Taking the “pseudoscience” out of fingerprint identification

After the Madrid terrorist bombing on March 11, 2004, a latent fingerprint was found on a bag containing detonating devices.  The Spanish National Police agreed to share the print with various police agencies.  The FBI subsequently turned up 20 possible matches from their database.  One of the matches led them to their chief suspect, Brandon Mayfield, because of his ties with the Portland Seven (Mayfield, a lawyer, represented one of the seven American Muslims found guilty of trying to go to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban in an unrelated child custody case) and his conversion to Islam (Mayfield was in the FBI database because of his arrest for burglary in 1984 and his military service).   FBI Senior Fingerprint Examiner Terry Green considered “the [fingerprint] match to be a 100% identification”1.   Supervisory Fingerprint Specialist Michael Wieners and Unit Chief, Latent Print Unit, John T. Massey with more than 30 years experience “verified” Green’s match according to the referenced court documents.  Massey had been reprimanded by the FBI in 1969 and 1974 for making “false attributions” according to the Seattle Times2.  Mayfield was arrested and held for more than 2 weeks as a material witness but was never charged while the FBI argued with the Spanish National Police about the veracity of their identification.  Apparently the FBI ignored Mayfield’s protests that he did not have a passport and had not been out of the country in ten years.  They also initiated surveillance of his family by tapping his phone, bugging his home, and breaking into his home on at least two occasions3.  All legal under the relatively new Patriot Act.

Meanwhile in Spain, the Spanish National Police had done their own fingerprint analysis and eventually concluded that the print matched an Algerian living in Spain — Ouhnane Daoud.  But the FBI was undeterred.  The New York Times4 reported that the FBI sent fingerprint examiners to Madrid to convince the Spanish that Mayfield was their man.  The FBI outright refused to examine evidence the Spanish had and according to the Times “relentlessly pressed their case anyway, explaining away stark proof of a flawed link — including what the Spanish described as tell-tale forensic signs — and seemingly refusing to accept the notion that they were mistaken.”

The FBI finally released Mayfield and followed with a rare apology for the mistaken arrest.  Mayfield subsequently sued, and American taxpayers shelled out $2 million when the FBI settled the case.  More importantly, the FBI debacle occurred during a debate among academics, government agencies, and within the courts about the “error rate” associated with fingerprint analyses5.  But before I address the specific problems with fingerprint identification let’s talk about the Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals (1993) court case.  The details are fairly banal and would have been meaningless to this essay except for the fact that it reached the Supreme Court and established what is now referred to as the Daubert standard for admitting expert witness testimony into the federal courts6.   In summay, the judge is responsible (a gatekeeper in Daubert parlance) for making sure that expert witness testimony is based on scientific knowledge7   Furthermore, the judge must make sure the information from the witness is scientifically reliable.  That is, the scientific knowledge must be shown to be the product of a sound scientific method.  Finally the judge must ensure that the testimony is relevant to the proceedings which loosely translated means the testimony should be the product of what scientists do – form hypotheses, test hypotheses empirically, publish results in peer-reviewed journals, and determine the error in the method involved when possible.  Finally the judge should make a determination of the degree the research is accepted by the scientific community8.

“No fingerprint is identical” – it has become almost a law of nature within forensic fingerprint laboratories.  But no one knows whether it is true or not.  That has not stopped the FBI from maintaining the facade.  In a handbook published by the FBI in 19859 they state: “Of all the methods of identification, fingerprinting alone has proved to be both infallible and feasible”.  I think that fingerprints are an exceptionally good tool in the arsenal of weapons against crime, but it is essentially unscientific to perpetuate infallibility.  The fact is that the statement “all fingerprints are not identical” is logically unfalsifiable10.  And the more scientists argued against the infallibility of fingerprinting the more the FBI became entrenched in their position after the Mayfield mistake11.  Take, for example, what Massey said shortly after the Mayfield case: “I’ll preach fingerprints till I die. They’re infallible12.”  It may be true that no fingerprints are perfectly alike (I suspect it is true) but it is also true that no fingerprint of the same finger is alike.  The National Academy of Sciences asserted that “The impression left by a given finger will differ every time, because of inevitable variations in pressure, which change the degree of contact between each part of the ridge structure and the impressions medium13.”  The point therefore becomes not if all fingerprints are unique but whether laboratories have the abilities to distinguish between similar prints, and if they do, what is the error in making that determination.

U.S. District Judge Louis H. Pollak ruled in a January, 2002, murder case that fingerprint analyses did not meet the Daubert standards.  He reversed his decision after a three-day hearing.  Donald Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief of Science opined “It’s not that fingerprint analysis is unreliable. The problem rather, is that its reliability is unverified either by statistical models of fingerprint variation or by consistent data on error rates14 15.”  As one might expect, the response by the FBI and federal prosecutors to Pollak’s original ruling and subsequent criticism was a united frontal attack not based on statistical analyses verifying the reliability of fingerprint identification but the infallibility of the process based on more than 100 years of fingerprint identification conducted by the FBI and other agencies around the world.  The FBI actually argued that the error rate was zero.  FBI agent Stephen Meagher stated during the Daubert hearing16, to Lesley Stahl during an interview on 60 Minutes17, and to Steve Berry of the Los Angeles Times during an interview18 that the latent print identification “error rate is zero”.  How can the error rate be zero when documented cases of error like Mayfield exist?  Even condom companies give the chance of pregnancy when using their product.

