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Monday, September 16, 2002

BREAKING NEWz you can UzE...
by Jon Stimac

Wyoming Troopers Unravel Suspect's True ID THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN. NEWS- Sep. 3, 2002  ...man arrested on drug charges after a traffic stop spent a day and a half in jail before the Wyoming Highway Patrol discovered his true identity...

Resident Fingerprinting in Death Inquiry Ends-THE LOS ANGELES TIMES - Sept. 7, 2002  ...mass fingerprinting of residents on Norfolk Island drew to an end, but comparison could take months...

U.S. Will Fingerprint Some Foreign Visitors THE NEW YORK TIMES - Sept. 9, 2002 ...Immigration agents this week will begin to fingerprint foreigners who they suspect may pose security risks...

Scientist's Apartment Searched a Third Time THE BALTIMORE SUN - Sept. 12, 2002  ...subject  voluntarily visited the FBI to give a blood sample and leave palm prints and fingerprints...

Good morning via the "Detail," a weekly e-mail newsletter that greets latent print examiners around the globe every Monday morning. The purpose of the Detail is to help keep you informed of the current state of affairs in the latent print community, to provide an avenue to circulate original fingerprint-related articles, and to announce important events as they happen in our field.

YEAH!!  No more advertisements at the top of every e-mail!!!  If anyone tried to subscribe to the Detail last week, they probably had a difficult time. On Monday, I upgraded to a premium account (thanks to our T-shirt sales).  This move will allow me to consider the possibility of html e-mail, import new subscribers without having to refer them to the website or Topica (for those without internet access or who just want to subscribe without the hassle).  It also opens up other possibilities concomitant with html e-mail.  I conducted a test run using html format, and there are some issues which currently make offering that option time-prohibitive.  However, at least it is an possibility for the future.  Send all new subscription requests to

I have contacted possible hosts in California and Atlanta regarding the Adobe PhotoShop - demonstrating uniqueness  course we have all been waiting for.  Also, talks are being held with contacts in Florida.  Courses are on the horizon!  For California, I am looking at Nov 29 - December 1.  Yes, that includes a Saturday and Sunday.  I will hold the same course later for those who must have  week-day courses.  As I said, a contact is currently working on a host facility for these days, but if you have access to a facility with 25 computers (university, grade-school) that would allow law-enforcement to use the lab over the long weekend weekend, follow up with FITS soon. (888-235-1230 or e-mail bonnie@foridents.com)  The date is quickly approaching, and those of you from California and nearby need time to plan accordingly.  Others need time to confirm travel arrangements.  Let her know if you have have a facility you feel would work out, and in exchange for hosting the course you get several free positions! (exact numbers depend on the quality of doughnuts you provide :)  ha ha.

Last week, we looked at the first of a three-part series of articles by Glenn Langenburg entitled "Defending Against the Critic's Curse."  regarding Dr. Simon Cole.  This week, we look at Professor James Starrs.  The entire three-part article will end up being archived in the "Legal" section of the "Articles" page of this site, as well as in the Archive section of the Weekly Detail.  If you normally print each Detail, you may wish to wait for the entire article together, as it will be black text on a white background instead of the white on black format of this page.


Defending Against the Critic's Curse
Chapter 2, Professor James Starrs

Glenn Langenburg, Latent Print Examiner, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension


Kasey Wertheim and a few others have asked if I would attempt to put into writing some of the issues I discussed during my presentation at the ABFDE (American Board of Forensic Document Examiners) entitled "Defense Against the Dark Arts: Defending Against the Critic's Curse". I have agreed to do so and will attempt to address the three most vocal critics: Dr. Simon Cole, Professor James Starrs, and Dr. David Stoney. The purpose of these writings, as was the purpose of the original presentation, was not an attack on these three individuals, but rather an objective (as possible) examination of who these individuals are, what are their major arguments and tactics, and then most importantly how to defend against their attacks and where to obtain the information to support your defense against their "curses". This is hardly all encompassing, and any additional information that you can provide would be most helpful. Any comments that you may have please email me at Glenn.Langenburg@state.mn.us. Any anonymous comments that you wish to make, please send to Kasey and he will forward them to me without any identifiers. Please be critical if you see an error.

