Reports and Publications
The 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Forensic Science Assessments: A Quality and Gap Analysis – Latent Fingerprint Examination found that while latent fingerprint examiners can successfully rule out most of the population from being the source of a latent fingerprint based on observed features, insufficient data exist to determine how unique fingerprint features really are, thus making it scientifically baseless to claim that an analysis has enabled examiners to narrow the pool of sources to a single person.
A review of the FBI’s handling of the Brandon Mayfield case (March 2006). The Office of the Inspector General focuses on the causes of the fingerprint misidentification in the Mayfield case and proposes possible solutions to prevent future fingerprint analysis errors.
The enormous size of the IAFIS database and the power of the IAFIS program can find a confusingly similar candidate print. The Mayfield case demonstrates the need for particular care in conducting latent fingerprint examinations involving IAFIS candidates because of the elevated danger of encountering a close non-match. p. 7
See pp. 136-150 for the National Research Council’s assessment of the discipline of fingerprint analysis. The 2009 NAS Report cited “a thorough analysis of the ACE-V method” that concluded: “‘We have reviewed available scientific evidence of the validity of the ACE-V method and found none.'” pp. 142-143 (citation omitted).
This National Institute of Justice publication was prepared by SWGFAST in 2011. All 15 chapters are available for free online. This publication sets standards for fingerprint identification and addresses issues such as bias and reliability of the technique
The 2016 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Report found that latent fingerprint analysis is a foundationally valid subjective methodology, but with a false positive rate that is substantial and is likely to be higher than expected by many jurors based on longstanding claims about the infallibility of fingerprint analysis. Conclusions of a proposed identification should include accurate information about the limitations on the reliability of the conclusion. See p. 101-2. Validity as applied requires that an expert: (1) has undergone appropriate proficiency testing; (2) discloses whether he or she documented the features in the latent print in writing before comparing it to the known print; (3) provides a written analysis explaining the selection and comparison of the features; (4) discloses whether, when performing the examination, he or she was aware of any other facts of the case that might influence the conclusion; and (5) verifies that the latent print in the case at hand is similar in quality to the range of latent prints considered in the foundational studies. See p. 102.
Five years after issuing recommendations regarding the fingerprint misidentification in the Mayfield case (March 2006), this report by the Office of the Inspector General examines the FBI’s progress implementing the recommendations.
…the FBI Laboratory has adopted other measures intended to reduce the risk that an examiner’s ‘gut’ reaction might lead to an incorrect conclusion, including linear application of the ACE-V methodology; a disciplined, ridge-by-ridge approach to the analysis phase; separate documentation of the analysis and comparison phases; and blind verification in certain cases, including cases involving single identifications (like Mayfield) with the highest risk of error. p. 25
From the Blog
- At the February 2018 American Academy of Forensic Science meeting, DOJ Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the Uniform Language for Testimony and Reporting (ULTR) document for fingerprints. The purpose of the document is to standardize language used by Department of Justice fingerprint examiners in their reports and testimony. While the document does not apply …
- SWGFAST Sufficiency Graph, 12/22/2016The Scientific Working Group on Friction Ridge Analysis, Study and Technology (SWGFAST) has a sufficiency graph for fingerprint comparison that may be useful for attorneys to use when discussing fingerprint comparisons with experts. The sufficiency graph reflects the interplay between quality and quantity of minutiae. Minutiae are small details that are used in comparing one …
- Fingerprint evidence left behind by a suspect or victim may identify who was at a crime scene and what he or she touched. However, it is important for defense attorneys to know, and to inform the jury, that the techniques used to locate and identify fingerprints are far from a perfect science. An understanding of …
- A 3-judge panel found Willie Grimes innocent after thirty-minutes of deliberation on Friday. Grimes had been sentenced to life in prison in 1987 after being convicted of two counts of first degree rape and one count of second degree kidnapping. He was paroled in May of this year after serving twenty-four years in prison. Grimes’s …
- The National Institute of Justice has published several reports on novel techniques that are being investigated in order to improve forensic analysis. Take a look at the reports below to learn about some of the latest techniques that are being developed and to get a forecast of what techniques you may see coming soon to …
- The Impression & Pattern Evidence Symposium is taking place today through Thursday, August 9, 2012. The live program, sponsored by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Office of Justice Programs and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Laboratory Division, is being streamed online here. The agenda is available here. Topics include the latest developments and …
- Crime scene forensics: How does it work?, 1/10/2012BBC News has posted a series of videos explaining how forensic tests are performed in crime labs on their Crime scene forensics: How does it work website. These short videos demonstrate various techniques including fingerprint comparisons, use of ninhydrin and superglue fuming (cyanoacrylate) to locate latent print evidence, firearm and projectile comparisons, and examination of …
Radio program that covers challenges to the reliability of fingerprint evidence, including bias. Includes coverage of the Brandon Mayfield case (from Mar. 10, 2011).
