State v. Sheehan appeal ruling

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Heather Baxter
Posts: 29
Joined: Tue Mar 14, 2006 12:49 pm
Location: Mesa, AZ

State v. Sheehan appeal ruling

Post by Heather Baxter » Mon Mar 05, 2012 8:06 am

In reviewing the appeal's court ruling in this case, I am troubled by one of the assessments made by the appeals court justices.

During cross-examination by the defense in the case at trial, the two fingerprint experts were asked about their knowledge of decisions published by both the IAI and SWGFAST regarding the cessation of claiming a zero error rate. The State's attorneys on redirect then inquired as to whether each examiner had ever committed an error. Both examiners appear to have stated that they had not been known to have made an erroneous individualization.

The appeals court ruling states that "both experts claimed to be 100% accurate." It is not completely clear without having read the trial transcripts whether either claimed a zero error rate in latent print analysis, although it doesn't appear that either did. Instead, it appears that the experts simply testified to personal knowledge regarding the accuracy of their determinations in casework.

Based on the appeal filed, the defense is apparently arguing that the experts, in stating that they had no knowledge of having made an erroneous individualization, they are in turn claiming a zero error rate. Based on the subsequent ruling, it appears that the testimony regarding the examiners' personal history of erroneous conclusions (or lack thereof) has been misconstrued as a declaration of the overall error rate for fingerprint analysis by the appeals court justices as well.

Is testifying to knowledge regarding one's personal erroneous conclusions now being held as a statement regarding the discipline's overall accuracy? I don't believe that this was the intention of either the IAI's or SWGFAST's documents regarding discontinuing the testimony of a zero error rate, but perhaps I misunderstood those documents' intentions.

If we are being cautioned from testifying that we are not aware of having made an erroneous conclusion during the course of our careers as it could be interpreted as claiming 100% accuracy (and in turn, 0% inaccuracy), how then are we to answer a question regarding whether we have ever made a mistake?

sandra wiese
Posts: 85
Joined: Wed Jul 06, 2005 5:47 pm
Location: Colorado

Re: State v. Sheehan appeal ruling

Post by sandra wiese » Mon Mar 19, 2012 2:56 pm

Hi, Heather. Speaking with the same disclaimer that I have not read the transcripts and the additional disclaimer that I am not immediately familiar with this case...When I am asked in regard to my professional error rate, I always make sure that I clarify what types of errors they are talking about: clerical/administrative, missed identifications and erroneous identifications (I do define these in my testimony). The first: yes of course, the second: I am quite sure were more common at the start of my career than they are now, but so far even that seems to be minimal and, the third: to my knowledge I have not made any erroneous identifications. All three types of errors are why we have both a review by another LPE and a technical/admin review to check for typos and the like.

Like so many other similar situations undergoing appeal, these types of challenges largely come down to the individual examiners clarity of testimony. I like what Ron Smith says about testifying: it is our job to educate. We can never presume that the people we are testifying to "know what we mean". In this case, WE (as LPEs) certainly know what they meant but (particularly on appeal cases) all the judge, jury and attorneys get to go on are the statements we make. The most you can do is your best possible to make sure your words are precise and leave no room for interpretation.

My two cents.
I keep 6 honest serving men
(they taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

-Rudyard Kipling

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