Breaking NEWz you can UzE...
compiled by Jon Stimac
New Fingerprint System Cracks 'Cold Cases'
INDEPENDENT ONLINE, So. AFRICA - Nov 27, 2005
...technology is set to revolutionize
the way police investigations are conducted in South Africa...
Sheriff's Department Receives Grant
– YOUNGSTOWN VINDICATOR, OH
- Nov 26, 2005 ...the $35,802 federal
grant to update its fingerprinting equipment...
Family Finally Sees Murderer Behind Bars
ABC12.COM, MI -
Nov 23, 2005 ...the fingerprints were lifted
from the murder scene 25 years ago...
Fingerprint System Gives Police a Lift
LASALLE NEWS TRIBUNE, IL - Nov 21, 2005 ...fingerprinting
system allows police to take fingerprints and then confirm if the
subjects is who they say they are...
Recent CLPEX Posting Activity
containing new posts
Fingerprint Dogma Final Exam
Dogma (formerly Guest) 3146 Mon Nov 28, 2005 12:49 am
POLICY FOR DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY / AND LATENT PROCESSING
HPDDB 130 Sun Nov 27, 2005 2:26 pm
guest 51 Fri Nov 25, 2005 4:26 pm
Order of Processing Firearms
L.J.Steele 909 Thu Nov 24, 2005 2:54 pm
Getting Started Information
psucsi 99 Wed Nov 23, 2005 7:37 pm
Just a beginner...
Sara Rafferty 215 Wed Nov 23, 2005 5:21 pm
Contextual information and identifications
Les Bush 331 Wed Nov 23, 2005 12:38 am
Sworn or Civilian
psucsi 1071 Tue Nov 22, 2005 6:30 pm
Neville Morris 343 Mon Nov 21, 2005 7:23 pm
IAI Certification Test
Guest 1863 Mon Nov 21, 2005 1:08 pm
Mathematics in forensics
nator9692 347 Mon Nov 21, 2005 11:23 am
UPDATES ON CLPEX.com
Updated the Detail Archives
we reviewed an article from the journal
Spectroscopy, July 2005 regarding the use of X-ray fluorescence (MXRF) for
latent print detection.
we look at part of a recent article by Simon Cole
regarding latent print error, detailing misatribution and analysis of cases.
Next week we will look at the rest of this article detailing "The Rehetoric of
Error". The portion represented below is not complete, but rather represents
portions of the first half of the 95 page article that would be most interesting
to latent print examiners.
Excerpts from "More
The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology,
Vol 95, No. 3,
Author: Simon Cole
As with infallibility, latent print examiners defend the claim of a zero error
rate even when confronted with known cases of misattribution in real cases.
How can a process commit errors and yet be considered infallible? How can the
"error rate" of any technique, let alone one that has been known to commit
errors, be considered zero? In this article, I will argue that the coexistence
of these two contradictory notions is not merely a product of simple
"doublethink." Rather. I will show that it the product of a rhetorical strategy
to isolate, minimize, and otherwise dismiss all exposed cases of error as
"special cases." or "one-offs," " and therefore as irrelevant.
After a brief legal and technical background discussion in Part I, PartII of
this paper discusses what we do know about the error rate of latent print
identification. Part II.A catalogs twenty-two cases of fingerprint
misattribution that have been reported in the public record. An analysis of
these eases shows that they are most likely only the tip of the proverbial
iceberg of actual cases of fingerprint misattribution. Part II.B discusses the
results of proficiency testing of latent print examiners. These tests also show
a non-zero error rate. In Part III, I discuss what might be called "the rhetoric
of error." This Part analyzes rhetorical efforts by fingerprint advocates and
courts to minimize, dismiss, and explain away the evidence of error revealed in
Part 11. Fingerprint practitioners seek to create an error-free aura around
fingerprint identification that has the potential to dangerously mislead finders
of fact. At the end of Part III, I discuss some more defensible ways of
conceptualizing fingerprint error. Far from being "one-offs," I suggest that the
cases of error are more likely the product of routine practice. Whatever special
circumstances exist in the misattribution cases are more likely to account for
the exposure of the misattribution than the misattribution itself. I conclude by
arguing that it is necessary to confront, analyze, and understand error if we
ever hope to reduce it.
Latent print examiners reach conclusions of "individualization" by finding
corresponding "ridge characteristics" between the unknown and known prints. Any
"unexplainable dissimilarity" results in a conclusion of exclusion."
Insufficient correspondences result in a conclusion of "inconclusive."
"Sufficient" correspondences result in a conclusion of "individualization," or
source attribution. A crucial question is, of course, where the boundary lies
between insufficient and sufficient correspondences. The latent print community
has been unable to answer this question with any precision or consistency other
than to posit a circular answer, which simply rests upon the analyst's
subjective measure of "sufficiency," such as the following: "Sufficiency is the
examiner's determination that adequate unique details of the friction skin
source area are revealed in the impression."
