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Monday, October 13, 2008

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.
Breaking NEWz you can UzE...
by Kasey Wertheim

Medical Mystery - No Fingerprints

ABC News - Sept 5, 2008
The surprising challenges of a rare genetic condition... update on planned gene therapy human trials in 2 years...

Man convicted in murder of Fort Worth woman

Fort Worth Star Telegram - ‎ Oct 9, 2008 ‎
Gill and Webb argued that Owens incriminated himself by the DNA and fingerprints he left behind; his actions -- burning Furch's car and eluding police in a ...

Court reverses 10 year sentence, dismisses charges

Arkansas News - ‎ Oct 9, 2008 ‎
...The only evidence was a single latent print on the exterior of a vehicle, a situation that has been decided previously in court to be insufficient to support a conviction...

Lincolnshire police lead the way in the development and ...

Market Rasen Today, UK - Oct 3, 2008
The effect was to cut the time taken to process fingerprint lifts and gain results from the database, from days to hours. Identifying fingerprints at such ...

Recent CLPEX Posting Activity
Last Week's Board topics containing new posts
Moderated by Steve Everist and Charlie Parker

Public CLPEX Message Board
Moderated by Steve Everist

statistics and fingerprints
by Michele on Fri Aug 29, 2008 2:02 pm 2 Replies 292 Views Last post by antonroland
on Sun Oct 12, 2008 11:44 am

Judicial enquiry briefing
1, 2by Iain McKie on Mon Sep 15, 2008 3:31 am 15 Replies 981 Views Last post by Daktari
on Sat Oct 11, 2008 7:52 am

Tribunal for McKie print expert
1, 2by charlton97 on Thu Sep 11, 2008 1:00 am 29 Replies 1584 Views Last post by Daktari
on Sat Oct 11, 2008 7:36 am

KEPT - Keeping Examiners Prepared for Testimony
1, 2, 3, 4, 5by clpexco on Tue Jan 29, 2008 6:52 pm 72 Replies 9008 Views Last post by Charles Parker
on Fri Oct 10, 2008 3:40 pm

Bottom Up Analysis
by Charles Parker on Sat Aug 30, 2008 10:39 pm 13 Replies 640 Views Last post by antonroland
on Fri Oct 10, 2008 1:43 pm

Digital Image based comparison process
by GEilers on Thu Oct 09, 2008 12:36 pm 1 Replies 104 Views Last post by Les Bush
on Thu Oct 09, 2008 6:32 pm

What the....?
by RedFive on Thu Oct 09, 2008 8:09 am 4 Replies 174 Views Last post by Gerald Clough
on Thu Oct 09, 2008 3:10 pm

"Z" mutilation of fingertips
by David Fairhurst on Wed Oct 01, 2008 10:25 am 4 Replies 342 Views Last post by Justice Pie
on Mon Oct 06, 2008 10:23 am

by charlton97 on Sat Oct 04, 2008 6:15 pm 11 Replies 326 Views Last post by Dennis Degler
on Mon Oct 06, 2008 8:23 am

Fingerprint Concerns
by supersleuth on Wed Aug 13, 2008 3:59 am 4 Replies 697 Views Last post by George Reis
on Sun Oct 05, 2008 5:53 pm

Digital photography of crime scenes
1, 2by antonroland on Mon Sep 29, 2008 9:05 am 25 Replies 396 Views Last post by George Reis
on Sun Oct 05, 2008 5:08 pm

IAI Conference Topics -
Louisville, Kentucky 2008:
Moderator: Steve Everist

No new posts

Documentation issues as they apply to latent prints
Moderator: Charles Parker

No new posts

Historical topics related to latent print examination
Moderator: Charles Parker

No new posts



Updated the Fingerprint Interest Group (FIG) page with FIG #65; a neat example of substrate distortion - broken safety glass; submitted by Sandy Siegel of Texas.  You can send your example of unique distortion to Charlie Parker:  For discussion, visit the forum FIG thread.

Updated the forum Keeping Examiners Prepared for Testimony (KEPT) thread with KEPT #39; Dissimilarity Outside the Area Viewed; submitted by Michelle Triplett.  You can send your questions on courtroom topics to Michelle Triplett:

Updated the Detail Archives

Last week

we looked at a recent order in favor of the prosecution from Minnesota regarding a Frye-Mack hearing on latent print admissibility.

This week

we look at a recent article from Georgia regarding legal challenges to fingerprints.

Courtside: Steve Fennesy on Law and Disorder
The Myth of Fingerprints

For nearly a century, prosecutors have considered fingerprints infallible. Now the science is under scrutiny.

