starrs, without even really nitpicking.
I chose ten of the most spurious statements. Please refer to Rodriguez for the
complete quote and context. (I will attempt, through Kasey to make these
transcripts readily available in the near future in .pdf format.)
Top 10 Really Unbelievable Statements Made by Starrs in Rodriguez
10. "There is no measurement made by individual examiners as to whether or not
the bifurcation is wide or narrow. A bifurcation is a bifurcation…it may be an
ascending or descending bifurcation [but] no mention is made of that." (27)
9. "Flexion creases [in the palm] occur during life, after birth." (28)
8. "…with respect to palm prints, we don't always have arches, loops, and
whorls. We can say 60 percent of the population will have loops on their
fingers. We can't say that with respect to palm prints. We don't have the
statistical basis. We don't have the empirical data to make such conclusions,
and therefore, it is often said that there are some people that don't have
arches, loops, and whorls among the various ridge characteristics on their
7. Elimination prints should be taken and compared to a latent print to exclude
them as a source of a print, even if an individualization or match was made
regarding the source of the print. This prevents a false positive result
(erroneous identification). (30)
6. Regarding an interview of a DNA scientist for Starrs' exhumation of Jesse
James: the DNA scientist wanted to examine the unknown sample first, the known
sample second and then compare the two. Starrs said to him, "You are hired
because you have proved yourself to be an objective scientist." (He implied
throughout his testimony, fingerprint examiners do not do this) (31)
5. "…I would consider [Automated Palmprint Identification System, A.P.I.S.] not
yet accepted, to my knowledge, by the F.B.I., as being experimental in nature.
They still haven't been proved out in the real world." (32)
4. "…indeed, I've seen articles concerning fingerprints where fingerprint
examiners have actually come to a conclusion as to an identity based exclusively
on the existence of unique classifiable arches, loops, and whorls." (33)
3. "…a bifurcation is a very common occurrence, as is an ending ridge is common.
There are many uncommon characteristics that are blithely overlooked: the spur,
the bridge, the trifurcation…" (34)
2. "I am sure there are other characteristics as well, such as, for example, the
pores on the papillary regions themselves or the ridges themselves, are they
wide, are they narrow, and does that indicate some distinguishing
characteristic. There are numerous other features that can be looked at for the
purposes of making an [identification], but rarely are they." (35)
1. "It is a scientific approach to look for dissimilarities and not
similarities…That is not the approach typically taken by fingerprint examiners.
They look for similarities. That, of course, mean they are missing possible
What is most shocking about his testimony is that this was from a case last year
(2001)! This wasn't 20 years ago as Ashbaugh was penning his ridgeology
treatises. Interestingly Prof. Starrs mentioned that he was once contacted by an
attorney regarding a fingerprint matter, because as Starrs related, "…if anyone
had the finger on the button, I did because I follow the field very
closely"(37). It seems very clear from his testimony in Rodriguez, that he is
not, as he claimed, "a forensic scientist who is quite knowledgeable in the area
of fingerprints (38).
(1) Saferstein, Richard.
Forensic Science Handbook, Volume 2, Prentice Hall: New Jersey, p.1-37.
(2) U.S. v. Byron Mitchell, No. 96-407, Philadelphia, PA July 1999, Transcripts
of Day 4 of Daubert hearing, p. 122-232.
(3) The State of Arizona v. Toribio Rodriguez, CR-41460, Tucson, AZ, May 2001,
Transcripts of James Starrs.
(4) Pennsylvania v. Andrew Vikara III, 2000 Criminal 2264, Lackawanna Co., PA,
Frye hearing, Oct. 2001.
(5) U.S. v. Corey Moore, Cr. No. F-10928-94, Dist.Columbia, Starrs' Declaration
(Feb. 1997) and Government's Response (Mar. 1997)
(6) Mitchell (c.f.), p. 129.
(7) Ibid. p.129.
(8) Ibid. p.130,Rodriguez (c.f.), p. 49.
(9) Rodriguez (c.f.), p. 14.
(10) Moenssens, Starrs, Henderson, Inbau. Scientific Evidence in Civil and
Criminal Cases, 4th ed.; Foundation Press: New York.
(11) Mitchell (c.f.), p. 133.
(12) Starrs, J.E. Once More Unto the Breech: The Firearms Evidence in the Sacco
and Vanzetti Case Revisited: Parts I and II. JFS 1986, 31(2 and 3), 630-654 Pt.
I, 1050-1078 Pt. II.
(13) U.S. v. Corey Moore, Government's Response, Exhibit E.
(14) American Board of Forensic Document Examiners Daubert Symposium, Las Vegas,
NV, June 2002; personal notes.
(15) Rodriguez (c.f.), p. 22-23.
(16) American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Journal of Forensic Science
Editorial Board, Members listing
(17) Rodriguez (c.f.), p. 67.
(18) Rodriguez (c.f.), p. 107.
(19) Rodriguez (c.f.), p. 104-106.
(20) Starrs, J.E. Once More Unto the Breech: The Firearms Evidence in the Sacco
and Vanzetti Case Revisited: Parts I and II. JFS 1986, 31(2 and 3), 630-654 Pt.
I, 1050-1078 Pt. II.
(21) Starrs, J.E, Stone, A.C., Stoneking, M. Mitochondrial DNA Analysis of the
Presumptive Remains of Jesse James. JFS 2001, 46 (1), 173-176.
(22) Mitchell (c.f.), p. 126. e.g. "More Saltimbancos on the Loose?…" Sci.
Sleuthing Newsl.(1988); "A Miscue in Fingerprint Identification: Causes and
Concerns" J.Pol.Sci. & Admin. (1984); "To Err is Human, Infallibility is Divine"
Sci. Sleuthing Newsl. (1983).
(23) "in the trenches" Starrs. Presentation "The Canards of Fingerprinting"
American Academy of Forensic Sciences Annual Conference, Feb. 2002. "shoulder to
shoulder" U.S. v. Corey Moore, Starrs' Declaration, p. 7, Mitchell (c.f.), p.
(24) Firearms/toolmarks, bunter marks: U.S. v. Corey Moore, Cr. No. F-10928-94,
Dist.Columbia, Starrs' Declaration (Feb. 1997); DNA: State v. Woodall, 182 W.Va.
15, 385 S.E.2d 253 (1989).
(25) U.S. v. Corey Moore, Government's Response, p. 30.
(26) Starrs, J.E. Recent Developments in Federal and State Rules Pertaining to
Medical and Scientific Expert Testimony. Duq. L. Rev., (34) 813 1996.
(27) The State of Arizona v. Toribio Rodriguez, CR-41460, Tucson, AZ, May 2001,
Transcripts of James Starrs, p. 72.
(28) Ibid. p. 61.
(29) Ibid. p. 63.
(30) Ibid. p. 89.
(31) Ibid. p. 69.
(32) Ibid. p. 64.
(33) Ibid. p. 63.
(34) Ibid. p. 72.
(35) Ibid. p. 82.
(36) Ibid. p. 70.
(37) Ibid. p. 36.
(38) Ibid. p. 18.
Glenn Langenburg, Latent Print Examiner, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal
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