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...The only evidence was a single latent print on the exterior of a vehicle, a situation that has been decided previously in court to be insufficient to support a conviction...
Market Rasen Today, UK - Oct 3, 2008
The effect was to cut the time taken to process fingerprint lifts and gain results from the database, from days to hours. Identifying fingerprints at such ...
Recent CLPEX Posting Activity
containing new posts
Moderated by Steve Everist and Charlie Parker
Moderated by Steve Everist
statistics and fingerprints
by Michele on Fri Aug 29, 2008 2:02 pm 2 Replies 292 Views Last post
on Sun Oct 12, 2008 11:44 am
Judicial enquiry briefing
1, 2by Iain McKie on Mon Sep 15, 2008 3:31 am 15 Replies 981 Views
Last post by Daktari
on Sat Oct 11, 2008 7:52 am
Tribunal for McKie print expert
1, 2by charlton97 on Thu Sep 11, 2008 1:00 am 29 Replies 1584 Views
Last post by Daktari
on Sat Oct 11, 2008 7:36 am
KEPT - Keeping Examiners Prepared for Testimony
1, 2, 3, 4, 5by clpexco on Tue Jan 29, 2008 6:52 pm 72 Replies 9008
Views Last post by Charles Parker
on Fri Oct 10, 2008 3:40 pm
Bottom Up Analysis
by Charles Parker on Sat Aug 30, 2008 10:39 pm 13 Replies 640 Views
Last post by antonroland
on Fri Oct 10, 2008 1:43 pm
Digital Image based comparison process
by GEilers on Thu Oct 09, 2008 12:36 pm 1 Replies 104 Views Last
post by Les Bush
on Thu Oct 09, 2008 6:32 pm
by RedFive on Thu Oct 09, 2008 8:09 am 4 Replies 174 Views Last post
by Gerald Clough
on Thu Oct 09, 2008 3:10 pm
"Z" mutilation of fingertips
by David Fairhurst on Wed Oct 01, 2008 10:25 am 4 Replies 342 Views
Last post by Justice Pie
on Mon Oct 06, 2008 10:23 am
by charlton97 on Sat Oct 04, 2008 6:15 pm 11 Replies 326 Views Last
post by Dennis Degler
on Mon Oct 06, 2008 8:23 am
by supersleuth on Wed Aug 13, 2008 3:59 am 4 Replies 697 Views Last
post by George Reis
on Sun Oct 05, 2008 5:53 pm
Digital photography of crime scenes
1, 2by antonroland on Mon Sep 29, 2008 9:05 am 25 Replies 396 Views
Last post by George Reis
on Sun Oct 05, 2008 5:08 pm
IAI Conference Topics -
Louisville, Kentucky 2008:
Moderator: Steve Everist
No new posts
Documentation issues as they apply to latent prints
Moderator: Charles Parker
No new posts
Historical topics related to latent print examination
Moderator: Charles Parker
No new posts
Updated the Fingerprint Interest Group (FIG) page
with FIG #65; a neat example of substrate distortion - broken safety glass; submitted by Sandy Siegel of Texas. You can send your example of unique distortion to
For discussion, visit the CLPEX.com forum FIG thread.
Updated the forum Keeping Examiners Prepared for
thread with KEPT #39; Dissimilarity Outside the Area Viewed;
by Michelle Triplett. You can send your
questions on courtroom topics to Michelle Triplett:
Updated the Detail Archives
we looked at a recent order in favor of the prosecution
from Minnesota regarding a Frye-Mack hearing on latent print admissibility.
we look at a recent article from Georgia regarding
legal challenges to fingerprints.
Courtside: Steve Fennesy on Law and Disorder
The Myth of Fingerprints
For nearly a century, prosecutors have considered fingerprints infallible.
Now the science is under scrutiny.
In the fall of 2000, Michael Mears was defending a man named Jeffrey McGee,
who was accused of shooting a Villa Rica police captain to death during a
traffic stop on I-20. Although the murder weapon was never recovered, the
prosecution had powerful evidence implicating McGee, including a warning
ticket found in the officer’s car with McGee’s name on it, as well as an
account from a witness who saw a man running from the scene to an SUV that
was traced to the defendant. Investigators also had found a partial
fingerprint from the scene—a print they said matched McGee’s. Prosecutors
were seeking the death penalty.