The second of these writings is focused on Professor James Starrs. I have not had the opportunity to see Prof. Starrs present-yet. I have copies of his presentations, transcripts, and read many of his voluminous articles, reviews, and text chapters. In fact my first introduction to Prof. Starrs was in my undergraduate forensic science program at Michigan State University. Required reading for the course was Saferstein's Forensic Science Handbooks (Vol. 1 and 2-there were only 2 volumes back then!). In the FSH Vol. 2, the first chapter is written by Starrs and is titled: "Mountebanks among Forensic Scientists"(1). In the chapter he described two types of shady forensic expert witnesses: the academites and the careerists. The academites either outright lie or exaggerate their education credentials. No one could claim that Starrs is an academite mountebank. His education and pedigree are impressive to say the least. He is a tremendously prolific writer, superb legal researcher and historian, and possesses brilliant insight and ideas. But the second type of shady witness, the careerist, is the "expert" that bolsters their stature as an expert witness with a façade of lies or exaggeration regarding their qualifications. I would like to return to this type of "expert" later.

There are several transcripts available for cases in which Starrs has testified or attempted to testify. U.S. v. Byron Mitchell, Arizona v. Toribio Rodriguez, and Pennsylvania v. Andrew Vikara III are related to fingerprints (2-4). U.S. v. Corey Moore is a firearms/toolmark case involving the exclusion of bunter mark evidence (the manufacturer's stamping impression made by a tool onto a cartridge) (5). All of these cases have offered excellent insight into the type of testimony Starrs provides and his knowledge, or lack thereof, regarding a particular forensic discipline. I would recommend getting copies of these as strong resources for defending against Starrs.


Professor Starrs has an impressive background. He first attended Niagara University, NY (6). He very honorably postponed his studies to serve in the Army during the Korean War and resumed his studies at St. John's University, NY to receive a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in English and a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) (7). Starrs then earned a Master of Laws (LL.M) from New York University, NY. He was enrolled in, but did not complete, a PhD program at NYU as well (8).

He has taught law and forensic sciences at George Washington University, D.C. for over 30 years, and was one of the co-founders of the Department of Forensic Science (9). He has written several chapters in books, including "Scientific Evidence in Civil and Criminal Cases" (10). Starrs is a distinguished fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS) and sits on the editing board of the Journal of Forensic Science (11). He has penned scores of articles and reviews on a wide range of forensic topics and legal issues. He supervised the investigations of several high profile cases, including the Sacco and Vanzetti case and the identity authentication of the corpse of Jesse James (12). His curriculum vita is over 20 pages long (13). As noted by one judge, "With a pedigree like that [Starrs] is getting in the door-he may not get to testify in the trial, but he's coming in for the [evidentiary] hearing" (italics added) (14).

Professor Starrs tends to raise similar issues that Simon Cole raises ("falsifiability", error rates and the proficiency testing exams, subjectivity of the identification process, etc.). Rather than rehash these issues again, I will examine three telling issues about Starrs' qualifications as an expert in forensic science and fingerprint methodology.

1) Professor Starrs is a forensic scientist
2) Starrs possesses expert knowledge of various forensic sciences and methodologies, including fingerprints
3) Misstatements, incorrect facts, and general ignorance of fingerprint science

These three issues are discussed below, accompanied by a possible defense.


Professor Starrs is a forensic scientist and possesses expert knowledge of various forensic sciences and methodologies, including fingerprints

Before proceeding to testify as an expert witness, Starrs must qualify as an expert witness. With his impressive credentials and long list of accomplishments, he tends to be very convincing that he is an expert and a forensic scientist.

This is simply not true and prosecutors have been very keen to address this issue. Starrs is an instructor of forensic science and an author of forensic science related writings. Teaching forensic science and law does not make him a forensic scientist. Even initially when he and four others were founding the Forensic Science program at GWU, Starrs was brought aboard to represent the law school (15). Furthermore, as a distinguished member of AAFS and the JFS editorial board, he represents the jurisprudence (legal issues) division (16).

Starrs completed a few undergraduate science courses approximately fifty years ago (17). Other than that, he has no formal scientific training. He has never worked in a forensic laboratory. He does not attend crime scenes (18). He has not taken any formal instructional course in fingerprints (19). His background is English and Law. No matter how he attempts to colorfully paint his background, his understanding of forensic science is limited only to academic understanding without the training, education, or experience to support his claim. Starrs does not perform any scientific examinations, nor is he qualified to. He has published no scientific, controlled research studies. He has coordinated forensic investigations (Sacco and Vanzetti, e.g.) and forensic exhumations (Jesse James, e.g.), but any scientific examinations in these cases were performed by actual forensic scientists, who submitted their reports and findings to Starrs for collation and integration into the legal and historical research performed by Starrs (20, 21).


