Breaking NEWz you can UzE...
compiled by Jon Stimac
Police Have Fingerprints of Suspect in Murder –
KSL-TV, UT -
June 16, 2005 ...detectives
say they have taken finger and palm prints from a male subject...
Iron Age Fingerprints Identified at Mamourin Tepe
– CHN, IRAN
- June 15, 2005
...fingerprints of residents dating to the Iron Age,
are still identifiable on the plaster covered walls...
Fingerprint Provided Vital Evidence –
INDEPENDENT ONLINE, So. AFRICA, - June 15, 2005
...fingerprint was found on a DVD the
victim had rented hours before she died...
Fingerprint Match to Suspect in Sex Assaults –
HOUSTON CHRONICLE, TX - June 13, 2005
...fingerprint lifted during a rape
investigation has led to an arrest and a charge...
Last week, we looked at an internet article on Faking Fingerprints.
If anyone tried this, I would be interested in how it worked out.
This week, we keep abreast of latent print related information on the
internet by looking at another interesting public website article. This
material was not altered in any way from the public posting at the link below as
of yesterday, June 19.
The article by Simon Cole
and William Thompson is from
the online version of The Champion, newsletter of the National
Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, reprinted without permission for
educational purposes only, so please secure permission before re-distributing
copied June 19, 2005
by William C. Thompson; Simon A. Cole
April 2005, Page 42
By William C. Thompson; Simon A.
Lessons From The Brandon
Fingerprint examiners have always claimed that their craft is infallible. They
routinely testify that a fingerprint match is a positive identification. If the
defendant “matches” a latent print from a crime scene, for example, fingerprint
experts claim to know with absolute certainty that the latent print was left by
the defendant to the exclusion of all other human beings on the planet. They
deny that it is even possible for a trained examiner who follows proper
procedures to reach the wrong conclusion.1
This testimony might lead one to conclude that there has never been a documented
case in which a qualified fingerprint examiner made an erroneous identification
— but that conclusion would be wrong. False fingerprint identifications have
been known since the 1920s.2 Errors have also occurred on proficiency tests.3
But the fingerprint community has attributed these errors to incompetent
examiners, thus allowing latent print examiners and prosecutors to continue
claiming that “the method itself” remains infallible.4
It is unclear whether the examiners who made errors were really less competent
than their peers — typically the only evidence of their incompetence was the
very error that incompetence purportedly explained. We suspect that the
fingerprinting community has attributed errors to incompetence, rather than to
the inherent unreliability of their craft, in order to maintain the pretense of
infallibility in the face of irrefutable evidence that misidentifications have
Even this flawed pretense of infallibility suffered a serious blow last Spring
when the FBI matched a latent print from the March 11 Madrid terrorist bombing
to Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon attorney. Mayfield was a Muslim convert whose
wife was born in Egypt. He was held for two weeks as a material witness.
Fortunately for him, the Spanish national police found another suspect, an
Algerian named Ouhnane Daoud, and found that he “matched” the latent print
better than Mayfield. Mayfield was released with a rare FBI apology and is now
suing the government.5
The incompetence theory won’t fly in the Mayfield case because a highly
experienced and respected FBI examiner made the error. Two additional FBI
examiners (one retired) also compared the two prints and (erroneously) confirmed
the first examiner’s judgment. Finally, a highly respected independent expert
retained by the court also corroborated the erroneous identification.
If the Mayfield error was simply a matter of incompetence, then we must accept
that three top examiners from a lab that claims to be a world leader in the
field, as well as a leading independent examiner, were all incompetent.
Obviously the fingerprint community needs a new explanation this time.
Three possible explanations have been offered. First, an FBI press release
suggested that the error arose from a poor-quality digital image.6 But that
theory was a nonstarter. Digital images are widely used for fingerprint
comparisons.7 None of the FBI examiners expressed any reservations about the
A second theory being discussed among forensic scientists was that FBI examiners
had been influenced by Mayfield’s background. The FBI examiners may have thought
he was a likely suspect due to his conversion to Islam, his Egyptian wife, his
military training, and his having represented (in a child custody case) one of
the “Portland Seven,” a group of Muslim men convicted of terrorist conspiracy.