In the fall of 2000, Michael Mears was defending a man named Jeffrey McGee, who was accused of shooting a Villa Rica police captain to death during a traffic stop on I-20. Although the murder weapon was never recovered, the prosecution had powerful evidence implicating McGee, including a warning ticket found in the officer’s car with McGee’s name on it, as well as an account from a witness who saw a man running from the scene to an SUV that was traced to the defendant. Investigators also had found a partial fingerprint from the scene—a print they said matched McGee’s. Prosecutors were seeking the death penalty.

Mears, who at the time was head of Georgia’s Multicounty Public Defender Office, wanted the fingerprint evidence thrown out. It was an uncommon request; there is little physical evidence more damning—or more irrefutable—for a defendant than having his fingerprints found at a crime scene. Since the advent of fingerprint technology a century ago, prosecutors have won countless convictions based, at least in part, on testimony from fingerprint experts.

But at the time of McGee’s case, a debate that had been limited to academic circles was percolating up to criminal cases. Defense lawyers were starting to ask a question that, up until then, hadn’t been raised in the courtroom: If fingerprinting is a science, then what is the science behind fingerprinting?

As hours dragged into days, Mears exhaustively questioned fingerprint experts and academics on the science underlying fingerprint identification. The FBI’s top fingerprint expert even flew down from Washington, D.C. Here is an exchange between Mears and one witness, Lanny Cox, an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation:

Mears: [Are] you aware of any independent studies that have been conducted to determine the reliability of the methods of preserving and lifting fingerprints?

Cox: A specific one I can quote? No.

Mears: Are you aware of anything in general?

Cox: No.

Mears: Are you aware of any peer review articles?

Cox: I’m not sure that there would be a reason to do that.

Mears: So the reliability question that you were asked was based upon your opinion as to whether or not what you do is reliable?

Cox: Yes.

Mears: And your answer that they’re reliable was based upon your own experience. Is that correct?

Cox: Yes.

Mears: It was not based upon any independent study, independent test, or independent peer reviews?

Cox: [It was] based on the experience and training I’ve had over the past twenty-four years lifting fingerprints. That’s the way it’s done, the way it’s taught. It’s the way it’s done by the FBI, the GBI, local police departments. That’s the standard used in the crime scene processing of latent print development.

As it turned out, the judge ruled against the motion to exclude the fingerprints. And several months later, the prosecutors agreed to a sentence of life without parole for McGee in exchange for a guilty plea. But Mears believes fingerprint testimony—so often a clincher of guilt in a jury’s mind—can also be used by the defense to introduce reasonable doubt.

“Yes, you can match up fingerprints, but it’s not science,” Mears said recently. “It has not reached the level of reliability that would be required of scientific evidence.”

Because no two people have ever been found who share the same fingerprints, not even identical twins, scientists have generally agreed that each fingerprint is unique. Which is not to say that two fingerprints can’t look very similar. Just ask Brandon Mayfield. Mayfield is an attorney in Portland, Oregon, who was put under surveillance and finally arrested after the FBI concluded that it was his partial fingerprint on a bag of detonators found after the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Not one, not two, but three FBI fingerprint examiners—and even one hired by Mayfield himself—insisted the print was his.

But it wasn’t. Spanish authorities ran their own test on the print and determined it belonged to an Algerian named Ouhnane Daoud. The FBI ultimately agreed, freeing Mayfield with an apology and, eventually, a check for $2 million. The false positive, as such a misidentification is known, was an embarrassment for the FBI, which touts on its website that fingerprints “offer an infallible means of personal identification.”

As the Mayfield case illustrated, investigators often have only a portion of a print to work with. And frequently that print—called a latent print, because it requires special powders or other means to be rendered visible—is smudged, or lifted from a rough surface, or so incomplete that the portion available could honestly match up to any number of fingers. Hardly infallible.

In the early 1990s, Simon Cole, a sociologist of science at the University of California at Irvine, was examining the legal challenges to accepting DNA as evidence of identity. For comparison purposes, he studied the history of fingerprints in the courtroom, figuring there would be established research undergirding the science of fingerprinting. But he found none.

Fingerprinting was admitted to courts in the early twentieth century, largely on the testimony of experts—often police investigators—to its accuracy. Once that precedent was set, the technique was rarely questioned. Unlike other forms of scientific evidence, fingerprinting seemed to escape judicial scrutiny. “There’s this cultural assumption that it’s infallible,” Cole says.

Part of the critics’ consternation is that—once examiners have looked at two prints, identified points of similarity, and concluded that the two impressions were made by the same person—there’s no hedging. As one GBI print examiner told Mears during the McGee case, “There is no probable [or] likely. It is or is not an identification.” (Examiners have a third option: The print is not clear enough to make a determination.)