In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences through their committee The National Research Council produced a report on how forensic science (including fingerprinting) could be strengthened19.  Perhaps the most eye-opening conclusion of the report is that analyzing fingerprints is subjective.  It is worth quoting their entire statement: “thresholds based on counting the number of features [see diagram below] that correspond, lauded by some as being more “objective,” are still based on primarily subjective criteria — an examiner must have the visual expertise to discern the features (most important in low-clarity prints) and must determine that they are indeed in agreement.  A simple point count is insufficient for characterizing the detail present in a latent print; more nuanced criteria are needed, and, in fact, likely can be determined… the friction ridge community actively discourages its members from testifying in terms of probability of a match; when a latent print examiner testifies that two impressions “match,” they [sic] are communicating the notion that the prints could not possibly have come from two different individuals.”   The Research Council was particularly harsh on the ACE-V method (see the diagram below) used to identify fingerprint matches: “The method, and the performance of those who use it, are inextricably linked,and both involve multiple sources of error (e.g., errors in executing the process steps, as well as errors in human judgment).”  The statement is particularly disconcerting because, as the Research Council notes, the analyses are typically performed by both accredited and unaccredited crime laboratories or even “private practice consultants.”

fingerprinting copyThe fingerprint community in the United States uses a technique known via an acronym ACE-V – analyses, comparison, evaluation, and verification.  I give an example here to emphasize the basic cornerstone of the process which involves comparison of friction-ridge patterns on a latent fingerprint to known fingerprints (called exemplar prints).  Fingerprints come in three basic patterns: arches, loops, and whorls as shown at the top of the diagram.  The objective in the analysis is to find points (also called minutiae) defined by various patterns formed by the ridges.  The important varieties are shown above.  For example, a bifurcation point is defined by the split of a single ridge into two ridges.  I have shown various points on the example fingerprint.  Once these points are ascertained by the examiner, the points are used to match to similar points in the exemplars in their relative spatial locations.  It should be obvious that the interpretation of points can be problematic and is subjective.  For example, note the region circled where there are many “dots” which may be related to ridges or may be due to contaminants.  There is still no standard used in the United States for the number of matching points required to obtain a “match” (although individual laboratories do set standards).  Computer algorithms, if used, provide a number of potential matches and examiners determine which of the potential matches, if any, is correct.  The method appears straight forward but in practice examiners have trouble agreeing even on the number of points due to the size of the latent print (on average latent prints are typically one fifth of the surface of an exemplar print), smudges and smearing, the quality of the surface, the pressure of the finger on the surface, etc.20  There is another technique developed in 2005 called Ridges-in-Sequence system (RIS)21.  For a more detailed description of latent fingerprint matching see Challenges to Fingerprints by Lyn and Ralph Norman Haber 22

Now you might be thinking that the Mayfield case was unusual given the FBI and other agencies promote infallibility, but Mayfield seems to be the tip of the iceberg!  Simon Cole of the University of California, Irvine23 has documented 27 cases of misidentification (Cole excluded cases of matches related to outright fraud) up through 2004 and underscores the high probability of many more incorrect undetected cases because of the relatively large number of documented mistakes that have slipped through the cracks (Cole uses the term “fortuity” of the discoveries of misidentification) — particularly when the FBI and other agencies are very tight lipped about detailing how they arrive at their conclusions when there is a match.  These are quite serious cases involving people that spent time in prison for wrongful charges related to homicides, rape, terrorist attacks, and a host of other crimes.

It is worth looking at the Commonwealth v. Cowans case because it represents the first fingerprint-related case overturned on DNA evidence via the Innocence Project.   On May 30, 1997, a police officer in Boston was shot twice by an assailant using the officers own revolver.  The surviving officer eventually identified Stephen Cowans from a group of eight photographs and then from a lineup.  An eye-witness that observed the shooting from a second story window also fingered Cowans in a lineup.  The assailant, after leaving the scene of the crime, forcibly entered a home where he got a glass of water from a mug.  The family present in the home spent the most time with the assailant and, revealingly, did not identify him in a lineup.  The police obtained a latent print from the mug and fingerprint analyzers matched it to Cowans24.  The conflict between eyewitness’ testimonies made the fingerprint match pivotal and led to a guilty verdict.  After five years in prison, Cowans was exonerated on DNA evidence from the mug that showed he could not have committed the crime.

What do we know about the error (or error rate) in fingerprint analyses?  Recently, Ralph and Lyn Haber of Human Factors Consultants have compiled a list of 13 studies (that meet their criteria through mid-2013) that review attempts to ascertain the error rate in fingerprint identification25.   In the ACE-V method (see diagram above) the examiner decides whether a latent print is of high enough quality to use for comparison (I emphasize the subjectivity of the examination – there are no rules for documentation).  The examiner can conclude that the latent print matches an exemplar, making an individualization (identification), she can exclude the exemplar print (exclusion – the latent does not match), or she can decide that there is not enough detail to warrant a conclusion26.  The first thing to point out is that no study has been done where the examiners did not know they were being tested.  This poses a huge problem because examiners tend to determine more prints inconclusive when being examined27.  Keeping the bias in mind, let’s look in detail at the results of one of the larger studies reviewed by the Habers.

The most pertinent extensive study was done by Ulery et al.28.  They tested 169 “highly trained” examiners with 100 latent and exemplar prints (randomly mixed for each examiner with latent-exemplar pairs that did not match and those that did match).  Astoundingly, for pairs of latents that matched exemplars, only 45% were correctly identified.  The rest were either misidentified (13% were excluded that should have been matched and a whopping 42% found to be inconclusive that should have been matched).  I recognize that when examiners are being tested they have a tendency to exclude prints that they might otherwise attempt to identify, but even with this in mind, the rate is staggering.  How many prints that should be matched are going unmatched in the plethora of fingerprint laboratories around the country?  Put in another way, how many guilty perpetrators are set free on the basis of the inability of examiners to match prints?   Regarding the pairs of latent and exemplar prints that did not match, there were six individualized (matched) that should not have been — a 0.1% error.  Even if the error is representative of examiners in general (and there is plenty of reason to believe the error rate is higher according to the Habers), it is too high.  Put another way, if 100,000 prints are matched with a 0.1 percent error rate, 100 individuals are going to be wrongly “fingered” as a perpetrator.  And the way juries ascribe infallibility to fingerprint matches, 100 innocent people are going to jail.

