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Monday, November 18, 2002

BREAKING NEWz you can UzE...
compiled by Jon Stimac

High Court Denies Appeal in '96 Slaying - THE LOWELL SUN - Nov. 13, 2002 ...fingerprint expert was able to lift two bloodstained fingerprints off  bedroom door frame...

Cleveland Fugitive Arrested in Germany on Murder Charge - THE PLAIN DEALER - Nov. 13, 2002 ...when suspect's fingerprints were checked with Interpol, they discovered that he was wanted for murder...

Fingerprint Heats Up 32-year-old Cold Case - THE DAILY TRIBUNE - Nov. 13, 2002 ...fingerprint from a whiskey bottle was matched to suspect...

Man Pleads Guilty to 1988 Murder - THE INTELLIGENCER - Nov. 14, 2002 ...police had bloody fingerprints at the crime which were difficult to explain...

Texas Man Indicted in 1976 Robbery-Slaying - THE NORTH TEXAS NEWS JOURNAL - Nov. 15, 2002 ...technicians lifted a thumbprint and a palmprint from suspect's abandoned truck...

Man Charged in Assault on Florida Girl - THE DAYTONA BEACH  NEWS JOURNAL - Nov. 16, 2002 ...arrested man's fingerprints on stolen property...

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.

Last week, we looked more in depth at paradigms in latent print examination.  Several posts to the message board have expanded further on the concept.  This week, Josh Bergeron, LPE from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, brings us the topic of Subjectivity versus opinion.  Thank you, Josh, for expanding on this idea from your recent post


My purpose in writing this commentary stems from my supervisor who posed the questions of whether or not the word “subjective” is really the right word to describe the opinion we give in court, as forensic scientists. She wondered if this is another case of lawyers giving us a word to try and conform to or if we really think our opinions are subjective.  My supervisor also noted that she, nor anyone else she talked to, could find a dictionary that defined "subjective" using the word “opinion”. 

My understanding of the word “subjective” is that it is something that is based from your opinion.  The definition of “subjective” according to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary which most closely describes an expert opinion is as follows: “arising from conditions within the brain or sense organs and not directly caused by external stimuli.”  Something described as being subjective is from you, the person, it is not directly connected to the external stimuli, but rather indirectly.  Meaning that you don’t react because of the stimuli, rather, you react because of how you interpret the stimuli and what you know as to be appropriate.   

The New World Dictionary: Second College Edition defines “opinion”, as it relates to an expert as: “the formal judgment of an expert on a matter in which his advice is sought”.  So opinions are someone’s interpretation (judgment) of the information, thus an indirect response to the direct external stimuli.  We are interpreting the facts that are presented to us, be it in friction ridge detail or reading a graph printout from a GC-Mass Spec. Because of that human interpretation of facts, an opinion is subjective. 

The problem with describing our opinions as being subjective, which inherently they are, is 1): I don’t think it fully describes what an expert opinion is, and 2): in the average person’s mind, this immediately brings an element of bias and uncertainty into your expert opinion.  And with other definitions for “subjective” that are in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary like: “peculiar to a particular individual,” and “lacking in reality or substance,” just saying “yes, my expert opinion is subjective” to a defense attorney may open up a path for that attorney to run down, further belittling your findings.  It might be better to say, “This is how I, the expert in this field, after spending years training in, studying, reading and dealing with these situations on a daily basis, have interpreted and believe to be what the evidence shows.”

It was best described to me by a fellow colleague of mine, Glenn Langenburg.  He said, “In science, the only truly objective field is mathematics.  If you were going to paint a mental picture, math would be on one end of the spectrum and the field of psychology on the other end of the spectrum, with forensic science fitting somewhere in between the two.  You will always have some amount of subjectivity in forensic science, but it is definitely towards the objective end of that spectrum.” 

As forensic scientists we base our opinion from objective or factual data and information that we gather when studying or processing a particular piece of evidence.

Because of the method of how we arrive at our expert opinions, and because of definitions of “subjective” like “lacking in reality or substance,” we as a forensic scientist’s may be better off not to use the word “subjective”.  Instead, I present the idea of using the word “conclusion” to describe what our opinion is.   Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines “conclusion” as: “a reasoned judgment: inference”.  The New World Dictionary: Second College Edition defines “conclusion” as “the last step in a reasoning process; judgment, decision, or opinion formed after investigation or thought”.  These definitions seem to fit much more appropriately to what our opinion really is, a judgment based on facts.

This word used as a description of an expert opinion may aid in stopping attorneys from giving definitions of the word “subjective” in their closing remarks that are not actually in the same context as to what we do.  Now of course if the next question an attorney asks once you explain to them that you would prefer the word “conclusion” instead of “subjective,” is “Well then Mr. Bergeron, is your conclusion subjective?”  You get that attorney to define exactly what he means by subjective.  The fact remains that all opinions are inherently subjective.  However, I think it’s important that the court, jury, judge and attorneys know that we base our subjective opinion on the objective facts of the case and by using the word “conclusion” hopefully it will be a little more clear as to what an expert opinion is.


For more reading on this subject, see Bill Leo's article entitled "FINGERPRINT IDENTIFICATION Objective Science or Subjective Opinion", located in SCAFO's archives at http://www.scafo.org/library/170101.html.

To discuss this week's Detail, visit the informal CLPEX.com message board at
As usual, the onin.com forum (http://onin.com/fp/wwwbd/) is also available for more formal latent print-related discussions.

Next week, brace yourself for an awesome Detail by Glenn Langenburg regarding online information!


UPDATES on CLPEX.com this week...

Updated the

Updated the Training page and several course pages

Updated the Detail Archives

Updated the Newzroom

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