II. What Do We Know About Error Rates in Latent Print Identification?
Known cases of fingerprint misattribution [case selection for this study was
false positives that are reported outside the laboratory]
Robert Loomis was convicted in 1920 for the murder of Bertha Myers during a
burglary in 1918 in Easton, Pennsylvania. Two latent print experts testified for
the government that a latent print found on a jewelry box could be identified to
Loomis. Loomis won a new trial on the basis of faulty jury instructions. At
Loomis's second trial, the government admitted that Loomis was not the source of
the latent print and declined to offer it into evidence. The record does not
show what led the government to this conclusion. Loomis then sought to enter the
print into evidence, claiming it belonged to the true perpetrator.
A latent print found on a calling card at the scene of the notorious Hall-Mills
murders in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1926 was attributed to William Stevens
by three latent print examiners. Interestingly, one of the examiners was Joseph
Faurot, who had been one of the first examiners to offer testimony in court in
the United States. Two latent print examiners testified for the defense and
claimed the attribution was erroneous, but they also contended, inconsistently,
that the print might have been forged. Stevens was acquitted; the jury
reportedly disregarded the latent print evidence.
John "The Bug" Stoppelli was convicted in 1948 for the sale of narcotics in
Oakland. After a drug raid, in which four other suspects were arrested, a latent
print was recovered from an envelope containing heroin. The print did not match
any of the four arrested. After an extensive database search, Internal Revenue
Agent W. Harold "Bucky" Greene attributed the latent to Stoppelli, a parolee in
New York City. Greene found fourteen matching ridge characteristics. No other
evidence linked Stoppelli to the crime.
Stoppelli was convicted. Eventually, his attorney, Jake Ehrlich, convinced the
arresting officer. Colonel White, to talk to Stoppelli. White became convinced
of Stoppelli's innocence and had the print reviewed by the FBI Laboratory. The
FBI excluded Stoppelli as the source of the print, and President Truman commuted
his sentence. He had served two years.
Roger Caldwell was convicted of the murder of Elisabeth Congdon in Minnesota in
1978. Three latent print examiners attributed a latent print found on an
envelope to Roger Caldwell. The envelope was addressed to Caldwell and contained
a gold coin believed to have been stolen from the victim's home. The examiners
were: Steven Sedlacek, who testified for the government at trial, Claude Cook,
who "verified" Sedlacek's identification, and Ronald Welbaum, who was retained
by Caldwell and also corroborated the match. All three were IAI-Certified Latent
Print Examiners. Sedlacek testified that "the latent print partial . . . I found
to be identical with the inked impression on the fingerprint card bearing the
name Roger Caldwell." This conclusion was based on eleven matching ridge
characteristics and no unexplainable dissimilarities.
The original negative of the latent print was reexamined for the trial of
Caldwell's wife and supposed co-conspirator, Marjorie Caldwell. The forensic
scientist Herbert MacDonell and the latent print examiners George Bonebrake and
Walter Rhodes testified that Roger Caldwell could not have been the source of
the latent print. Marjorie Caldwell was acquitted, and Roger won a new trial.
That the fingerprint evidence was erroneous does not necessarily exonerate the
Caldwells, and Roger Caldwell eventually pled guilty to time served rather than
submitting to a new trial. On the other hand, a guilty plea to time served is a
difficult offer for even an innocent person to refuse and is, therefore, not
particularly convincing evidence of caldwell's guilt. Sedlacek, Cook, and
Welbaum had their certifications revoked by the IAI.
Special Agent German reports a case of erroneous identification reported by an
examiner from "a small American police department in the Midwest" in 1984. The
nature of the crime is not reported. The defendant was a parolee.
Testimony implicating the defendant based on latent print evidence was given at
a preliminary hearing and parole revocation hearing. The latent print examiner
was IAI-certified and was decertified upon exposure of the error. The defendant
was released upon exposure of the misidentification. German reports that "[t]he
Latent Print Examiner, being relatively new in the business, had not previously
caused anyone's incarceration based upon fingerprint evidence and the Prosecutor
decided that no future warrants would be issued based on just the local
examiner's work." After decertification, the examiner continued to work as a
police officer, crime scene technician, and, apparently, latent print examiner,
since German reports that the examiner "to my knowledge has since always
submitted fingerprint identifications to outside agencies for verification.
German withholds the identifying details "because I am proud of his (and his
department's) integrity and professionalism."
Michael Cooper was arrested for being the "Prime Time Rapist," a serial rapist,
in Tucson, Arizona in 1988. Two latent prints from two different crime scenes
were attributed to Cooper by two law enforcement personnel: Timothy O'Sullivan
and Gene P. Scott. While O'Sullivan apparently had minimal latent print
experience, Scott was a Supervisor." The examiners claimed to have found "eleven
or twelve" corresponding ridge characteristics between a crime scene print and
an inked print taken from Cooper, and Scott called the match a positive
comparison. On the basis of the fingerprint evidence, Cooper was subjected to an
illegal interrogation, which the Ninth Circuit later decided violated his civil
rights. During the interrogation, one investigator, Weaver Barkman, began to
harbor doubts about Cooper's guilt, which he expressed outside the interrogation
room. According to Barkman, his supervisor, Tom Taylor, "said something very
close to fingerprints do not lie. Get your ass back in there, Weaver."