There are a host of problems with the Ulery study including many design flaws.  For one thing, the only way to properly ascertain error is through submitting “standards” as blinds within the normal process of fingerprint identification (making sure the examiners do not know they are attempting to match known latent prints).   But there are many complications involved in the procedure that begins with not having any agreed upon standards or even rules to establish what a standard is29.  I have had some significant and prescient discussions with Lyn Haber on the issues.  Haber zeroed in on the problems at the elementary level: “At present, there is no single system for describing the characteristics of a latent.  Research data shows [sic] that examiners disagree about which characteristics are present in a print.”  In other words, there is no cutoff “value” that determines when a latent print is “of such poor quality that it shouldn’t be used”.  Haber also notes that “specific variables that cause each impression of a finger to differ have not been studied”.

The obvious next step would be to have a “come to Jesus” meeting of the top professionals in the field along with scientists like the Habers to standardize the process.  That’s a great idea, but none of the laboratory “players” are interested in cooperating — they are intransigent.  The most salient point Haber makes in my opinion is the desire by various agencies to actively keep the error unknowable.  She states that “The FBI and other fingerprint examiners do not wish error rates to be discovered or discoverable.  Examiners genuinely believe their word is the “gold standard” of accuracy [but we most assuredly know they make mistakes] .  Nearly all research is carried out by examiners, designed by them, the purpose being to show that they are accurate. There is no research culture among forensic examiners.  Very very few have any scientific training.  Getting the players to agree to the tests is a major challenge in forensic disciplines.”  I must conclude that the only way the problem will be solved is for Congress to step in and demand that the FBI admit they can make mistakes, work with scientists to establish standards, and adequately and continuously test laboratories (including their own) throughout the country.   While we wait, the innocent are most likely being sent to jail and many guilty go free.

A former FBI agent still working as a consultant (he preferred to remain anonymous) candidly told me that the FBI knows the accuracy of various computer algorithms that match latents to exemplars.  He stated “When the trade studies were being run to determine the best algorithm to use for both normal fingerprint auto identification and latent identification (two separate studies) there were known sample sets against which all algorithms were run and then after the tests the statistical conclusions were analyzed and recommendations made as to which algorithm(s) should be used in the FBI’s new Next Generation Identification (NGI) capability.”  But when I asked him if the data were available he said absolutely not “because the information is proprietary” (the NGI is the first stage in the FBIs fingerprint identification process – they match with the computer and send the latent with closest matches to the analyzers).  Asking for the computer error rate should not be proprietary – the public does not have to know the algorithm to understand the error on the algorithm.

Of course, computer analyses bring an additional wrinkle to the already complex determination of error.  Haber states “Current estimates are such that automated search systems are used in about 50% of fingerprint cases.  Almost nothing is known about their impact on accuracy/error rates.  Different systems use different, proprietary algorithms, so if you submit the same latent to different systems (knowing the true exemplar is in the data base), systems will or will not produce the correct target, and will rank it differently… I am intrigued by the problem that as databases increase in size, the probability of a similar but incorrect exemplar increases.   That is, in addition to latents being confusable, exemplars are.”   I would only emphasize that the FBI seems to know error rates on the algorithms but has not, as far as I know, released that data.

To be fair, I would like to give the reader a view from the FBI perspective.  Here is what the former FBI agent had to say when I showed him comments made by various researchers: “When a latent is run the system generally produces 20 potential candidates based on computer comparison of the latent to a known print from an arrest, civil permit application where retention of prints is permissible under the law etc.  It is then the responsibility of the examiner from the entity that submitted the latent to review the potential candidates to look for a match.  Even with the examiner making such a ‘match’ the normal procedure is to follow up with investigation to corroborate other evidence to support/confirm the ‘match’.  I think only a foolish prosecutor would go to court based solely on a latent ‘match’… it would not be good form to be in court based on a latent ‘match’ only to find out the person to whom the ‘match’ was attached was in prison during the time of the crime in question and thus could not have been the perpetrator.”  Mind you, he is a personal friend whom I respect so I don’t criticize him lightly, but he is touting the standard line.  Haber notes that in the majority of cases she deals with as a consultant “the only evidence is a latent”.

I suspect that the FBI along with lesser facilities does not want anyone addressing error because the courts may not view fingerprints as reliable, no, infallible, as they currently do, and the FBI might have to go back and review cases where mistaken matches are evident.  As a research geochemist I have always attempted to carefully determine the error involved in my rock analyses so that my research would be respected, reliable, and a hypothesis drawn from the research would be based on reality.  We are talking about extraordinary procedures to determine error on rock analyses.  No one is going to jail if I am wrong.  I will leave you with Lyn Haber’s words of frustration: “No lab wants to expose that its examiners make mistakes.  The labs HAVE data: when verifiers disagree with a first examiner’s conclusion, one of them is wrong.  These data are totally inaccessible… I think that highly skilled, careful examiners rarely make mistakes. Unfortunately, those are the outliers.  I expect erroneous identifications attested to in court run between 10 and 15%.  That is a wild guess, based on nothing but intuition!  As Ralph [Haber] points out, 95% of  cases do not go to court.  The defendant pleads.  So the vast majority of fingerprint cases go unchallenged and untested. Who knows what the error rate is?…  Law enforcement wants to solve crimes.  Recidivism has such a high percent, that the police attitude is, If [sic] the guy didn’t commit this crime,  he committed some other one. Also, in many states, fingerprint labs get a bonus for every case they solve above a quota… The research data so far consistently show that false negatives occur far more frequently than false positives, that is, a guilty person goes free to commit another crime.  The research data also show — and this is probably an artifact — that more than half of identifications are missed, the examiner says Inconclusive.  If you step back and ask, Are fingerprints a useful technique for catching criminals, [sic] I think not!  (These comments do not apply to ten-print to ten-print matching.)”