- Jury study evaluating how potential jurors react to different language used by fingerprint examiners to express their conclusions. Available for free download.
by Simon Cole, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 95, No. 3, 2005 – Comprehensive review of what is known about the potential error rate of latent print identification. Includes all known cases of fingerprint misattributions. Examines proficiency test data as well as the profession’s and courts’ efforts to minimize or dismiss fingerprint error. Available for free download.
- Sworls and Whorls: Litigating Post-Conviction Claims of Fingerprint Misidentification after the NAS Report
by Jacqueline McMurtrie, , Utah Law Review, Vol 2010, No. 2. – addresses uniqueness, individualization and infallibility claims of fingerprint examination, the history of latent print individualization, recent legal challenges to latent print individualization, and the NAS report and its use in post-conviction claims based upon new developments in forensic science.
The National Forensic Science Technology Center created this website to explain in simplified terms the principles of each type of forensic analysis and how the analysis is performed. Topics include DNA, digital evidence, fingerprints, firearms, trace evidence, blood stains, and more.
Explains and demonstrates the ACE-V technique.
This website has videos demonstrating several techniques that are frequently used to develop and collect fingerprint evidence, including use of black powder, magnetic powder, Mikrosil and super glue fuming. The videos may contain some inaccurate information, but it is worthwhile to view the techniques that are used.
A collaboration between the Orlando Public Defender and the National Center for Forensic Science at UC Florida. The site has links to many helpful training videos that help attorneys understand forensic science evidence.
This Scientific Area Committee (part of the OSAC) has taken over the work previously done by the Scientific Working Group on Friction Ridge Analysis, Study and Technology (SWGFAST). It is a collaboration of practitioners working to improve discipline practices and build consensus standards for the field of friction ridge analysis.
Professional association for forensic identification disciplines including fingerprint analysis.
A fingerprint examiner’s site that collects information about AFIS, certification, Daubert challenges, trainings, and other topics, from the law enforcement perspective.
Sample direct and cross-examinations of various forensic witnesses, including a firearm/toolmark expert, fingerprint expert, pathologist, DNA expert, and other forensic experts.
In May 2004, the FBI arrested Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield based on an erroneous fingerprint identification. FBI analysts incorrectly identified a fingerprint left inside a plastic bag related to the Madrid train bombing as matching Mr. Mayfield.
Mr. Allen’s 1983 rape and murder conviction in MO was reversed in Nov. 2012, though the state is appealing the reversal. In this case, it was discovered that there are seven usable fingerprints from the crime scene that do not match anyone involved, though police testified at trial that the fingerprints matched the victim, the victim’s boyfriend, or the police office who responded to the scene.
Ms. Canen’s 2005 murder conviction in IN was overturned in Nov. 2012 after she spent eight years in prison. A fingerprint that was a crucial piece of evidence in the prosecution’s case against her was found not to be hers. An Arizona fingerprint expert discovered that a sheriff’s detective misidentified a fingerprint found on a pill bottle in the victim’s home.
In 1997, Scottish police constable Shirley McKie’s fingerprints were found at a crime scene that her department was investigating. After denying that she had ever been to the crime scene, she was found guilty of perjury and her reputation was ruined. It was determined in 1999 that the fingerprints were not hers and she was cleared of all charges.