Consequently, they may have been predisposed to find a match and may have
accepted too readily that they had. The problem with this theory, however, is
that it suggests that the FBI examiners had allowed their “scientific” judgment
to be biased by collateral evidence — i.e., evidence not pertinent to the
scientific question. This type of bias is a particularly sensitive issue for the
In 1997, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General conducted an
investigation of alleged scientific misconduct by the FBI laboratory’s
explosives unit and issued a scathing report.8 Among the most serious charges
was that FBI examiners had relied on collateral evidence when making key
In the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, for example, FBI examiners had
relied on the fact that the suspects had access to urea nitrate to reach the
conclusion that urea nitrate had been used to make the bomb. The inspector
general rightly condemned this biased, circular reasoning as scientific
misconduct. The FBI laboratory management agreed and pledged to take steps to
ensure that the problem never happened again. The embarrassment surrounding this
history makes allegations of bias based on collateral evidence a particularly
sore subject for the FBI. An admission by the FBI that its examiners were biased
by Mayfield’s “suspicious” background would be more than an admission of error
in one case — it would be an admission of management failure and evidence of
persistent and recalcitrant scientific misconduct. It is not surprising, then,
that the FBI strenuously denied that its examiners had been informed of
This raised the third theory: that the Mayfield match was just a coincidence —
that Mayfield just happened to have a fingerprint similar enough to the print
left in Madrid to be mistaken for it. This theory seems plausible. Because the
Madrid bombing was an important case, the latent print undoubtedly was
circulated to law enforcement agencies throughout the world and compared against
many fingerprint databases. Indeed, given the relatively recent development of
technology for easily circulating digital images, the Madrid latent might well
have been searched against more fingerprints than any other latent print in the
history of fingerprinting. Perhaps if you search a latent print widely enough,
particularly one containing a limited amount of friction ridge detail,
eventually you will find someone who has a fingerprint similar enough to be
mistakenly matched to it.
But if the Mayfield match was a simple coincidence, what are the chances that
the unlucky individual would turn out to be a Muslim-convert with a connection
to Muslim fundamentalists and not, say, a Presbyterian policeman from Peoria?
More importantly, the coincidence theory undermines the long-held claim of
fingerprint experts that coincidental fingerprint matches are impossible (at
least when the match is declared by a competent examiner). Is the FBI ready to
abandon that claim?
Ironically, it was only two years ago that a federal district court for the
Eastern District of Pennsylvania, in a closely watched case, relied on the FBI’s
assertions that fingerprints are essentially unique and that FBI fingerprint
examiners had never made an error in casework when holding that the FBI’s
fingerprint identification method had passed muster under the Daubert
standard.10 Flimsy at the time, the foundation for fingerprint admissibility now
looks even shakier.11
After apologizing to Mayfield, the FBI promised a review by “an international
panel of fingerprint experts.” We viewed this as a positive development. The
best way to learn from errors is to allow an independent group to conduct an
open and public investigation. We were heartened that the FBI appeared ready to
do exactly that.
What emerged from this investigation, however, was not exactly what we had
expected. In November the Journal of Forensic Identification published a
“synopsis” of the conclusions reached by the International Review Committee.12
The first curious aspect of this “synopsis” is that it was written by an FBI
employee, Robert Stacey, of the bureau’s Quality Assurance and Training Unit,
rather than the international review committee itself. By analogy, imagine a
bank audit in which the conclusions are written by one of the bank’s managers
rather than the auditors themselves.
According to Stacey, he relied on written reports prepared by individual members
of the international committee. When we contacted a member of that committee
personally, and asked if we could see copies of their individual reports, we
encountered another dubious circumstance. The committee member told us the FBI
had required them to sign a “non-disclosure agreement” that prevented them from
releasing their conclusions to the public. So much for an open and public
Perhaps because of Mayfield’s impending lawsuit,13 Stacey’s report avoids the
key issue of what the FBI’s latent print unit knew about Mayfield’s background,
and when they knew it. Instead, the report blames “the inherent pressure of
working an extremely high-profile case” for the Mayfield error. The conclusion
that latent print examiners are more error prone in high-profile cases is
disturbing, but not altogether implausible. In a recent study, one of us (Cole)
found that more than 70 percent of exposed cases of fingerprint error occurred
in serious cases, such as murder. Whether this means that more errors occur in
these cases or simply that more errors are exposed in these cases is unclear.
Stacey’s report does not say how the committee was able to determine that it was
pressures associated with a high-profile case that caused the error. Did they
uncover evidence that the FBI examiners were pressured? Or did they simply reach
this conclusion merely because this particular error happened to occur in a
high-profile case? An adequate report of the incident would answer these
questions; Stacey’s report does not.
Interestingly, the report also blames “confirmation bias,” which is the human
tendency to see what one expects and desires to see when evaluating ambiguous
evidence. This is potentially a very important conclusion. Academic commentators
have criticized forensic scientists for failing to adopt adequate procedures to
prevent confirmation bias.14 This report may be the first admission by the
organized forensic science community that confirmation bias is a problem.
The report also concedes another point made by forensic science critics: that a
second examiner who is asked to “verify” the results of a first examiner should
do so blind — i.e., without knowing what the first examiner decided. According
to the report, that was part of the problem in the Mayfield case. “[B]ecause the
initial examiner was a highly respected supervisor with many years of
experience,” the report states, “it was concluded that subsequent examinations
were incomplete and inaccurate. To disagree was not an expected response.”
This conclusion undermines another favorite argument of the fingerprinting
community: that any possible problem with a fingerprint identification can be
cleared up by the simple expedient of having another expert check the results of
the first. It is encouraging that the report endorses blind verification, which
would be a significant improvement over current practices.