  1. The quote is from a government affidavit – Application for Material Witness Order and Warrant Regarding Witness: Brandon Bieri Mayfield, In re Federal Grand Jury Proceedings 03-01, 337 F. Supp. 2d 1218 (D. Or. 2004) (No. 04-MC-9071)
  2. Heath, David (2004) FBI’s Handling of Fingerprint Case Criticized, Seattle Times, June 1
  3. Wikipedia
  4. Kershaw, Sarah (2004) Spain and U.S. at Odds on Mistaken Terror Arrest, NY Times, June 5
  5. see the following for more details: Cole, Simon (2005) More than zero: Accounting for error in latent fingerprint identification: The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 95, 985
  6. Actually the Daubert standard comes not only from Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals but also General Electric Co. v. Joiner and Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael
  7. I can’t help but wonder what it was based on prior to Daubert.
  8.  It remains a mystery to me as to how a judge would have the training and background to ascertain if an expert witness meets the Daubert standard, but perhaps that is best left for another essay
  9. Federal Bureau of Investigation (1985) The Science of Fingerprints: Classification and Uses
  10. What I mean by unfalsifiable is that even if we could analyze all the fingerprints of all living and dead people and found no match, we still could not be absolutely certain that someone might be born someday with a fingerprint that would match someone else.  Some might think that this is technical science speak but in order to qualify as science the rules of logic must be rigorously applied.
  11. Cole, Simon (2007) The fingerprint controversy: Skeptical Inquirer, July/August, 41
  12. Scarborough, Steve (2004) They Keep Putting Fingerprints in Print, Weekly Detail, Dec. 13
  13. National Research Council of the National Academies (2009) Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward: The National Academy of Science Press
  14. Error rate as used in the Daubert standard is somewhat confusing in scientific terms.  Scientist usually determine the error in their analyses by comparing a true value to the measured value, inserting blanks that measure contamination, and usually doing up to three analyses of the same sample to provide a standard deviation about the mean of potential error for the other samples analyzed.  For example, when measuring the chemistry of rocks collected in the field, my students and I have used three controls on analyses:  1) Standards which are rock samples with known concentrations determined from many analyses in different laboratories by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, 2) what are commonly referred to as “blanks” (the geochemist does all the chemical procedures she would do without adding a rock sample in an attempt to measure contamination), and three analyzing a few samples up to three times to determine variations.  All samples are “blind” – unknown to the analyzers.  The ultimate goal is to get a handle on the accuracy and precision of the analyses.  These are tried and true methods and as I argue in this essay, a similar approach should be taken for fingerprint analyses.
  15. Kennedy, Donald (2003) Forensic science: Oxymoron?, Science, 302, 1625.
  16. Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (1993) 509 US 579, 589
  17. Stahl, Lesley (2003) Fingerprints 60 Minutes, Jan. 5.
  18. Berry, Steve (2002) Pointing a Finger: Los Angeles Time, Feb. 26.
  19. see ref. 13
  20. Haber, L. and Haber, R. N. (2004) Error rates for human latent fingerprint examiners: In Ratha, N. and Bolle, R., Automatic Fingerprint Recognition Systems, Springer
  21. Ashbaugh, D. R. 2005 Proposal for ridge-in-sequence: http://onin.com/fp/ridgeology.pdf
  22. Haber, L. and Haber, R. N. (2009) Challenges to Fingerprints: Lawyers & Judges Publishing Company
  23. see ref. 5
  24. One of the biggest criticism of the fingerprint community comes from the lack of blind tests — fingerprint analyzers often know the details of the case.  Study after study has shown that positive results are obtained more frequently if a perpetrator is known to the forensic analyzers – called expectation bias: see, for example, Risinger, M. D. et al. (2002) The Daubert/Kumbo Implications of observer effects in forensic science: Hidden Problems of Expectation and Suggestions, 90 California Law Review
  25. Haber, R. N. and Haber, N. (2014) Experimental results of fingerprint comparison validity and reliability: A review and critical analysis: Science and Justice, 54, 375
  26. see The Report of the Expert Working Group on Human Factors in Latent Print Analysis (2012) Latent Print Examination and Human Factors: Improving the Practice through a Systems Approach: National Institute of Technology
  27. see ref. 24
  28. Ulery, B. T., Hicklin, R. A., Buscaglia, J., and Roberts, M. A. (2011) Accuracy and reliability of forensic latent fingerprint decisions: Proc. National Academy of Science of the U.S.
  29. see ref. 14
49 replies
  1. MegSloan87
    MegSloan87 says:

    Professor Defant,
    The reason I chose this article is because I am a Criminology major. This was extremely interesting and taught me quite a bit. The line “Even condom companies give the chance of pregnancy when using their product” made me laugh out loud. I cannot believe the amount of cases in question the FBI is not willing to own up to or even take a look into. The FBI needs to rethink their stance on fingerprint identification. It reminds me of when DNA technology became advanced and innocent people were set free because it proved their innocence. Hopefully this will be looked into before it is to late.

  2. Jacob Pierce
    Jacob Pierce says:

    I found this article extremely enlightening in regards to fingerprint analysis. I was completely unaware of the rate of error involved with fingerprints, which made this article especially interesting to examine. The example given of Brandon Mayfield really pushes the idea of the mistakes that can be made when using fingerprints as an infallible source of proof. The idea that the FBI will not admit that fingerprints are not infallible seems ridiculous when there are 27 documented cases of misidentification, and many more that assuredly went undocumented. I agree with your assessment that the FBI need to admit fingerprints as fallible, as many guilty people have most definitely gone free while many innocent people have been unjustly accused or convicted.The test at Ulery, even with the tests flaws, is worrisome,and leads me to one simple conclusion. That being that the FBI needs to admit that they have made mistakes before, and then we can move from there to finding a solution to this issue. If they continue to push the idea that fingerprints are infallible evidence then it will lead to more people getting hurt as some innocents are punished, and the some of the guilty are not.