Identification technician Mary McCall also participated in the interrogation,
telling Cooper that he had been positively identified by fingerprint evidence.
The record does not show whether or not McCall had yet examined the evidence
herself Upon double-checking her work, however. McCall began to doubt the match.
O'Sullivan and Scott initially "ignored her and declined to reexamine the
exemplars." Eventually, however, the examiners changed their conclusion to one
of exclusion. At the time, they maintained that there were twelve corresponding
ridge characteristics but also some unexplainable dissimilarities, which
rendered the comparison an exclusion. Scott and O'Sullivan were demoted, and
McCall was suspended for two days without pay.
g. Trogden Cases
Bruce Basden was arrested in 1985 for the murders of Remus and Blanche Adams in
Fayetteville, North Carolina. A latent print found in the Adams' home was
attributed to Basden by latent print examiner John Trogden. Upon reexamining and
enlarging the evidence in response to a discovery request by the defense,
Trogden withdrew his conclusion of identification. The charges were dismissed.
Basden had been jailed for thirteen months.
The FBI and the North Carolina State Bureau of Identification reviewed the work
of Trogden and another latent print examiner named Sue George. Their review
found three erroneous identifications. A latent print in a burglary case was
attributed to Mauriee Gaining, who had been convicted of burglary and sentenced
to ten years. The print apparently belonged to Gaining's co-defendant James
Hammock. Other latent print evidence, reportedly correctly attributed, remained
against Gaining in other pending burglary cases. Coincidentally. one of the
other misattributed prints was attributed to Hammock in another burglary case
for which he was sentenced to ten years. Again, there was additional print
evidence, apparently correctly attributed, against Hammock. The third error was
the attribution of a palm print to Darian Carter. Carter had been convicted of
larceny and sentenced to ten years. Again, there were also two fingerprints,
which had apparently been correctly attributed to Carter. Identification Bureau
officials noted that the errors occurred "early in the identification careers"
of Trogden and George, that the examiners "did not have [the] luxury" of "learn[ing]
from more experienced people," and that they "had identified a record 118
fingerprints in 1987." Trogden and George remained on the job. Their supervisor
commented, "I'm not going to throw them out because of a mistake. I think with
additional experience and training, our print examiners will be the best in the
Neville Lee was arrested in 1991 in Nottinghamshire, England, for the rape of an
eleven-year-old girl on the basis of a supposed fingerprint match. It is not
known how many corresponding ridge characteristics were identified, but at that
time a minimum requirement of sixteen matching ridge characteristics was in
force in the United Kingdom. Lee's home was wrecked by vigilantes, and he was
assaulted in jail. Another individual subsequently confessed to the crime, and
Lee was released. The authorities admitted that the fingerprint match was
Martin Blake was arrested and interrogated for three days in 1994 for the murder
of seven people during a robbery in Palatine, Illinois. A Chicago Police
Department latent print examiner matched a print from the crime scene, a Brown's
Chicken & Pasta, to Blake. Upon review by the Illinois State Police and the FBI,
the match was determined to be erroneous.
j . Chiory
Andrew Chiory was charged in 1996 for the burglary of the home of Miriam
Stoppard, a writer and broadcaster who also happened to be the ex wife of the
well-known playwright Tom Stoppard, in London, England. Two separate latent
prints from the crime scene were attributed to Chiory. Both matches were
"allegedly triple-checked," and both were conducted under the requirement for
sixteen corresponding ridge characteristics in force in the United Kingdom at
that time. Chiory served two months in prison before the match was exposed as
erroneous. Despite an extensive external investigation of this miscarriage of
justice, no explanation for the misidentification has ever been made public.
Danny McNamee was convicted in England in 1987 of conspiracy to cause
explosions." He was dubbed the "Hyde Park Bomber" for his alleged role in a 1982
Irish Republican Army bombing that killed four soldiers and seven horses.
McNamee was implicated in the crime by three latent prints: two from tape found
with explosive-making equipment, and one from a battery recovered from debris
after a controlled explosion in London. The latent print from the battery was
the most incriminating. At McNamee's trial. Metropolitan Police latent print
examiners offered evidence that McNamee was the source of the latent print on
As McNamee appealed his conviction, controversy emerged over the battery print.
At least fourteen different examiners analyzed the evidence. Two Glasgow
examiners found eleven corresponding characteristics between the latent print
and McNamee's inked prints, but they were not the same eleven characteristics.