In cases where fingerprint evidence is the only evidence connecting the defendant to the crime, attorneys should consider the Irick rule. State v. Irick, 291 N.C. 480, 491-492 (1977) holds that “[f]ingerprint evidence, standing alone, is sufficient to withstand a motion for nonsuit only if there is ‘substantial evidence of circumstances from which the jury can find that the fingerprints could only have been impressed at the time the crime was committed.'” Where the fingerprint was impressed upon an easily movable object, like a roll of duct tape, attorneys should consider both Irick and the Fourth Circuit opinion U.S. v. Strayhorn, 743 F.3d 917 (2014) which held that “a fingerprint on an easily moveable object with no evidence of when it was imprinted is sufficient to support a conviction only when it is accompanied by additional incriminating evidence…”
The Court of Appeals applied the new Daubert test for expert testimony and held that trial court abused its discretion by allowing the State’s expert witness’s testimony about fingerprint evidence. A petition for discretionary review was granted by the NC Supreme Court which subsequently found that discretionary review was improvidently granted, leaving intact the Court of Appeals opinion. The court held that the witness’s testimony failed to satisfy Rule 702(a)(3) which requires that an expert witness be able to explain the abstract methodology underlying the opinion and reliably apply that methodology to the facts of the case. Here, the witness provided no detail in explaining how she arrived at her conclusions in the case at hand. The court held that the expert implicitly asked the jury to accept her expert opinion that the prints matched when she failed to provide an explanation of how she applied the general principles and methods to the specific case at hand.
For further discussion, see Brandon Garrett, The Reliable Application of Fingerprint Evidence 66 UCLA L. Rev. Disc. 64 (2018).
A three-judge panel in NC decided Mr. Grimes was innocent of a 1987 rape conviction for which he had served more than 24 years. Fingerprints from the crime scene did not match Grimes, but the State withheld that evidence until the trial. In 2011, the prints were uploaded into the Automated Fingerprint Identification System and there was a hit to the original suspect in the case.
Motions and Briefs
2018 Motion to Exclude testimony about fingerprint “identification” because it is scientifically indefensible, will overstate the probative value of fingerprint evidence and unduly prejudice the Defense, and mislead the trier of fact.
Sample petition for writ of certiorari regarding fingerprint evidence
Northern District of Alabama (Daubert jurisdiction)
- Motion to Exclude Testimony of Forensic Fingerprint Examiner – includes a comprehensive history of what scientific validation has and has not been completed for this field. Critiques the lack of uniform standards. Critiques analysis of small or distorted latent prints.
- Affidavit of Simon Cole – This expert in the field of fingerprint analysis describes the problems with the reliability of fingerprint evidence and the lack of uniform standards in the field.
- Rebuttal Affidavit of Simon Cole
- Reply to Opposition – Reply to Response in Opposition to Defendant’s Motion to Exclude in Rudolph case
District Court for the District of Utah, Central Division
- Zajac Order – granted in part and denied in part the Defendant’s motion to exclude fingerprint evidence. Important example of how the language used by the fingerprint examiner can be limited.
- Memo in Support of Defendant’s Motion to Exclude Fingerprint Evidence
Fingerprints in the News
- DPS crime lab employee arrested for theft of ammunition and weapon accessories (AZ), by Clayton Klapper, ABC15, 4/30/2019
- Bad police fingerprint work undermines Chicago property crime cases, by Nicole Wetsman, The Chicago Reporter, 3/12/2019
- Feds forcing mass fingerprint unlocks is an “abuse of power,” judge rules, by Cyrus Farivar, Ars Technica, 1/14/2019
- ‘Ballistic Fingerprint’ Database Expands Amid Questions About Its Precision, by Jonathan Levinson, NPR, 1/1/2019
- AI-generated ‘skeleton keys’ fool fingerprint scanners, by Danny Bradbury, Naked Security, 11/25/2018
- Garrett-authored amicus brief highlights need for improved judicial scrutiny of forensic expertise, evidence, by Duke Law News, 8/2/2018
- Wake County computer technology links suspects to thousands of crimes, by Ed Crump, WTVD, 7/13/2018
- Fingerprint Analysis Could Finally Get Scientific, Thanks to a New Tool, by Nicole Westman, Gizmodo, 5/15/2018
- Peter D. Barnett, Hayward, CA
- William (Bill) Bodziak, Palm Coast, FL
- Michael Cherry, Chantilly, VA
- Simon A. Cole, Irvine, CA
- Heidi Eldridge, Durham , NC
- Ivan Futrell, Stafford, VA
- Robert E. Gaensslen, Ph.D., Chicago, IL
- Robert J. Garrett, Denver, NC
- Donald Girndt, Columbia, SC
- Mike Grissom, Henderson, NC
- Robert (Bob) Hallisey, Knightdale, NC
- Jason Howe, CLPE, Timberlake, NC
- Marty Ludas, Wake Forest, NC
- Frances Morris, Black Mountain, NC
- Carol Murren, Shoreline, WA
- Ron Smith, Collinsville, MS
- Terry Turbeville, Clayton, NC
- George Daniel Wynn, Manassas, VA