    • Jacob Pierce
      Jacob Pierce says:

      I found this article extremely enlightening in regards to fingerprint analysis. I was completely unaware of the rate of error involved with fingerprints, which made this article especially interesting to examine. The example given of Brandon Mayfield really pushes the idea of the mistakes that can be made when using fingerprints as an infallible source of proof. The idea that the FBI will not admit that fingerprints are not infallible seems ridiculous when there are 27 documented cases of misidentification, and many more that assuredly went undocumented. I agree with your assessment that the FBI need to admit fingerprints as fallible, as many guilty people have most definitely gone free while many innocent people have been unjustly accused or convicted.The test at Ulery, even with the tests flaws, is worrisome,and leads me to one simple conclusion. That being that the FBI needs to admit that they have made mistakes before, and then we can move from there to finding a solution to this issue. If they continue to push the idea that fingerprints are infallible evidence then it will lead to more people getting hurt as some innocents are punished, and the some of the guilty are not. Even if the FBI worries that the court will no longer view fingerprints as infallible evidence in cases, it is still better that making a fatal mistake with fingerprints. Peoples lives are ruined with these sorts of mistakes, all because the FBI doesn’t want to admit that fingerprints are not 100% infallible evidence in cases. How can the FBI expect people to trust in them, when we know they use fingerprints like this?

  3. arodriguez16
    arodriguez16 says:

    I did not previously know much about finger printing and the article was extremely informing. The Madrid terrorist bombing incident is similar to something I’ve seen on shows like Law and Order and Criminal Minds. I’m sure it is so easy to blame someone you’re uncertain about so you can finally pin the blame on someone. That desire can cloud someone’s judgment which is exactly what happened to the FBI. The timing aligned nicely with the Daubert v. Merrel Dow Pharmaceuticals case. Without the Daubert standard being set it would be difficult for cases involving fingerprint evidence. Since there is still question of the infallibility of forensic fingerprinting requiring science is a great way to combat the assumption that it is always 100%. Further research has shown that numerous things can be contributing factors, such as variations in pressure. The clouded judgment of the FBI continues to argue that there is a zero error rate. Until they come around and truly see the research and disputing facts there will always be a battle. Looking at ways to strengthen the science behind it is a good way to please the FBI by making the process a little bit more accurate, as they believe it to be. Introducing an example really helped prove your points. The fingerprint does not seem as simple to read as the FBI say it is. I certainly see how subjectivity comes into play. There’s surely hope in the system now because those being wrongly accused and charged are being exonerated once found innocent. If we can be proactive and work to prevent the wrongful conviction, then we will not have to go back and fix our mistakes. The numbers from the study performed by Ulery et al were shocking to me. With a number like 45% correctly identified matches it further proves the science behind fingerprinting is delicate and needs more work. Putting an average number to those who would be “fingered” makes the statistics all the more real. Even though there were many complications found it is a good start. In order for more progress to be made the FBI would have to admit to some things, as you stated. It’s certainly a price to pay because as we wait for that to happen who knows how many more people will be set free or even wrongly convicted. Another possible step for progress would be to get everyone on the same search systems. This has the potential to save a small amount of error. Do I still think fingerprinting is a good method to find criminals? Maybe not now, but it could be.

  4. SabrinaRios
    SabrinaRios says:

    Professor Defant,
    I have a Criminal Justice major and at one point even wanted to explore forensic science. Out of all of your articles I found this one relatable and a topic I’m familiar with. It was interesting to see your view on fingerprint analysis and point on some very crucial cases were mistakes were made based on the thought that fingerprints are 100% accurate. In the first case of the Madrid bombing, Mayfield was being falsely accused based on his fingerprint when there seemed to be no other coinciding evidence to confirm that claim. It’s amazing that such a respected agency such as the FBI could have made such a simple mistake that could have changed this man’s life. Imagine all the smaller agencies such as sheriff’s or local police were these “small” fingerprint mistakes might have been made and someone falsely accused (not like that hasn’t happened). I really liked your response to FBI Stephen Meagher’s comment that the latent print has a error rate of zero. How is that possible when even condoms have a chance of getting the users pregnant or the ability to contract and STD. Yet your standing behind the latent print identification with 100% accuracy and no are for errors when there has been over 27 proven cases. The amount of falsely accused individuals is astonishing that some how they where found guilty let alone with a “match” fingerprint and yet that can also be an area of error. The fact that Cowan was imprisoned for about 5 years found guilty by his fingerprint when eye witness testimony and at the end his DNA was the factor that released him. How is that possible? How can you have not committed a crime and there is some evidence proving you are innocent and yet a “fingerprint match” can go against all odds and imprison someone? Obviously fingerprints are an opportunity of improvement. Since when is a conviction made solely on one piece of evidence what about all the other aspects of an investigation? After reading your article it has made me look and think about fingerprints a little differently. I never heard of these cases and the major impact fingerprints made on these cases. It was a very intriguing and thought provoking Forensic article and point of view not really mentioned.

  5. Alyssa
    Alyssa says:

    Professor Defant,
    I am a criminology major and I found this article extremely fascinating. The main thing that stood out to me was the inaccuracy within fingerprint identification and what those misinterpretations lead to. For example, in the Madrid bombing case the FBI identified Brandon Mayfield as a possible suspect, arrested him and ignored Mayfield’s protests that it was impossible for him to be there at that time because he didn’t have a passport. Even the Spanish police did their own fingerprint analysis and it came up with a different match other than Mayfield. Mayfield was ultimately released after two weeks. Another thing I found interesting is that many forensic scientists swear by fingerprints, however as you stated,”no fingerprint of the same finger is alike” I found this interesting because of the different pressure variations that could make the same finger deviate in prints. I didn’t think that different amounts of pressure could change a print of the same finger and make multiple different prints I can now see why there are so many inaccuracies in fingerprint analysis. Especially in big criminal cases the amount of innocent people proven guilty on the basis of a fingerprint is huge, and vice versa. Plus add an error rate on top of that you get the question you asked at the end, is fingerprint analysis really effective for catching criminals? Another thing that adds to your question is that accredited and unaccredited labs take part in analyses raising the concern if these people are actually correct. Even scientists and experts who take part in fingerprint analysis don’t like to say they are wrong, which is understandable, they don’t want to ruin their credibility. However, I think accepting that you could be wrong is a good thing, especially in criminal cases, fingerprint evidence is imperative in solving a case or convicting someone. For example when you say the FBI is “tight lipped” about how they reached their conclusions I felt some concern for those parties involved, they could ultimately be setting a guilty man free or putting away an innocent man for life. Also, I thought the Cowans case was very interesting, and also show how finger prints may not be 100% reliable. The fact that the fingerprint was a match, but not the other DNA evidence found on the mug suggests that finger prints can’t be the only source of evidence. Lastly, the most shocking part of this article was the study with 100 latent and exemplar prints and the numbers that resulted from it. I thought it was astounding to see only 45% were matched correctly. In retrospect, that isn’t very good and in a real scenario, could cost a lot of lives. In all I really enjoyed this article, and found the information very shocking. This opened my eyes to a big issue in a field I would like pursue as a future career.

