Friday, March 20, 2009

The Myth of Fingerprints

Remember the National Academy of Sciences report I blogged about last month about the sorry state of forensic science in this country? Today's LA Times has a column that looks at one of the most widely used and venerated parts of the field and its particular problems. Starting more than 100 years ago, there have been questions raised about fingerprints:

But by the time of Stratton's trial in 1905, fingerprinting had moved from the realm of scientists to that of police agencies.

Faulds was sitting silently at the defense table, Beavan wrote, stewing bitterly. The limitations of his technique were being ignored.

'The least smudginess in the printing of them might easily veil important divergences ... with appalling results,' Faulds wrote in a book that year. Police were 'apt to misunderstand or overstrain, in their natural eagerness to secure convictions.'

His warnings were ignored. Jurors took just two hours to decide Stratton's fate, with the fingerprint as the only piece of evidence linking him to the crime. He and his brother were hanged 19 days later.

The concerns Faulds raised would go unanswered and largely ignored for decades as fingerprints became definitive proof of identity. What had started as a hypothesis for 19th century scientists became an article of faith for forensic scientists and the courts in the 20th century, says Michael Saks, the author of several articles on the social history of identification sciences.
That article faith has sent many people to prison, and maybe a few to their deaths. How many were innocent? We'll never know, until someone is willing to launch off the Fingerprint Reformation.

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