Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski — has recently published an article in the Georgetown Law Journal providing 12 reasons we should worry about the criminal justice system. His former law clerk and blogger Eugene Volokh has serialized the article for the Washington Post. Periodically, this is the second in a series of Judge Kozinski's concerns with the criminal justice system, through the analysis of Mr. Volokh.
I have shared similar concerns through this blog. I will provide links to my commentary as well.
Fingerprint evidence is
foolproof. Not so.
Identifying prints that are taken by police using fingerprinting equipment and
proper technique may be a relatively simple process, but latent prints left in
the field are often smudged and incomplete, and the identification process
becomes more art than science. When tested by rigorous scientific methods,
fingerprint examiners turn out to have a significant error rate. [Footnote:
“[F]orensic fingerprint identification almost never deals in whole
fingerprints. Rather, technicians use ‘latent’ fingerprints — invisible
impressions that they ‘develop’ using a powder or a chemical developing agent.
Latent prints are usually fragmentary, blurred, overlapping, and otherwise
distorted. The challenge is to match the latent print to a pristine inked (or,
these days, optically scanned) print taken under ideal conditions at the police
station.” [Citations omitted.] In United States v. Llera Piaza, 188 F. Supp. 2d
549, 564 (E.D. Pa. 2002), for example, Judge Louis Pollack rejected fingerprint
identification expert testimony after concluding that the field of fingerprint
identification has failed to systematically test its underlying assumptions and
claims of expertise.]
Perhaps the best-known example
of such an error occurred in 2004 when the FBI announced that a latent print
found on a plastic bag near a Madrid terrorist bombing was “a 100 percent
match” to Oregon attorney Brandon Mayfield. The FBI eventually conceded error
when Spanish investigators linked the print to someone else.
Here is a link to my take on fingerprint analysis in a blog at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette