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Crime News: Now We Can’t Trust Fingerprint Evidence Anymore

One thing that we’ve all been conditioned to assume is solid as a rock is fingerprint evidence, right?  From today’s CSI shows to the old Dragnet series, we’ve seen the cops come into a TV crime scene with their little brushes and white (or black) powder and voila! the culprit is identified.

Well, brace yourself.  The Houston Chronicle is reporting today that fingerprint evidence cannot be trusted.  You read that right.

According to reporter Moises Mendoza, it begins with an audit undertaken recently by Houston Police which revealed that their PD’s fingerprint experts were failing to properly analyze fingerprints.  A more serious revelation:  sometimes, they just weren’t finding fingerprints at all.  In Mendoza’s words, they were “missing fingerprints completely.” 

The expose doesn’t stop with Houston. 

Fingerprint labs across the country simply are not reliable.  According to Mendoza’s report, a UCLA law professor with expertise in fingerprint issues opines that the problem is so widespread that “[e]verything needs to change.”

Given Mendoza’s examples of injustice and ineptitude from all over the country,  it’s chilling to think how truly unreliable fingerprint evidence really is in our courtrooms today. 

Consider the following:

1.  Fingerprint analysis is not an established discipline and it has few national standards to be used by all forensic labs for confirming fingerprints.  What the Houston Police may conclude is the fingerprint of Joe Smith may be taken to the same lab in Chicago and get a different result. 

2.  It’s possible that different people may have almost identical fingerprints.  The idea that we all have unique fingerprints is not as clearcut as television script writers would lead us to believe.  And there’s just not much research out there (or in process) to figure out how close two stranger’s fingerprints might be.  

3.  Fingerprint labs are not required to have the same accreditation as other types of scientific laboratories (like those that analyze DNA, for example).  Only 10 fingerprint labs in Texas have been certified (as ASCLD-LAB).

How did this story get discovered?

When the Houston Police Department fingerprint lab took steps to become accredited, its innerworkings came under scrutiny — and it’s when this doublechecking occurs that the true failure of fingerprint labs comes to light.  Apparently, police departments across this state and across the country are working away, “analyzing” fingerprints and turning over what amounts to balderdash as “evidence” used by cops and prosecutors to arrest and prosecute citizens who may well be innocent of any wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, over in Houston, there’s big things going on at the HPD lab.  First there was a fruit-basket turnover of lab workers, and now a bunch of consultants are handling the work of the fingerprint comparison unit.  According to the Chronicle, there are also plans for a review of 6,000 HPD violent crime cases going back two years to check the accuracy, or lack thereof, in the fingerprint evidence used to convict those individuals.

Where do we go from here?

The blanket of ineptitude covering this country shows that the American public cannot trust law enforcement to police itself and get its fingerprint expertise legitimated.  Periodically, the media steps up to the plate and reports on this travesty of justice — the Houston Chronicle has done so now, the New York Times did so back in 2001

The true burden of insuring that fingerprints aren’t allowed to be considered as reliable in Texas courtrooms and refuting the assumption that police labs are trustworthy must lie on the shoulders of the criminal defense bar. 

In each and every case, defense attorneys must question this fingerprint evidence, with a tip of the hat in gratitude to good reporters like Moises Mendoza who are educating the public at large (and future jurors) that what you see on TV is merely wishful thinking on the part of law enforcement.  (And the cool lighting with shnazzy background music in Horatio Cane’s Miami lab isn’t accurate either, by the way.)

Thank you, Mr. Mendoza.  We look forward to your next report in this (hopefully) growing story.

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