Justice institute seeking answers on the reliability of fingerprints

Study urged on quality of evidence, comparisons

February 21, 2005|By Flynn McRoberts and Steve Mills | Flynn McRoberts and Steve Mills,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Four years after scuttling a study into the reliability of fingerprinting, the research arm of the Justice Department is seeking answers to fundamental questions about the granddaddy of forensic science.

The National Institute of Justice recently called for researchers to explore such crucial issues as how to measure the quality of fingerprints lifted from crime scenes and the accuracy of comparisons made by law-enforcement examiners.

The research solicitation seeks to "provide juries with increased information about the significance and weight of fingerprint evidence" and also to create tools "to improve the fingerprint examination process," said Catherine Sanders, spokeswoman for the Office of Justice Programs, which includes the institute.

The agency's decision is the latest example of an unmistakable shift in the previously defiant world of fingerprint experts. Until recently, they had pointed to nearly a century of convictions in U.S. courts to dismiss calls for a closer examination of their discipline.

The institute's solicitation is "very significant because it's recognizing that there is an area that needs to have research done, and they're willing to step up to the plate and fund it," said Ronald Singer, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. "What I think NIJ is hoping is that they can fund the research that will validate the process and answer a lot of the questions."

Across the nation, law-enforcement and forensic officials are beginning to acknowledge the need to show whether science supports the expert witnesses whose opinions have long been accepted as gospel in American courts.

The broader reassessment of fingerprint comparison is largely being driven by a series of high-profile errors committed by examiners, including their role in the wrongful conviction of Stephan Cowans, a Boston man imprisoned for six years after a bogus match linked him to the shooting of a police sergeant.

A few months after Cowans' release last year, an even more embarrassing mistake occurred when the fingerprint world's elite -- examiners at the FBI lab -- falsely connected Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer, to the Madrid train bombings through a print found near the scene.

For several years, the National Institute of Justice has sought to walk a fine line over fingerprint comparisons -- seeking to bolster the scientific foundation of a time-honored discipline, without admitting weaknesses.

Calling for any research gives ammunition to defense attorneys who can suggest that the very need for such a study shows that the discipline is not entirely reliable.

Robert Epstein, a federal defender in Philadelphia, did just that several years ago when his client was charged in a robbery. In one of the only cases where a judge has told prosecutors to prove the scientific validity of fingerprint comparison, the FBI asked crime labs across the country to help the bureau convince the judge, in part by examining fingerprint evidence from the case.

While most examiners agreed with the FBI's conclusion that the defendant's prints matched those found on the getaway car, 17 examiners in nine states were unable to make an identification -- underscoring that the discipline is much more subjective than many fingerprint experts have acknowledged.

After receiving the conflicting responses, one of the FBI's top fingerprint experts asked the dissenting examiners to take another look, with the help of some FBI enlargements of the prints in question.

"These enlargements are contained within a clear plastic sleeve that is marked with red dots depicting specific fingerpint characteristics," wrote Stephen Meagher, chief of the FBI lab's latent print unit, in a June 1999 letter. "Please test your prior conclusions against these enlarged photographs with the marked characteristics."

(Contacted last week, the FBI declined to elaborate on the letters, saying they were part of the public record.)

Three months after Meagher's letter, the National Institute of Justice approved a call for research into fingerprinting, only to eventually let it die amid an uproar from police and prosecutors.

But continuing questions about the reliability of fingerprint comparison and the experts who practice it increasingly are prompting crime labs to re-evaluate how they do their work.

The FBI has long left it up to individual examiners to determine whether they have enough points of comparison -- among the loops, whorls and arches that make a fingerprint -- to identify a match.

But the bureau is now considering imposing guidelines on them, including the hundreds of examiners who evaluate tens of thousands of prints a day at the FBI's fingerprint database headquarters in West Virginia.

"Probably within the next year, we're going to set our own standards -- a minimum number of points needed to declare a match," said Charles Jones Jr., a fingerprint examiner instructor at the FBI's West Virginia facility.

Asked why the bureau was considering the change, Jones said: "I guess the Mayfield case was an eye-opener for everybody."

Noting that the examiners at the FBI lab outside Washington, D.C., have "always been the cream of the crop," he added, "If those guys can make a mistake, so can we."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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