At least two Dorset examiners also attributed the print to McNamee, but did not
agree with some of the corresponding ridge characteristics identified by the
original examiners. Other experts, including Peter Swann and Martin Leadbetter,
found the latent print insufficient for identification. The appeals court
quashed the fingerprint evidence, the case collapsed, and McNamee was released
in 1998 after serving eleven years in prison.
l. Scottish Criminal Records Office Cases
These were the best-known cases of fingerprint misidentification until the
Mayfield case. The cases surrounded the murder of Marion Ross in Kilmamock,
Scotland in 1997. David Asbury was identified as a suspect, in part, based on a
latent print found on biscuit tin in his home containing a substantial amount of
cash. The print was attributed to Marion Ross. Asbury was convicted of murder
and sentenced to life in prison.
Shirley McKie, a detective with the Strathclyde Police Department, had been
assigned to secure the crime scene. A latent print found inside Ross's house was
attributed to McKie. (It is standard practice to "eliminate" latent prints by
checking them against the known prints of non-suspects, such as victims and
investigating police officers.) McKie denied entering the house. After resisting
substantial pressure to admit having abandoned her post and entered the house,
McKie was charged with perjury. Both the Ross and McKie fingerprint matches were
attested to by four (the same four in both cases) latent print examiners from
the Scottish Criminal Records Office (SCRO) and were described as meeting the
British requirement of having at least sixteen corresponding ridge
characteristics. However, unbeknownst to either prosecution or defense, five
SCRO examiners had declined to attribute the disputed print to McKie. A clinical
psychologist who examined McKie and formed the opinion that she was telling the
truth was "told that any question of a mistake in the fingerprint evidence was
"unthinkable because of its implications."
On the eve of McKie's trial, in 1999, she and her father Iain McKie, a former
police officer, persuaded two American examiners, Pat Wertheim and David Grieve,
to come to the Scotland to reexamine the evidence. Wertheim and Grieve testified
that McKie could not be the source of the latent print. McKie was acquitted and
released. In 2002, the biscuit tin latent was reviewed by Wertheim and Allan
Bayle, a former Scotland Yard examiner. They concluded that Ross could not be
the source of the print. In other words, the SCRO had allegedly made two
erroneous identifications in a single investigation. Asbury was released. This
does not necessarily mean that he was actually innocent.
McKie sued the police, and a full investigation into the SCRO was launched. Two
extensive reports issued in response to the scandal said a great deal about the
organizational culture and procedures of the Scottish Criminal Records Office,
but virtually nothing about the technical details of the McKie and Asbury
attributions themselves and why they may have occurred. Reforms were instituted
at the SCRO.
Another SCRO case emerged after the reforms undertaken in response to the McKie
case. Mark Sinclair was convicted of armed robbery in 2003, in part based on a
latent print from one of the crime scenes. SCRO examiners testified that they
had "no doubt" that Sinclair was the source of the latent print. Allan Bayle
concluded the "identification to be unsafe." Two examiners from the Police
Service of Northern Ireland agreed that the latent print was insufficient for
identification. Because no consensus has formed, the Sinclair case is not
included as a misattribution in my data set.
In 1998, Richard Jackson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the
murder of Alvin Davis, his friend and occasional lover, in Upper Darby,
Pennsylvania. The sole evidence against Jackson was a latent print found on a
fan in Davis's home. Three latent print examiners attributed the crime scene
print to Jackson: Anthony Paparo of the Upper Darby police, William Welsh of the
county police, and Jon Creighton. an IAI-certified examiner from Vermont.
Jackson hired his own experts, Vemon McCloud and George Wynn, both former
examiners for federal agencies, who concluded that he was not the source of the
print. With McCloud and Wynn questioning the prints, the government hired a
consultant, Eugene Famiglietti. According to District Attorney Patrick Meehan,
Famiglietti said, "You guys made a gutsy call. Stick to your guns." Later,
however, Famiglietti said the comparison was inconclusive.
Although McCloud and Wynn testified at trial, the jury convicted Jackson, and he
was sentenced to life in prison. After Jackson was convicted, McCloud and Wynn
complained to the IAI and the FBI. The FBI and the five members of the IAI
Latent Print Certification Board reviewed the evidence and agreed with McCloud
and Wynn's conclusion that Jackson was not the source of the print. After some
prosecutorial resistance and delays, Jackson was released, having served two
years in prison. The true perpetrator has never been caught. Creighton was
decertified by the IAI.
Journalists' investigation of two disputed identifications in Manchester,
England (the Wallace case and McNamara case) turned up an erroneous
identification that occurred in 2000. This attribution had been
"triple-checked." The suspect had a convincing alibi and did not fit the
witness's description. It was eventually discarded as an erroneous
identification. It is not known how many corresponding ridge characteristics
were testified to in these two misidentifications, but the sixteen-point minimum
standard was in place in the United Kingdom at that time.
