The Subjectivity of Fingerprint Evidence

It is perhaps only fitting that one of America’s premier creators of fiction played a substantial role in creating the commonly accepted belief among the public in the infallibility of fingerprint evidence. It was during the infancy of forensic science when fingerprint evidence was still viewed with highly dubious suspicion by most people that Twain included a scene in his story Puddn’head Wilson in which he “presented a courtroom fingerprint scene and wrote, ‘Every human being carries with him from his cradle to his grave certain physical marks which do not change their character, and by which he can always be identified – and that without shade of doubt or question’ (Valier, 2003, p. 27). From that point on, suspicion of fingerprint evidence began to decline and a general acceptance of its objective infallibility took root.

And so things remained until the 21st century when, for the first time ever, expert testimony on fingerprint evidence was excluded from trial by a presiding federal judge. That exclusion was based on the judge’s assertion that the process involved in matching latent prints to a rolled complete print failed the “‘Daubert test,’ the standard used to judge whether evidence was collected scientifically” (Maier, 2002). The Daubert test consists of four parts: “whether the technique has been tested; whether the technique is subject to peer review; the rate of error and existence of standards controlling the technique; and general acceptance of the technique” (Sanow, 2002, p. 4). Not only did the process for identifying fingerprints fail to meet all four requirements of the Daubert test, it actually succeeding in meeting “only the last of the Daubert factors- general acceptance” (Sanow, 2002, p. 4).

In other words, fingerprint evidence has been universally accepted as objectively infallible forensic science because its objective infallibility has been universally accepted. Since tautological evidence has no place in forensic science, it is time to accept that fingerprint analysis is very much the subjective process that the failure to meet the Daubert test reveals it to be and re-educate the public about accepting fingerprint evidence as proof of guilt beyond a shadow of doubt.

References

Maier, T. W. (2002, March 18). 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). Insight on the News, 18(10), 20.

Sanow, E. (2002, February). Of Daubert and Fingerprints. Law & Order, 50(2), 4.

Valier, C. (2003). Crime and Punishment in Contemporary Culture. New York: Routledge..