But Robert Whritenour, who retired in 1993 as a latent print examiner from the U.S. Army crime lab at Fort Gillem, says if there’s a weakness in the system, it lies in the examiner, not the science. Whritenour’s training lasted several years and included a probationary period when his work was supervised. Too often, though, examiners in some local police departments are trained only for a few days before they’re called on to make comparisons. “You can put a lot of doubt in the juror’s mind if you explore the qualifications of the person on the stand who says they’re the know-it-all on fingerprints,” says Whritenour, who often testifies as an expert witness.

As the Mayfield case shows, though, even well-trained experts are prone to disturbing mistakes. In 2005, five fingerprint experts from five countries, who together had eighty-five years of experience, were given two prints and told they were comparing Mayfield’s print with the one found on the bag of detonators. Going into the comparison, the examiners already knew of the FBI’s error, and that Mayfield’s print did not match the one on the bag. But the researchers introduced a twist: Instead of the prints from the Mayfield case, each examiner was secretly given a pair of prints he had identified as a match in an unrelated case years before. The result? Only one of the examiners held to his previous determination. The other four changed their minds from the correct conclusions they’d reached years earlier.

The same researchers, from the University of Southampton in England, followed up later with another study. Again examiners were, unbeknownst to them, given sets of fingerprints they had ruled on years before. This time, though, they were told either that the suspect had confessed or, conversely, was in jail at the time of the crime. Out of twenty-four comparisons, examiners changed their minds four times from the determinations they’d made years before.

Fingerprint examiners, the study concluded, are “vulnerable to biasing information.”

This spring, the GBI phoned Drew Lane, the Paulding County district attorney, with bad news. Lane was preparing for the murder trial of Dexter Presnell, accused of killing Regan Wheeler in the course of burglarizing Wheeler’s home in 2005. A fingerprint found at the scene was “key evidence,” according to the GBI, in the case against Presnell.

But in preparing for the trial, a fingerprint examiner realized he’d made an error. In 2006, not long after the GBI introduced a new digital system for comparing prints side by side on a computer screen, the examiner called up a fingerprint found at the scene. Beside that print, he pulled up what he thought were Presnell’s known prints. But they were in fact Wheeler’s daughter’s, which investigators had taken as “elimination” prints. The labeling error led to the mistaken conclusion that the print at the scene was left by Presnell, when it wasn’t.

“We determined there was insufficient remaining evidence to prove the murder and burglary case against Mr. Presnell beyond all reasonable doubt,” says Lane, who had the indictment against Presnell dismissed. The misidentification, as Lane points out, doesn’t mean Presnell is necessarily innocent, but only that there isn’t enough to go to trial with. The investigation remains open.

The error has prompted an internal investigation at the GBI to determine precisely how the error was made and how similar ones can be prevented.

As Louis Kriel, the GBI’s latent print manager, points out, the error had nothing to do with the science of fingerprinting; it was a human mistake. Yet fingerprint skeptics are starting to find a warmer welcome in criminal courts. Last October, a Baltimore trial judge threw out fingerprint evidence in a murder case, saying that the process of comparing prints was “a subjective, untested, unverifiable identification procedure that purports to be infallible.” The defendant, Bryan Rose, accused of killing a man during a carjacking, didn’t get off the hook, though. Prosecutors turned the case over to the feds, who indicted him in April. They may seek the death penalty.

KEPT - Keeping Examiners Prepared for Testimony - #39
Dissimilarity Outside the Area Viewed

by Michele Triplett, King County Sheriff's Office


Disclaimer:  The intent of this is to provide thought provoking discussion.  No claims of accuracy exist. 


Question –Dissimilarity/Discrepancy:

How do you know that a dissimilarity didn’t exist in an area of the print that you didn’t compare (maybe an area that was beyond the latent that was left)?


Possible Answers:

a)      Due to the biological research behind identifications, it’s been established that with this much similarity it would be impossible for a discrepancy to exist.

b)      If you cant see the area, you can only guess.

c)      If a dissimilarity did exist, I’d have to see if there are any visual clues to explain why the dissimilarity was present, such as distortion or scarring.  My conclusions are always very conservative, if an unexplainable dissimilarity did exist, it wouldn’t be outside my tolerance level and it wouldn’t rule out an identification.



The question doesn’t distinguish any difference between dissimilarities and discrepancies.

Answer a:  I’ve heard this answer several times but it doesn’t state a standard of how much you need before it would be impossible for a discrepancy to exist.  It’s also possible that any answer that uses a word like ‘impossible’ may be outside of the limits of a scientific conclusion.

Answer b:  This answer may not seem realistic but it was paraphrased from an actual court case (US v Parks 1991).  Using any word or phrase that alludes to ‘guessing’ shouldn’t be used in court.  If a practitioner believes this is an acceptable form of arriving at a conclusion then retraining is most likely needed.

Answer c:  This is the best answer I can think of at this time.



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Until next Monday morning, don't work too hard or too little.

Have a GREAT week!