  6. genesy
    genesy says:

    This was a very interesting article to read. It introduced a problem that is not always talked about. Fingerprinting has always seemed to be the most reliable method to catch someone who has committed a crime, but this article proved otherwise. It first did this with the first case mentioned with Brandon Mayfield, who was accused of being responsible for the Madrid terrorist bombing that occurred March. 11, 2004. In this case, the FBI had arrested Mayfield, and held him in custody even after another suspect was found in Spain. The spanish National Police was certain that they had found the man responsible but the FBI refused to examine their evidence, in fear of finding error in their analysis. Eventually, Mayfield was released and received an apology from the FBI for the false imprisonment. But, even after cases like this, the FBI continues to argue that the error rate in fingerprinting is zero. There was another case that proved the unreliability of fingerprint evidence, the Commonwealth v. Cowans case. In this case, Cowans was arrested after police found “his fingerprint” on a mug that was found at the crime scene. However, they used the latent print from the mug and matched it to Cowens. Five years later he was released from prison on DNA evidence found on the mug that proved he could not have committed the crime. The article goes into further detail about fingerprinting and how the process works. The latent print is not always enough to identify a person. It is important to do further analysis on the prints to find the correct match. There have been tests on examiners to see the efficiency of fingerprinting, but these proved that when they know they are being tested they seem to determine more inconclusive prints. In that study, there was also great error in the results of the examiners. There has been much proof that fingerprints are unreliable but examiners and the FBI continue to say that there is almost no error when testing for prints. I feel that this is understandable because this would cause many problems for them, but the public does deserve to know the error rate, especially since more than often the results are incorrect. All in all this was a great article with ample research that i enjoyed reading.

  7. angeliscontreras
    angeliscontreras says:

    This article brings into question the reliability of fingerprint data systems that agencies like the FBI have. I think what really makes this article interesting is that we all know that no fingerprint is alike, however, even if there were multiple prints left by the same finger…they will not always come out “alike” in the sense that different pressures will be applied every time and leaving us with slightly different fingerprints. I like the quote from National Academy of Sciences saying, “”The impression left by a given finger will differ every time, because of inevitable variations in pressure, which change the degree of contact between each part of the ridge structure and the impressions medium.” The point therefore becomes not if all fingerprints are unique but whether laboratories have the abilities to distinguish between similar prints, and if they do, what is the error in making that determination.” That last sentence really brings up a good point, because if the scientist undergoing these studies is not aware of the difference, then obviously the wrong person may get accused.
    A really good example of how fingerprints are faulty are at parks like Sea World, and Aquatica. I have had passes with these theme parks for a long time. They use to have the system where you scan your pass, and put your finger on the fingerprint reader. However, in this past year they have switched over to photo identification (which will also prove faulty soon because people can get cosmetic surgeries, undergo sex changes, dye their hair color, etc.) and it is probably because a person with the same finger came on separate days, applied their finger differently to the reader and the reader said it was not a match. It really throws me for a whirl when agencies like the FBI even waste their breath arguing that the error rate is zero when clearly, there is.

    As I look at my own fingers and try to match them to one of the three types of fingerprints, one of my fingers does not fall into one of those categories. I did a little research on my own, and there are far more types than just these three. Some people even have a mix of two or all three of those types of prints, and there is also types called central pocket loop, tented arch, lateral pocket arch, and twined loop, and so many more! My thumb actually looks more like the twined loop pattern. These are examples of characteristics or labels that will narrow down suspects a lot better than someone who says well this print on this bottle has a left loop and so does this data match on the computer.

    For the story about Cowan, it actually makes me mad to hear “After five years in prison, Cowans was exonerated on DNA evidence from the mug that showed he could not have committed the crime.” because what evidence was shown to prove that the person who shot at the officer was the same person that broke into someones home and drank some water from a mug? Obviously just by reading that, I would think those are two different people. If someone shot at me I would know what that person looked like in that moment. Not someone who didn’t witness the actual event.

    The study done at Ulery is really quite shocking, and really could not be a better example of the errors that exist with fingerprinting and matching prints. The high percentages in this study are not small, and to think that these are highly trained people that are meant for this kind of job, and even they have error margins. This problem persists not only in that lab, but also in agencies and laboratories that are used in taking prints from crime scenes and identifying them. If not done with extra care and being aware of the error margin, then the wrong people are probably getting accused of a variety of different things all this time, and even today.
    The FBI has been going along with the idea that their fingerprinting method has zero error for so long, that they won’t release that their systems and algorithms do have error because then they would have to turn around and reopen so many cases that they used their fingerprint data systems on. On top of that, the article also says “Also, in many states, fingerprint labs get a bonus for every case they solve above a quota…” which is another reason why if they had public errors in their systems, lawyers would be all over that and fingerprinting would be a very rare resource to accuse someone with unless it was done using the scientific method and doing the experiment multiple times using all resources and even different agencies with different algorithms.