Kathleen Hatfield was mistakenly identified as dead, based on an erroneous
fingerprint identification in 2002. In June 2002, an unidentified corpse was
found in the desert near Las Vegas, Nevada. "After some skin restoration using
tissue builder," the coroner was able to obtain a single thumbprint "of value."
This print was compared unsuccessfully with a number of inked prints from
missing persons. Hatfield, a forty-six year-old transient from Sonoma County,
California, had been listed as a missing person in May by her mother. Hatfield
matched the physical description of the corpse. The Califomia Sheriffs Office
faxed a copy of Hatfleld's ten-print card to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police
Department. The prints were examined by a Law Enforcement Support Technician
Supervisor. This individual did not work in the ten-print section of the Police
Department but had twenty-five years often-print experience and "had been
helping the coroner's office make identifications for many years." This
individual identified the body as Hatfield based on the fingerprints. Las Vegas
Police Detective David Mesinar said, "We only had one readable fingerprint, and
it was so close a match that they went ahead and made an identification."
Hatfield's mother was informed, and funeral preparations were made. Hatfield had
by this time been stopped and released by the Sonoma County police. The Sonoma
County sheriffs began looking for Hatfield and eventually found her in August.
Her mother was informed. Hatfield's grave had already been dug.
Meanwhile, the Sonoma County Sheriffs Office mailed Hatfield's tenprint card to
Las Vegas. The Technician re-examined the print and decided that she had made an
error. The Las Vegas Municipal Police Department Latent Print Unit confirmed
that the prints did not match. No official analysis of the erroneous
identification has been made public.
In 2001, David Valken-Leduc was charged with the 1996 murder of a motel clerk in
Woods Cross, Utah. Latent print examiner Scott Spjut testified at a preliminary
hearing that Valken-Leduc was the source of two bloody prints found at the crime
scene. Spjut was not merely an IAI certified examiner; he was the Chair of the
IAI Latent Print Certification Board, the body that oversees the certification
examination (and had helped determined that the match in the Jackson case was
erroneous). Spjut subsequently died, shot by a rifle he was examining in the
laboratory. Whether the shooting was accidental or suicide is still not clear.
After Spjut died, the crime laboratory reviewed his findings and found that the
victim was the actual source of the bloody crime-scene prints. Whether the
misattribution was fraud or an "honest error" is also not clear. Crime
Laboratory Director Rich Townsend told the press, "We're mystified as to how he
came up with this conclusion with his level of training and expertise." But
Valken-Leduc's attorney told the press, "[O]ur first line of attack was going to
be that [Spjut] had manufactured evidence in other cases." No such additional
cases have yet been reported.
The Cowans case is the first in which DNA evidence played a role in
demonstrating that the fingerprint evidence was erroneous. Stephan Cowans was
convicted of attempted murder in 1997 for allegedly non-fatally shooting a
police officer, while fleeing a robbery in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He was
implicated in the crime by the testimony of two eyewitnesses, including the
victim, and a fingerprint found on a cup. (The perpetrator fled the scene,
invaded a home, and held the family hostage for around ten minutes. During that
period, the perpetrator drank from a cup.) Boston Police Department (BPD) latent
print examiner Dennis LeBlanc testified that he found sixteen corresponding
ridge characteristics between the latent print from the cup and Cowans's known
print. LeBlanc testified that the two prints were "identical" and that the
latent print belonged to Stephan Cowans. BPD latent print examiner Rosemary
McLaughlin verified the attribution. Cowans was sentenced to thirty to
forty-five years in prison. According to Cowans's attorney. Cowans retained two
former BPD fingerprint experts who agreed that he was the source of the latent
print. Cowans served six years in prison, volunteering for "biohazard" duty in
order to earn money for a post-conviction DNA test. Three DNA samples recovered
from the same mug that contained the latent print and from a hat and sweatshirt
discarded by the fleeing perpetrator all excluded Cowans as the donor of the
DNA. Based on the DNA evidence, the Boston and State Police reexamined the
fingerprint evidence and concluded that it was erroneous. Cowans was freed in
January 2004. Subsequent investigation revealed the latent print actually
belonged to one of the family members who was held hostage. Unlike the other
cases discussed here, criminal charges were brought against the latent print
examiners involved. An external review reported that LeBlanc had "discovered his
mistake" before trial "and concealed it all the way through trial." However, a
grand jury declined to indict LeBlanc and McLaughlin. They were, however,
reassigned and suspended with pay. In an extraordinary move. Police Commissioner
Kathleen O'Toole shut down the entire BPD fingerprint unit and turned latent
work over to the state police. Allegations were made that Boston Police
Identification Unit had long been a "dumping ground" and "punishment duty" for
The most recent and best-known case in the U.S. is the Mayfield case (see supra
Introduction). Mayfield, an attorney in Portland, Orgeon, was a Muslim convert
and a U.S. Army veteran." He had once represented, in a child-custody case, one
of the "Portland Seven," who had pled guilty to conspiracy to wage war against
the United States. Even when Mayfield was first arrested, it was known that the
Spanish National Police were uncertain about the identification. While FBI
examiners identified fifteen corresponding points of comparison, the Spanish
could only find eight. Spain has a ten-point minimum standard. The FBI adheres
to no set standard for declaring a match. FBI examiners reportedly traveled to
Madrid to try to convince the Spanish that the identification was legitimate. On
this occasion, the FBI reportedly declined to examine the original evidence and
instead "relentlessly pressed their case anyway, explaining away stark proof of
a flawed link—including what the Spanish described as tell-tale forensic
signs—and seemingly refusing to accept the notion that they were mistaken.
