Federal Judge Slams Fingerprint `Science': A Ruling by an Eminent Jurist Has Opened the Door for Defense Attorneys to Challenge the Practice of Accepting Fingerprint-Expert Testimony as Infallible. (Nation: Criminal Justice)

By Maier, Timothy W. | Insight on the News, March 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

Federal Judge Slams Fingerprint `Science': A Ruling by an Eminent Jurist Has Opened the Door for Defense Attorneys to Challenge the Practice of Accepting Fingerprint-Expert Testimony as Infallible. (Nation: Criminal Justice)


Maier, Timothy W., Insight on the News


Busted, tried and convicted! That is the verdict police expect when forensic technicians match a fingerprint found at the scene of the crime to a suspect. Long considered an infallible means of personal identification, latent fingerprints lifted from a murder weapon used to mean one word to detectives: Gotcha!

But, perhaps, not anymore.

U.S. District Judge Louis H. Pollak of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently rocked forensic-evidence technicians with a landmark decision that could change forever how fingerprints are viewed in the courtroom. In an ongoing drug-related murder trial, U.S. v. Plaza, Pollak ruled in January that fingerprint experts no longer may tell juries that two prints are a match. His ruling is considered a major victory for defense attorneys, especially coming from a judge with the stature of Pollak -- a former dean of both the Yale and University of Pennsylvania law schools -- who routinely is invited to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals.

"The ruling is great," says Douglas J. Wood, a Maryland defense attorney who recently won an acquittal for a 26-year-old Largo, Md., man charged with carjacking and attempted murder of a police officer by challenging the credibility of fingerprint evidence. "Prosecutors used to put a fingerprint examiner up on the stand and our job was to get him off as quickly as possible. When they said they had a match you knew you were [screwed]. Now I will never stipulate to fingerprint evidence again."

Wood called no defense witnesses to persuade the jury that Derrell Lamont Gilchrist was innocent. Instead, the defense attorney dumped much of the same technical attacks on the methodology of fingerprinting as presented to Pollak on the lap of a Maryland examiner -- who seemed dumbfounded that a growing number of academics are charging that fingerprinting has little to do with science. "She was so unfamiliar with the literature that in one way she looked incompetent," Wood says. "She didn't come across well. That was critical to winning the case."

Since 1999 most of that literature has been reviewed by jurists in nearly two dozen lower-court cases and three appellate-court decisions. All those courts ruled in favor of fingerprint evidence, noting it has been widely accepted and deemed reliable since 1911. Pollak became the first influential jurist to issue a judicial notice that the so-called "science of fingerprint evidence" is insufficient to determine what constitutes a match.

Pollak noted that while fingerprints are indeed "unique" and "permanent," they fail the "Daubert test," the standard used to judge whether evidence was collected scientifically. The Daubert test grew out of the landmark 1993 U.S. Supreme Court case Daubert v. Merrell Dow, which involved allegations that the morning-sickness drug Bendectin causes birth defects. To pass the Daubert test, fingerprinting must have testability, error rates, peer review and standards. It doesn't

In his written opinion, Pollak stated that fingerprint science has not been tested in a scientific sense. "It makes sense to rely on scientific testing, rather than `adversarial' courtroom testing, because to rely on the latter would be to vitiate the gatekeeping role of federal trial judges. If adversarial testing were the benchmark -- that is, if the validity of a technique were submitted to the jury in each instance -- then the preliminary role of the judge in determining the scientific validity of a technique would never come into play," he wrote. "Thus, even 100 years of adversarial testing in court cannot substitute for scientific testing when the proposed expert testimony is presented as scientific in nature."

Pollak said he was impressed with David Stoney, the director of the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago, who testified that a fingerprint examiner does not make "a scientific examination. It is a subjective determination standard. It is a subjective determination without objective standards to it. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Federal Judge Slams Fingerprint `Science': A Ruling by an Eminent Jurist Has Opened the Door for Defense Attorneys to Challenge the Practice of Accepting Fingerprint-Expert Testimony as Infallible. (Nation: Criminal Justice)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.