Mears, who at the time was head of Georgia’s Multicounty Public Defender
Office, wanted the fingerprint evidence thrown out. It was an uncommon
request; there is little physical evidence more damning—or more
irrefutable—for a defendant than having his fingerprints found at a crime
scene. Since the advent of fingerprint technology a century ago, prosecutors
have won countless convictions based, at least in part, on testimony from
But at the time of McGee’s case, a debate that had been limited to academic
circles was percolating up to criminal cases. Defense lawyers were starting
to ask a question that, up until then, hadn’t been raised in the courtroom:
If fingerprinting is a science, then what is the science behind
As hours dragged into days, Mears exhaustively questioned fingerprint
experts and academics on the science underlying fingerprint identification.
The FBI’s top fingerprint expert even flew down from Washington, D.C. Here
is an exchange between Mears and one witness, Lanny Cox, an agent with the
Georgia Bureau of Investigation:
Mears: [Are] you aware of any independent studies that have been conducted
to determine the reliability of the methods of preserving and lifting
Cox: A specific one I can quote? No.
Mears: Are you aware of anything in general?
Mears: Are you aware of any peer review articles?
Cox: I’m not sure that there would be a reason to do that.
Mears: So the reliability question that you were asked was based upon your
opinion as to whether or not what you do is reliable?
Mears: And your answer that they’re reliable was based upon your own
experience. Is that correct?
Mears: It was not based upon any independent study, independent test, or
independent peer reviews?
Cox: [It was] based on the experience and training I’ve had over the past
twenty-four years lifting fingerprints. That’s the way it’s done, the way
it’s taught. It’s the way it’s done by the FBI, the GBI, local police
departments. That’s the standard used in the crime scene processing of
latent print development.
As it turned out, the judge ruled against the motion to exclude the
fingerprints. And several months later, the prosecutors agreed to a sentence
of life without parole for McGee in exchange for a guilty plea. But Mears
believes fingerprint testimony—so often a clincher of guilt in a jury’s
mind—can also be used by the defense to introduce reasonable doubt.
“Yes, you can match up fingerprints, but it’s not science,” Mears said
recently. “It has not reached the level of reliability that would be
required of scientific evidence.”
Because no two people have ever been found who share the same fingerprints,
not even identical twins, scientists have generally agreed that each
fingerprint is unique. Which is not to say that two fingerprints can’t look
very similar. Just ask Brandon Mayfield. Mayfield is an attorney in
Portland, Oregon, who was put under surveillance and finally arrested after
the FBI concluded that it was his partial fingerprint on a bag of detonators
found after the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Not one, not two, but three FBI
fingerprint examiners—and even one hired by Mayfield himself—insisted the
print was his.
But it wasn’t. Spanish authorities ran their own test on the print and
determined it belonged to an Algerian named Ouhnane Daoud. The FBI
ultimately agreed, freeing Mayfield with an apology and, eventually, a check
for $2 million. The false positive, as such a misidentification is known,
was an embarrassment for the FBI, which touts on its website that
fingerprints “offer an infallible means of personal identification.”
As the Mayfield case illustrated, investigators often have only a portion of
a print to work with. And frequently that print—called a latent print,
because it requires special powders or other means to be rendered visible—is
smudged, or lifted from a rough surface, or so incomplete that the portion
available could honestly match up to any number of fingers. Hardly
In the early 1990s, Simon Cole, a sociologist of science at the University
of California at Irvine, was examining the legal challenges to accepting DNA
as evidence of identity. For comparison purposes, he studied the history of
fingerprints in the courtroom, figuring there would be established research
undergirding the science of fingerprinting. But he found none.
Fingerprinting was admitted to courts in the early twentieth century,
largely on the testimony of experts—often police investigators—to its
accuracy. Once that precedent was set, the technique was rarely questioned.
Unlike other forms of scientific evidence, fingerprinting seemed to escape
judicial scrutiny. “There’s this cultural assumption that it’s infallible,”
Part of the critics’ consternation is that—once examiners have looked at two
prints, identified points of similarity, and concluded that the two
impressions were made by the same person—there’s no hedging. As one GBI
print examiner told Mears during the McGee case, “There is no probable [or]
likely. It is or is not an identification.” (Examiners have a third option:
The print is not clear enough to make a determination.)