Further investigation showed that the FBI had reprimanded Agent Massey for
making false attributions in 1969 and 1974.
4. Analysis of Known Cases of Misattribution
I compiled the above twenty-two reported cases of misattribution using
conservative selection criteria. Although there is no information on how many
times latent print identification has been used in crime investigation, the
number is clearly large, and twenty-two cases pale in comparison. Some might
even go so far as to suggest that this figure is so small that the
characterization of the error rate of latent print identification as zero is
warranted. However, before doing so, we need to understand the problem of
exposure. That is, are these twenty-two cases the full complement of actual
cases of latent print misattribution (or close to the full complement), or are
they merely the tip of the iceberg? The following analyses wilt indicate why the
latter is more likely the case.
a. Temporal trends
The first reason to believe that the known cases of misattribution do not
account for all actual cases of misattribution is their distribution over time
(Figure 1). Clearly, misattributions are clustered in recent years and appear to
be occurring at an accelerating rate. One possible explanation for this is that
the quality of latent print analysis is degrading. This might be because
training is being eroded by budget cuts or by computerization." Or, perhaps
latent print examiners have becoming increasingly complacent, and hence sloppy.
Complacency, however, seems unlikely. Although fingerprint examiners are not
legal scholars and may not have been immediately aware of the import of the
Daubert ruling in 1993, the fact that the case might stimulate heightened
scrutiny from the defense bar has been in the legal literature since at least
1997. The challenge to the admissibility of fingerprint evidence in United
States v. Mitchell in 1999 was very well publicized within the fingerprint
profession. If the perceived level of defense, judicial, and media scrutiny is a
measure of examiner vigilance, then latent print examiners should have been at
their most vigilant since the first two decades of the twentieth century during
the period after 1999. And yet, that period contains some of the most
embarrassing cases of misattribution.
A more plausible explanation is that misattributions are being brought to the
public's attention at a higher rate. There is little doubt that the growing
controversy over the validity of forensic fingerprint identification after
Mitchell has made fingerprint misattributions more newsworthy. A glance at the
sources, infra Part II.A.3, reveals that the earlier cases appear in legal and
scholarly literature, but not in the press, whereas the opposite is generally
true of the more recent cases.
If the apparent increase in misattribution is actually an increase in exposure,
the temporal trend is disturbing. Misattributions have been exposed at a rate of
more than one per year, during a period in which latent print examiners are well
aware that they are under greater scrutiny than any other time since the
introduction of the technique.
b. Offense characteristics
An analysis of the offenses implicated in the known cases of misattribution
gives even stronger reason to doubt that actual cases of misattribution are
limited to this data set. Figure 2 shows the distribution of offenses in the
known cases data set. The overrepresentation of very serious crimes is striking.
More than half of the misattributions occurred in homicide cases (murder, murder
investigation [Hatfield, McKie], or terrorist attacks). Sixty-eight percent
involved very serious crimes (homicide, attempted homicide, or rape). If the
cases in which the offense is unknown are removed (Figure 3), the figures are
comparable. Sixty percent of cases involve murder or attempted murder;
seventy-five percent involve very serious crimes.
Since homicide accounts for only around one percent of the total number of
felony charges, it is clearly overrepresented among the known cases of disputed
identification. Moreover, since I have combined cases for the United States and
the United Kingdom, where the murder rate is one fifth that of the U.S.,"" this
significantly understates the overrepresentation of errors in homicide cases.
It may be thought that this overrepresentation may be explained by the greater
likelihood of using fingerprint evidence in homicide cases, as opposed to other
criminal investigations. We can test this hypothesis. Professor Peterson et al.
collected detailed data on the use of forensic evidence in a representative
sample of adult serious crime cases in four American cities from 1976-1980.
Table 2 shows that fingerprint evidence is indeed more likely to be recovered in
homicide cases than in other criminal investigations, including burglary.
However, the difference is not great enough to explain the overrepresentation of
misattributions in murder cases. For example, homicide accounts for 54% of the
misattributions, burglary (a crime for which it is plausible to think the use of
fingerprint evidence would be common) only 18%. And yet, although fingerprint
evidence is recovered in around 40% of homicide cases, it is also recovered in
around 24% of burglary cases.