  8. mfalero
    mfalero says:

    This article is mainly about using fingerprint analysis as a reliable measure for conviction among criminals. It also focuses heavily about how accurate these results are and what different studies have shown regarding this. I have always learned in school that “no fingerprint is the same,” but this article brings light to this issue. While there is definitely the possibility of no two being the same, the article brings many interesting points, including the fact that who’s to say someone won’t be born with matching fingerprints to someone who already is alive? It also talks about how, the way I understand it, there is the possibility that, for example, someone’s left index finger print could match my right middle finger print. There was a lot written about how all companies/organizations, both public and private, know that their data may be skewed and riddled with errors, but no one is going to admit that. It also focuses heavily on the FBI and how in many cases that they work they will hold to it that fingerprint data is extremely accurate when in reality it is not and they may have the wrong person convicted. The example written in the beginning states that the FBI blatantly ignored their suspect’s protests that he was out of the country and they even ignored the Spanish government that they could have the wrong suspect detained all because they didn’t want to admit their error. There is a large chunk of this article as well is that there are no true ‘standards’ that examiners must adhere to when doing fingerprint analysis/comparison. It is possible that all practices have their own individual standards to follow but there is no ‘general’ or blanket standard which can cause problems. If one company only requires five similarities between prints and another requires 20, one can be perceived as more accurate than the other.

  9. lindas3
    lindas3 says:

    The Daubert court case was a product liability suit in which the plaintiffs claimed that the use of the drug Bendectin caused birth defects. The issue in this case was that the plaintiff presented “expert” testimony regarding evidence that the drug indeed caused birth defects. However that evidence was based on animal studies which had not been accepted within the scientific community. The judge granted summary judgement to the defendant, Merrell Dow and upheld the decision in later appeals brought on by the plaintiffs. The Daubert standard requires that judges determine the scientific validity of the evidence and relevance to the case, and the reliability of the expert testimony before admitting such into evidence.
    Sadly, the evaluation of fingerprint identification is done mostly by human examiners which by nature are flawed. We humans are by no means perfect and we make mistakes. However, that should not be a deterrent in admitting fingerprint identification as evidence in court or to be dismissed as a pseudoscience.
    Before the DNA era, biometrics, voice identification, entomology and blood splatter analysis, there was no standard of error, no “science”, no scientific proof or not even a name for these studies to back it up. In fact, they didn’t even know how to preserve a crime scene or how to gather evidence. Now as the technology advances and evolves, we find ways to learn and make the most out of the resources and information we can gather with the technology at hand. As Paul Sarmousakis, the assistant United States attorney said that …”the occasional human error did not invalidate fingerprinting. “Because a doctor misdiagnoses someone, does that make the science of medicine invalid?” 1
    I definitely agree!

    1 http://truthinjustice.org/fingerprints.htm

    • lindas3
      lindas3 says:

      This article mostly attempted to discredit the accuracy of fingerprint identification and mentioned the Cowan case in which the defendants’ ruling on the case was overturned on a technicality. I would raise questions about that case since not only the surviving officer and an eyewitness identified the defendant on a line up yet, however since a mug found on a house that the “alleged” perpetrator went after committing the crime (which is ludicrous to me- who goes to a neighbors house to have a drink after committing a crime?) and that mug had unmatched fingerprints (who says they were only one perpetrator? could the assailant have had an accomplice?) Anyway, this article talked about the accuracy of fingerprint identification and the validity of such. I would say that no discipline is fool proof or 100% accurate. Criminals always find a way to get around the system. How many convicts are out on the streets today that were exonerated or set free because a technicality? Sometimes even with the proof right in front of your face they can get away for something as silly as illegally obtained evidence. The discipline may have its flaws, but so does the system and humans do so as well. As Haber stated in the article a way to solve the problem could be to “work with scientists to establish standards, and adequately and continuously test laboratories…throughout the country.”

  10. astahl
    astahl says:

    Professor Defant,

    This article first talks about the Madrid Terrorist Bombing and how the original suspect that had had problems with the FBI before turned out to not be the suspect due to misidentification on the FBIs part with the help of the Spanish Police. This article goes on to discuss that no finger prints are the same on two accounts. 1) No one has the same finger print as you, everyones print is unique to them and cannot be duplicated. 2) No print from the same person will come out the same every time, this is due to the fact that the pressure your finger puts down is different every time as well as placement and degree angle as well. The cool part about this article is that it provided a finger print chart that showed different parts of a print including the 3 patterns a person can have: arch, loop and whorl. Overall, this post interests me because I am a criminology major and will be doing something like this one day as a career. This is something I will definitely keep in the back of my mind as innocent people get hooked on crimes that they may not have committed due to this very reason; fingerprint misidentification.

  11. chazz
    chazz says:

    Good morning professor,
    So the above article is more or less based on the scientific method. It starts out discussing a bombing that occurred in Madrid. This led to forensic teams getting involved and finding fingerprints at the scene of the crime. Both local police and the FBI did an analysis and came up with different conclusions. The FBI refused to admit they were wrong or even consider looking at the local police’s outcomes. Eventually, we come to find out the the FBI had wrongly accused someone based on the fingerprint analysis being incorrect. According to this article and the many studies mention, this is not the first mistake policing agencies have made when analyzing fingerprints and most likely will not be the last. Many policing agencies claim the process is “infallible”, however, we can obviously see it is not. So, U.S. courts put into effect a standard saying eyewitnesses or evidence must be of “sound science” and it is up to the judge to make that determination. After this, many studies have been underway since trying to determine the error rate of the latent print process. Scientists have offered to help strengthen and set standards. The FBI refuses, continues making the infallible claim, and refuses to release any error rate known about their analysis processes. Fingerprinting is not very accurate and if you’re being accused of a crime, take it to court.