Starrs possesses expert knowledge of various forensic sciences and methodologies, including fingerprints

Starrs has written half a dozen articles regarding fingerprints (22). He has researched and read many writings regarding fingerprint issues. He has worked "in the trenches" and "shoulder to shoulder" with fingerprint experts and gleaned a great deal about the methods examiners use (23). Therefore he is a qualified expert in fingerprint "issues" and methodologies. (Note: he has made the same arguments for his expertise of DNA and firearms/toolmarks examinations) (24).

This is nonsense. In U.S. v. Corey Moore, the A.U.S.A.'s (Asst. U.S. Attorneys) state it very well:
"If accepted, this claim to expertise based on Professor Starrs' association with experts would mean that any intelligent lawyer who works "shoulder to shoulder" with experts subsequently will be qualified to testify in their stead. The absurdity of this proposition speaks for itself." (25)

No amount of book learning, writing, or instructing can replace actual experience and understanding from actually practicing a method. He may understand the general premises, and clearly he understands the historical and legal aspects of fingerprints, but to claim to understand the methodology-without ever having performed it-is beyond any reasonable claim and certainly borders on his own accusations of other experts and so-called "careerists" (26).


Misstatements, incorrect facts, and general ignorance of fingerprint science

Starrs, through his readings, research, conversations with preeminent fingerprint experts, etc. can give detailed testimony about the workings and methodologies of the fingerprint discipline.

Though this author has great respect for Starrs' works, insights, eccentric humor, and critical-ever-watchful eye, that admiration is quickly diminished when one reads his testimony and he lays bare his very shallow understanding of our discipline. The best defense for this are the trial transcripts from The State of Arizona vs. Toribio Rodriguez. I counted over 23 incorrect, incomplete, or completely untrue statements made by Starrs, without even really nitpicking. I chose ten of the most spurious statements. Please refer to Rodriguez for the complete quote and context. (I will attempt, through Kasey to make these transcripts readily available in the near future in .pdf format.)

Top 10 Really Unbelievable Statements Made by Starrs in Rodriguez

10. "There is no measurement made by individual examiners as to whether or not the bifurcation is wide or narrow. A bifurcation is a bifurcation…it may be an ascending or descending bifurcation [but] no mention is made of that." (27)

9. "Flexion creases [in the palm] occur during life, after birth." (28)

8. "…with respect to palm prints, we don't always have arches, loops, and whorls. We can say 60 percent of the population will have loops on their fingers. We can't say that with respect to palm prints. We don't have the statistical basis. We don't have the empirical data to make such conclusions, and therefore, it is often said that there are some people that don't have arches, loops, and whorls among the various ridge characteristics on their palms." (29)

7. Elimination prints should be taken and compared to a latent print to exclude them as a source of a print, even if an individualization or match was made regarding the source of the print. This prevents a false positive result (erroneous identification). (30)

6. Regarding an interview of a DNA scientist for Starrs' exhumation of Jesse James: the DNA scientist wanted to examine the unknown sample first, the known sample second and then compare the two. Starrs said to him, "You are hired because you have proved yourself to be an objective scientist." (He implied throughout his testimony, fingerprint examiners do not do this) (31)

5. "…I would consider [Automated Palmprint Identification System, A.P.I.S.] not yet accepted, to my knowledge, by the F.B.I., as being experimental in nature. They still haven't been proved out in the real world." (32)

4. "…indeed, I've seen articles concerning fingerprints where fingerprint examiners have actually come to a conclusion as to an identity based exclusively on the existence of unique classifiable arches, loops, and whorls." (33)

3. "…a bifurcation is a very common occurrence, as is an ending ridge is common. There are many uncommon characteristics that are blithely overlooked: the spur, the bridge, the trifurcation…" (34)

2. "I am sure there are other characteristics as well, such as, for example, the pores on the papillary regions themselves or the ridges themselves, are they wide, are they narrow, and does that indicate some distinguishing characteristic. There are numerous other features that can be looked at for the purposes of making an [identification], but rarely are they." (35)

1. "It is a scientific approach to look for dissimilarities and not similarities…That is not the approach typically taken by fingerprint examiners. They look for similarities. That, of course, mean they are missing possible dissimilarities." (36)

What is most shocking about his testimony is that this was from a case last year (2001)! This wasn't 20 years ago as Ashbaugh was penning his ridgeology treatises. Interestingly Prof. Starrs mentioned that he was once contacted by an attorney regarding a fingerprint matter, because as Starrs related, "…if anyone had the finger on the button, I did because I follow the field very closely"(37). It seems very clear from his testimony in Rodriguez, that he is not, as he claimed, "a forensic scientist who is quite knowledgeable in the area of fingerprints (38).