Another possible explanation is that misattributions are far more likely to
occur in homicide cases than in less serious offenses like robbery, burglary,
and drug offenses. It is possible that the pressure to close a homicide case
leads latent print examiners to "push the envelope" further in these cases,
elevating the potential for a misattribution.
A third possible explanation is that misattributions occur at the same rate in
homicide cases and other cases but are more likely to be publicly exposed in
eases involving very serious crimes because of the increased attention focused
on those cases by media, defense counsel and experts, and other actors. If this
were the sole explanation, it would suggest that—even accounting for the greater
prevalence of fingerprint evidence in homicide cases-if misattributions in
felony cases were exposed at the same rate as in homicide cases, there might be
around 600 exposed cases of misattribution (this still excludes the "dark
figure" of unexposed cases).
Is the overrepresentation of homicide cases in exposed cases of fingerprint
misattribution a consequence of examiner overzealousness or more efficient
exposure mechanisms? As Professor Gross has commented in another, though
related, context, "the truth is probably a combination of these two appalling
possibilities." In its report on the Mayfield case, however, the FBI has opted
for the former explanation. The report concludes that "the inherent pressure of
working an extremely high-profile ease . . . was thought to have influenced the
examiner's initial judgment and subsequent examination. Similarly, the report
concludes that the verification process was tainted "because of the inherent
pressure of such a high-profile case" and recommends that "[a] new quality
assurance rule is needed regarding high-profile or high-pressure
c. The fortuity of exposed cases
Perhaps the strongest evidence that the known cases of misattribution only
represent the tip of the iceberg is the fortuity of the exposure of cases of
misattribution. Only in 27% of the cases of misattribution could the exposure be
said to have occurred in the routine process of a criminal trial, usually
through the efforts of defense experts." In two cases (Chiory and Manchester)"
there is not enough information to determine how the error was exposed. In 63%
of the cases, extraordinary circumstances were required to expose the fact that
misattributions had occurred. The Loomis print was disputed during his trial,
but he was convicted; the identification was only retracted during a second
trial that Loomis had won on unrelated grounds. The Caldwell error was
only exposed during the trial of a coconspirator. Had the co-conspirator
died, plea-bargained, had charges dropped, or not mounted a vigorous defense,
the error would never have been exposed. The Lee error was brought to light by
the confession of the true perpetrator, always a fortuitous and highly unlikely
event. The McNamee error was exposed during the course of vigorous appeals and
reinvestigations undertaken over the course of eleven years.
The McKie case involved the prosecution of a police officer with an extremely
supportive father who was also a police officer and the extraordinary
last-minute intervention of American fingerprint examiners in a Scottish case.
That a former police officer would be driven to the brink of suicide and into
depression by her efforts to contest fingerprint evidence, suggests something of
the uphill battle faced by a criminal defendant who has fewer material and
psychological resources with fingerprint evidence being adduced against them.
The Manchester Case was exposed only because the suspect had an alibi and did
not match the physical description. The Hatfield error was exposed by the highly
unusual circumstance of a supposedly identified corpse turning up alive. The
Valken-Leduc error was exposed by a new review of the evidence, occasioned by a
bizarre, fatal laboratory accident."
In addition, many of the cases were exposed by "cascading"—the exposure of one
disputed attribution generated scrutiny that would not otherwise have occurred.
This scrutiny, in turn, revealed further cases of disputed attributions. A
defense motion for discovery of the fingerprint evidence, which prompted the
exposure of the Basden error, may be the normal course of business. (I have
coded it as normal.) But, even if it is, the three additional Fayetteville cases
would probably never have been exposed were it not for the exposure of the
Basden error. The Asbury error was exposed only through the attention generated
by the McKie error. And, Wallace and "Manchester" were only exposed after
journalists began investigating the McNamara case.
Fingerprint evidence is so powerful that erroneous fingerprint evidence is
likely to convict, convict securely, and never be exposed." In most cases,
extraordinary circumstances are necessary to expose a fingerprint
misattribution. Consider, for example, the Cowans case. Imagine that the
perpetrator were not so obliging as to have (1) drink from a cup, while fleeing
the crime, and (2) discarded two items of clothing containing his DNA at the
scene. Had the perpetrator not done those two things it is virtually certain
that Cowans would have served his full sentence of thirty-five years without
anyone ever knowing that the fingerprint evidence (and the eyewitness evidence)
was erroneous." Cowans's exoneration (and the exposure of the fingerprint
misattribution) also required the retention and preservation of the evidence
containing the DNA for six years and the willingness of a court to order
post-conviction DNA testing. Stephan Cowans himself expressed this most
poignantly after his exoneration when he remarked to a reporter "that the
evidence against him was so overwhelming that if he had been on the jury, he
would have voted to convict himself.
