Tell it to the jury

October 24, 2007

ABaltimore County judge's decision to throw out fingerprint evidence against a man on trial in a carjacking murder reads like an indictment of the forensic method used to match a print with an individual. It raises some serious questions about a tool of criminal investigators that has basically been accepted as infallible for nearly a century.

But a jury should have had a chance to review the evidence - and hear directly from the experts who have strongly challenged its reliability.

Circuit Judge Susan M. Souder's decision is critical to the state's case against Bryan Keith Rose, 23, who was facing the death penalty in the murder of a Security Square Mall businessman. It will surely have people talking in courthouses across the state, but her ruling is one judge's opinion; it carries no weight elsewhere in Maryland. And in the absence of a higher court review, that's how it should remain.

Fingerprints may be unique to an individual, but what lawyers for Mr. Rose challenged was the reliability of the method used to link fingerprints found in the victim's car and the shooter's getaway vehicle to their client. It was a gutsy attack on a system that has rarely been subject to public scrutiny.

Relying on a celebrated misidentification of a terrorism suspect by the FBI in the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the public defenders argued that fingerprint analysis had no basis in science, lacked objective standards and couldn't be relied upon to be accurate.

In ruling for Mr. Rose, Judge Souder found that judges hearing a death penalty case have a greater obligation to ensure the reliability of evidence - including expert testimony - presented at trial.

We take her concerns most seriously, and have opposed the death penalty and the flawed way it is applied in Maryland. But the efficacy of fingerprint analysis could have had a rigorous airing at trial, where a jury could have been educated on the pros and cons of the process.

Over the years, the essential tools of a criminal prosecution have come under increasing scrutiny and have been found wanting. In case after case, eyewitnesses have been shown to be wrong, in part because of new technologies. DNA testing has become an invaluable weapon, but it doesn't identify a person with 100 percent certainty.

Fingerprint analysis may be the next domino to fall, but it will require more than one judge's ruling.

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