(1) Saferstein, Richard. Forensic Science Handbook, Volume 2, Prentice Hall: New Jersey, p.1-37.
(2) U.S. v. Byron Mitchell, No. 96-407, Philadelphia, PA July 1999, Transcripts of Day 4 of Daubert hearing, p. 122-232.
(3) The State of Arizona v. Toribio Rodriguez, CR-41460, Tucson, AZ, May 2001, Transcripts of James Starrs.
(4) Pennsylvania v. Andrew Vikara III, 2000 Criminal 2264, Lackawanna Co., PA, Frye hearing, Oct. 2001.
(5) U.S. v. Corey Moore, Cr. No. F-10928-94, Dist.Columbia, Starrs' Declaration (Feb. 1997) and Government's Response (Mar. 1997)
(6) Mitchell (c.f.), p. 129.
(7) Ibid. p.129.
(8) Ibid. p.130,Rodriguez (c.f.), p. 49.
(9) Rodriguez (c.f.), p. 14.
(10) Moenssens, Starrs, Henderson, Inbau. Scientific Evidence in Civil and Criminal Cases, 4th ed.; Foundation Press: New York.
(11) Mitchell (c.f.), p. 133.
(12) Starrs, J.E. Once More Unto the Breech: The Firearms Evidence in the Sacco and Vanzetti Case Revisited: Parts I and II. JFS 1986, 31(2 and 3), 630-654 Pt. I, 1050-1078 Pt. II.
(13) U.S. v. Corey Moore, Government's Response, Exhibit E.
(14) American Board of Forensic Document Examiners Daubert Symposium, Las Vegas, NV, June 2002; personal notes.
(15) Rodriguez (c.f.), p. 22-23.
(16) American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Journal of Forensic Science Editorial Board, Members listing
(17) Rodriguez (c.f.), p. 67.
(18) Rodriguez (c.f.), p. 107.
(19) Rodriguez (c.f.), p. 104-106.
(20) Starrs, J.E. Once More Unto the Breech: The Firearms Evidence in the Sacco and Vanzetti Case Revisited: Parts I and II. JFS 1986, 31(2 and 3), 630-654 Pt. I, 1050-1078 Pt. II.
(21) Starrs, J.E, Stone, A.C., Stoneking, M. Mitochondrial DNA Analysis of the Presumptive Remains of Jesse James. JFS 2001, 46 (1), 173-176.
(22) Mitchell (c.f.), p. 126. e.g. "More Saltimbancos on the Loose?…" Sci. Sleuthing Newsl.(1988); "A Miscue in Fingerprint Identification: Causes and Concerns" J.Pol.Sci. & Admin. (1984); "To Err is Human, Infallibility is Divine" Sci. Sleuthing Newsl. (1983).
(23) "in the trenches" Starrs. Presentation "The Canards of Fingerprinting" American Academy of Forensic Sciences Annual Conference, Feb. 2002. "shoulder to shoulder" U.S. v. Corey Moore, Starrs' Declaration, p. 7, Mitchell (c.f.), p. 131.
(24) Firearms/toolmarks, bunter marks: U.S. v. Corey Moore, Cr. No. F-10928-94, Dist.Columbia, Starrs' Declaration (Feb. 1997); DNA: State v. Woodall, 182 W.Va. 15, 385 S.E.2d 253 (1989).
(25) U.S. v. Corey Moore, Government's Response, p. 30.
(26) Starrs, J.E. Recent Developments in Federal and State Rules Pertaining to Medical and Scientific Expert Testimony. Duq. L. Rev., (34) 813 1996.
(27) The State of Arizona v. Toribio Rodriguez, CR-41460, Tucson, AZ, May 2001, Transcripts of James Starrs, p. 72.
(28) Ibid. p. 61.
(29) Ibid. p. 63.
(30) Ibid. p. 89.
(31) Ibid. p. 69.
(32) Ibid. p. 64.
(33) Ibid. p. 63.
(34) Ibid. p. 72.
(35) Ibid. p. 82.
(36) Ibid. p. 70.
(37) Ibid. p. 36.
(38) Ibid. p. 18.

Glenn Langenburg, Latent Print Examiner, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension


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