But Robert Whritenour, who retired in 1993 as a latent print examiner from
the U.S. Army crime lab at Fort Gillem, says if there’s a weakness in the
system, it lies in the examiner, not the science. Whritenour’s training
lasted several years and included a probationary period when his work was
supervised. Too often, though, examiners in some local police departments
are trained only for a few days before they’re called on to make
comparisons. “You can put a lot of doubt in the juror’s mind if you explore
the qualifications of the person on the stand who says they’re the
know-it-all on fingerprints,” says Whritenour, who often testifies as an
As the Mayfield case shows, though, even well-trained experts are prone to
disturbing mistakes. In 2005, five fingerprint experts from five countries,
who together had eighty-five years of experience, were given two prints and
told they were comparing Mayfield’s print with the one found on the bag of
detonators. Going into the comparison, the examiners already knew of the
FBI’s error, and that Mayfield’s print did not match the one on the bag. But
the researchers introduced a twist: Instead of the prints from the Mayfield
case, each examiner was secretly given a pair of prints he had identified as
a match in an unrelated case years before. The result? Only one of the
examiners held to his previous determination. The other four changed their
minds from the correct conclusions they’d reached years earlier.
The same researchers, from the University of Southampton in England,
followed up later with another study. Again examiners were, unbeknownst to
them, given sets of fingerprints they had ruled on years before. This time,
though, they were told either that the suspect had confessed or, conversely,
was in jail at the time of the crime. Out of twenty-four comparisons,
examiners changed their minds four times from the determinations they’d made
Fingerprint examiners, the study concluded, are “vulnerable to biasing
This spring, the GBI phoned Drew Lane, the Paulding County district
attorney, with bad news. Lane was preparing for the murder trial of Dexter
Presnell, accused of killing Regan Wheeler in the course of burglarizing
Wheeler’s home in 2005. A fingerprint found at the scene was “key evidence,”
according to the GBI, in the case against Presnell.
But in preparing for the trial, a fingerprint examiner realized he’d made an
error. In 2006, not long after the GBI introduced a new digital system for
comparing prints side by side on a computer screen, the examiner called up a
fingerprint found at the scene. Beside that print, he pulled up what he
thought were Presnell’s known prints. But they were in fact Wheeler’s
daughter’s, which investigators had taken as “elimination” prints. The
labeling error led to the mistaken conclusion that the print at the scene
was left by Presnell, when it wasn’t.
“We determined there was insufficient remaining evidence to prove the murder
and burglary case against Mr. Presnell beyond all reasonable doubt,” says
Lane, who had the indictment against Presnell dismissed. The
misidentification, as Lane points out, doesn’t mean Presnell is necessarily
innocent, but only that there isn’t enough to go to trial with. The
investigation remains open.
The error has prompted an internal investigation at the GBI to determine
precisely how the error was made and how similar ones can be prevented.
As Louis Kriel, the GBI’s latent print manager, points out, the error had
nothing to do with the science of fingerprinting; it was a human mistake.
Yet fingerprint skeptics are starting to find a warmer welcome in criminal
courts. Last October, a Baltimore trial judge threw out fingerprint evidence
in a murder case, saying that the process of comparing prints was “a
subjective, untested, unverifiable identification procedure that purports to
be infallible.” The defendant, Bryan Rose, accused of killing a man during a
carjacking, didn’t get off the hook, though. Prosecutors turned the case
over to the feds, who indicted him in April. They may seek the death
- Keeping Examiners Prepared for Testimony - #39
Dissimilarity Outside the Area Viewed
by Michele Triplett, King County
Disclaimer: The intent of this is to
provide thought provoking discussion. No claims of accuracy exist.
How do you know that a dissimilarity didn’t exist in an
area of the print that you didn’t compare (maybe an area that was beyond the
latent that was left)?
Due to the biological research behind identifications, it’s
been established that with this much similarity it would be impossible for a
discrepancy to exist.
If you can’t see the area, you can only guess.
If a dissimilarity did exist, I’d have to see if there are
any visual clues to explain why the dissimilarity was present, such as
distortion or scarring. My conclusions are always very
conservative, if an unexplainable dissimilarity did exist, it wouldn’t be
outside my tolerance level and it wouldn’t rule out an identification.
The question doesn’t distinguish any difference between
dissimilarities and discrepancies.
Answer a: I’ve heard this
answer several times but it doesn’t state a standard of how much you need
before it would be impossible for a discrepancy to exist. It’s also possible that any answer that uses a word like ‘impossible’ may be
outside of the limits of a scientific conclusion.
Answer b: This answer may not
seem realistic but it was paraphrased from an actual court case (US v Parks
1991). Using any word or phrase that alludes to
‘guessing’ shouldn’t be used in court. If a practitioner
believes this is an acceptable form of arriving at a conclusion then
retraining is most likely needed.
Answer c: This is the best
answer I can think of at this time.
Feel free to pass The Detail along to other
examiners. This is a free newsletter FOR latent print examiners, BY
latent print examiners.
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