February 25, 2005

Prof Scrutinizes Fingerprinting

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Everyone has heard that no two fingerprints are exactly alike, but does that mean that fingerprint evidence is infallible? Prof. Michael Lynch '70, science and technology studies, and Prof. Simon Cole '98, criminology, law and society, University of Californa, Irvine, are coming to the end of their research on the history of fingerprinting and DNA profiling, funded by a $144,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

"Fingerprinting has not been put through the same process as DNA profiling to determine error rate, validity and statistics," said Cole.

Lynch explained that there is a difference between latent fingerprints, prints left on a surface, rolled prints, which are the ones in the records where a finger was rolled in ink to make the print. He said that although no two prints are exactly alike, sometimes it can be very hard to determine a match, for example if the print is smudged.

Both researchers conducted many interviews and looked at court cases, rulings, and transcripts to study fingerprint and DNA evidence. According to Lynch, there has been an inversion of credibility between fingerprints and DNA profiling: at first, fingerprints were the gold standard and DNA profiling was intensely scrutinized. Over time, however, DNA profiling has gotten to have much more credible and fingerprinting, more likely to be questioned.

Judge Louis H. Pollack made a ruling which placed some restrictions on fingerprint evidence, questioning its validity. In a second ruling on the matter, Pollack changed his mind, saying that it was admissible evidence. "You can have perfectly matching DNA or fingerprint evidence, but that doesn't determine guilt, it's a question of testimony and circumstance, DNA evidence can't get you around that problem," said Lynch. He added that often this scientific evidence intimidates people, including juries, into thinking that thre is no way to criticize it.

The Death Penalty Project at Cornell Law School, a program comprised ot two parts, the first studying how the death penalty works and the second, representing clients in cases, has worked with DNA testing and fingerprint evidence in some cases.

According to Prof. John Blume, law, there was a case in which a client was on death row, largely due to fingerprint evidence.

"We mounted a challenge to the fingerprint evidence, ultimately casted enough doubt on it and were able to get another trial and though the client is still in prison, he is no longer on death row," Blume said.

"DNA can generally indicate that a person is not the perpetrator of an offense, but the fact that DNA evidence points towrard somebody doesn't always mean that the person is guilty," Blume said. In a current case, DNA testing is being done for a person who has been on death row for 21 years and this is his first access to DNA testing.

People have come to different conclusions from the opportunity for DNA testing. The the Innocence Project, based in New York City, for exapmle, works on using DNA testing to exonerate those wrongfully convicted.

On the other hand, "just as science can be used to free the innocent, it can be used to identify the guilty," said Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney who proposed bringing back the death penalty to Massachusetts by using DNA and other scientific techniques.


Archived article by Vanessa Hoffman
Sun Staff Writer