Similarly, consider the Mayfield case. Only the stubborn resistance of the
Spanish National Police to apparently intense pressure from the FBI exposed the
error. Imagine the Mayfield latent being discovered on U.S. soil. As a terrorist
case, the print probably would have gone directly to the FBI. No other agency
would have looked at it. With the Spanish National Police out of the picture,
the error might never have been exposed. Even Mayfield's own expert corroborated
the erroneous match. Now imagine the Mayfield latent being discovered on U.S.
soil and being initially examined by a local law enforcement agency, rather than
by the Spanish National Police. Would a local U.S. law enforcement agency have
withstood as well the pressure that the FBI apparently applied to the Spanish
National Police? Even in those circumstances, it seems highly unlike that the
Mayfield error would ever have been exposed. Finally, there is the role of the
media in bringing the Mayfield identification to light. The Mayfield case was
publicized prematurely because of press leaks in Europe. From the earliest
reports of Mayfield's arrest, it was reported that the Spanish police
entertained doubts about the fingerprint evidence." Had the leak not occurred,
the Mayfield error might have been resolved behind closed doors and never made
public. FBI latent print examiners might still be claiming, in sworn testimony,
never to have made a misattribution.
The high degree of fortuity associated with the known cases of disputed
attribution further strengthens the likelihood that known cases represent only a
small portion of actual cases of error and that the "dark figure" of unknown
cases is likely to be significantly higher than the "light figure" of known
It may, of course, be argued that each one of the known cases of misattribution
demonstrates that "the system works." precisely because it has become known to
us. In a case, such as Jackson, where reputable defense experts offered clear
and explicit testimony that the attribution was erroneous, this is a plausible
argument (though, since the jury convicted anyway, Jackson certainly diminishes
our faith that the criminal justice system "works"). But the majority of
misattributions were not exposed through such routine reviews. Moreover, the
"system works" argument puts those with fingerprint evidence adduced against
them in a double bind: if errors are not exposed, latent print examiners claim
that latent print identification is infallible; if errors are exposed, latent
print examiners claim that their mechanisms for detecting errors "work."
d. Safeguards against misattribution
The misattributions data set demonstrates that none of the supposed safeguards
against misattribution is immune from failure. For example, some courts have
held that "verification" provides a safeguard against error. Latent print
examiners have argued that competence is a safeguard against error." It has also
been argued that a high "point standard"— requiring a certain (high) number of
matching ridge characteristics in order to declare a match—protects against
misattribution." Most persuasively, it has been argued that defense experts
provide a safeguard against false attributions. Even within this relatively
small data set, misattributions have been known to occur when each of the
aforementioned safeguards is in place.
For example, the misattributions data set demonstrates that verification does
not prevent misattributions. Erroneous identifications were verified by one
examiner in Caldwell, at least one examiner in Cooper, two examiners in Chiory,
several examiners in McNamee, two examiners in the Manchester Case, three
examiners in both McKie and Asbury. two examiners in Jackson, one examiner in
Cowans, and two examiners in Mayfield. Indeed, more than half (12/22) of the
known misattributions were attested to by more than one examiner. This supports
that argument, posited by Haber and Haber, that, if "verification" is not
conducted blind, the "verifier" is more likely to ratify misattributions than
detect them." These findings are particularly important because "quality
assurance" and "quality control" (QA/QC) are increasingly invoked as the basis
for confidence in the reliability of latent print identification." These
findings show that existing quality control measures do not appear to be
particularly effective at detecting fingerprint misattributions.
Similarly, the data set refutes the notion that certified latent print examiners
do not make errors. Caldwell was erroneously identified by three IAI-certified
examiners. Midwestern involved an IAI-certified examiner, as did Jackson. Valken-Leduc
was erroneously identified by the Chair of IAI Latent Print Certification Board.
In fact, nearly one-third (7/22) of the total number of American" examiners
implicated in disputed identifications after IAI certification was instituted in
1977" were IAI certified. Given that only a small (though unknown)
percentage of practicing latent print examiners are IAI-certified, IAI-certified
examiners carry a surprisingly high proportion of the responsibility for
disputed identifications. This suggests that the misattribution rate for IAI-certified
examiners may be equal to, or even greater than, that for non-certified
examiners. It is possible that certified examiners are more overconfident in
making marginal attributions.
The data also show that a high point standard is insufficient to protect against
misattribution. Of the twelve cases in the data set for which the number of
supposed matching ridge characteristics is known, in fully half of those cases
the misattribution was made with at least sixteen points. Sixteen points has
historically been considered a very exacting standard. Three-quarters of the
eases had at least fourteen points, and none of the cases involved fewer than
Perhaps most surprisingly, the data show that even the provision of defense
experts does not protect a criminal defendant against misidentification. In four
cases (Caldwell, McKie, Cowans, and Mayfield), disputed identifications were
corroborated by independent experts. As will be discussed further below, that
independent experts would corroborate erroneous attributions suggests that the
underlying cause of misattributions runs very deep indeed.
[Continued in next week's Detail]
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