Finally, the report recommends better documentation of the procedures followed
for fingerprint identification. This is another important step. One of the
problems in understanding the reliability of fingerprint identification is that
much of the process occurs inside a latent print examiner’s head. Because latent
print examiners produce almost no documentation of what they see, it is very
difficult to reconstruct — after the fact — what might have led an examiner to
conclude that a finger is the source of a print when, in fact, it is not. All we
know is that the examiner reached the wrong conclusion; it is very difficult,
perhaps impossible, to determine why.15
Unfortunately, the Stacey report endorses blind review and better documentation
only for “designated cases,” which we gather means high-profile cases. This
limitation makes little sense unless forensic scientists really believe (and
where is the evidence?) that there is a greater risk of error only in
high-profile cases. We think these improvements should be adopted in all cases.
A high-profile error like the Mayfield case provides an important opportunity to
learn about the limitations of forensic science and find ways to improve it — if
the errors can be examined in an open and objective manner. If we are really to
begin to understand what causes fingerprint errors, the FBI needs to be more
forthcoming. One member of the International Review Committee has told us the
FBI will “probably” soon publish the committee members’ original reports on its
Web site. We trust and hope that the FBI will do just that. And we hope that
future investigations will be more open and transparent than this one.
Finally, we hope that fingerprint examiners will rethink their longstanding
claim that competent examiners cannot make errors. Always wrong, this claim is
now absurd. Like emperors caught without clothes, fingerprint examiners must now
decide whether to acknowledge reality or continue their brazen pretense. And if
they continue, courts will need to decide whether this unseemly conduct should
1.See, Simon A. Cole,
Grandfathering Evidence: Fingerprint Admissibility Rulings from Jennings to
Llera Plaza and Back Again, 41 Am.Crim.L.Rev. 1189, 1196-97 (2004); Pat A.
Wertheim, Scientific Comparison and Identification of Fingerprint Evidence, 16
The Print 1, 6 (2000).; Mary Beeton, The Fingerprint Controversy, 20 Issues in
Sci. & Tech. 9, 10 (2004).
2.See, James E. Starrs,
More Saltimbancos on the Loose? Fingerprint Experts Caught in a Whorld of Error,
12 The Scientific Sleuthing Newsletter 1, Spring 1988.; Robert Epstein,
Fingerprints Meet Daubert: The Myth of Fingerprint “Science” is Revealed, 75
So.Cal.L.Rev. 605 (2002); Simon Cole, Suspect Identities: A History of
Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification (2001).
3. See, Joseph L.
Peterson & Penelope N. Markham, Crime Laboratory Proficiency Testing Results,
1978-1991, II: Resolving Questions of Common Origin, 40 J. Forensic Sci. 1009
(1995). Lyn Haber & Ralph N. Haber, Error Rates for Human Fingerprint Examiners.
In Ratha and Bolle, Eds. Automatic Fingerprint Recognition Systems (2003), 349.
4.Simon A. Cole,
Witnessing Identification: Latent Fingerprint Evidence and Expert Knowledge, 28
Social Studies of Science 687 (1998).
5. See, E.E. (Bo)
Edwards, They may come for you next… The Champion (July 2004), 4.
6. Federal Bureau of
Investigation, Statement on Brandon Mayfield Case, Press release (May 24, 2004)
7.See Michael Cherry,
Edward J. Imwinkelried & Larry Meyer, Does the Use of Digital Techniques by Law
Enforcement Authorities Create a Risk of Miscarriages of Justice? The Champion
8.Office of the
Inspector General, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, The FBI Laboratory: An Investigation
Into Laboratory Practices And Alleged Misconduct In Explosives-Related and Other
9. Sarah Kershaw & Eric
Lichtblau, Spain Had Doubts Before U.S. Held Lawyer in Madrid Blasts, New York
Times, May 26, 2004.
10. United States v.
Llera Plaza, 188 F.Supp. 2d 549, 566 (E. D. Pa. 2002).
11. Cole, Grandfathering
Evidence at 1258.
12. Robert B. Stacey, A
Report on the Erroneous Fingerprint Individualization in the Madrid Train
Bombing Case. 54 J.Forensic Identification 706 (2004).
Celebrity Lawyer to Represent Former Kansan in Suing FBI Associated Press (Aug.
14.See Risinger et al.,
The Daubert/Kumho Implications of Observer Effects in Forensic Science: Hidden
Problems of Expectation and Suggestion, 90 Cal.L.Rev. 1 (2002).
15.Simon A. Cole, More
than Zero: Accounting for Error in Latent Print (Fingerprint) Identification 95
J. Crim. L. & Crim, (forthcoming May 2005).
Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL)
1150 18th St., NW, Suite 950, Washington, DC 20036
(202) 872-8600 • Fax (202) 872-8690 •
copied June 19, 2005
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For more formal latent print discussions, visit
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Until next Monday morning, don't work too hard or too little.
Have a GREAT week!