  12. Kendramckay
    Kendramckay says:

    Hi Professor,
    As I was reading this article, I immediately thought about the many “CSI” type shows that base a lot of their convictions in court by fingerprints. Those very shows got my mind to wonder about the accuracy of fingerprint evidence. I guess I never truly believed that no person as the same fingerprint as another individual. In the article, latent fingerprints were found on a bag with explosive devices and there were 20 possible matches. The suspect became Brandon Mayfield but the FBI later released him because of an mistaken arrest after the analysis of the Spanish National Police. That story alone further concluded my predisposition of fingerprint identification. In addition, the National Academy of Sciences stated that the impression left by a finger will be different every time because of variations in pressure. The point that has allows lingered with me, and also happened to be the conclusion of this article, was if labs have the ultimate ability to differ between similar fingerprints successfully.

  13. rowanallen
    rowanallen says:

    Hi professor Defant,
    This article was particularly interesting to me because I had been taught by instructors time and time again that fingerprints were like snowflakes in the sense that each one was unique. I also understand that this article is not attempting to disprove that, but rather it is explaining that fingerprint testing is not always accurate, as there are many factors that determine how a fingerprint turns out. I had always figured that fingerprints were 100% accurate and could prove a crime was committed (or something similar) without a shadow of a doubt. It also shone some light on the pride of the FBI and their unwillingness to consider other alternatives when it comes to their investigation techniques. It was an interesting read, thank you for taking the time to write and post it.
    Rowan Allen

  14. ErinPrasad
    ErinPrasad says:

    Hello Professor,
    The article is about how in the past finger print identification as been thought as a “pseudoscience” and how after the Madrid bombing a fingerprint that was found was extremely vital in changing this. Even though there were many matches to the one print the FBI was sure they had found their guy due to his involvement with a client of his in an unrelated case and his religion. Even with evidence showing he could not have left the country his phones were tapped and there was surveillance on his family. Spain found their own match but the FBI denied believing them until eventually their suspect was released.
    The article then went on talking about the idea of how “no fingerprint is identical” this means no two people have the same print but also that no person will leave the exact same print every time due to the pressure they may use when placing their hand on something. It also discusses how the analysis of fingerprints is very subjective because some are more objective. A point count may be insufficient for looking at a latent print. The post then discusses the different types of patterns for fingerprints (ie. arches, loops and whorls). It also shows a diagram that labels a fingerprint. Finally it talks about opinions on the issues with current studies and ways that fingerprinting could be done better. The new ACE-V method hopefully will be able to minimize cases such as the Madrid bombing.
    I have a great interest in forensics so I found this article very interesting to read. It is scary to think that the FBI was so sure about a man who was completely innocent because of his fingerprints. It shows that miscarriages of justice can happen all the time even in the federal system. I think that there needs to be a higher standard for analyzing prints because they can be so crucial in a criminal proceeding. The FBI need to come out and apologize and admit they are wrong sometimes and work to be better.

  15. Patriziaplanzo
    Patriziaplanzo says:

    Hello Mr. Defant,

    Again, this was an extremely informative and interesting read for me! Here I have a summary of the post, along with some of my thoughts towards the end!

    This blog post begins with speaking about a mysterious fingerprint that was found and could have some relations to the Madrid terrorist bombing that happened 13 years ago. Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer and later a criminal, appeared in the FBI database with a 100% clear identification to the same fingerprint that was found (According to Terry Green, Michael Wieners and John T. Massey). But what The FBI did not notice was that the fingerprint also matched an Algerian living in Spain- Ouhnane Daoud- found by the Spanish National Police. When the FBI realized the news, they refused to admit even the slightest of mistake. This proves that there are indeed errors within the FBI. They really have to be careful. The post then proceeds to examine the ‘law’ of “No fingerprint is identical”, which has become more and more illogical. It is said that a fingerprint is different every time, due to different pressures you place on the finger when you perform the print. I believe this is true! I feel there is no way for a fingerprint to be the same every time! It is also a bit scary that fingerprints can be misled by the FBI. I think the FBI needs to be extremely careful because they are dealing with people’s lives, and they could ruin anyone’s life if they are indeed wrong. Of course, nothing is perfect, therefore they will have moments of being wrong but they need to be careful because they could ruin someone’s life!
    The blog post continues with talking about the basic patterns that fingerprints can come in. They are: arches, loops, and whorls. The goal is to find the ridges that is different within each individual print. Towards the ending of the post, it states that The FBI tries to make their errors undiscovered and I agree with you in the sense that Congress should step in and admit that making mistakes is okay and unavoidable. That is the only way to get through the mistakes- is to admit to them. Maybe they can set standards for when these mistakes happen so everyone is prepared. We must not let the innocent go to jail, we’ve got to do something about it because sure, the FBI can get sued for making mistakes but they can never give back the 5 years of jail time back, or the trauma that followed it.

    I did not know a lot of this information before reading this, and I am grateful for the knowledge!
    Thank you for the post!

    -Introduction to Earth Science-
    Patrizia Planzo

  16. Samanthajackson1287@gmail.com
    Samanthajackson1287@gmail.com says:

    Hi Mr. Defant,

    This was definitely an interesting read for me, mostly because I never questioned whether or not a fingerprint analysis would, and/or could be wrong. Now I know different, and I am kind of disgusted thinking of all of the people who could very well have been wronged, and may never receive justice. I was aware that several support programs have and had been formulated to favour the use of fingerprints, and I naively thought that it was because it was 100% accurate since everyone’s fingerprint is unique. Laboratories across the world have held assumptions in their study that no print is similar to another making the use of fingerprints infallible and feasible. Overall, after reading this article I have learned that According to The National Academy of Sciences, the use of fingerprints is strengthened. This can be achieved through critical analysis of fingerprints. The analysis of the fingerprints is usually done by counting the number of features found on the fingers. The person examining the features should have a high visual expertise to discern them. Next, they must come to an agreement on the characteristics of the features. This will minimize cases similar to that of Mayfield. The conventional method which has been used to analyze is known as ACE-V. Minimal errors are encountered in the fact that scores of people are used to perform the task. The greatest threat facing these studies is the cracks found in the form of injuries. Cracks tend to contradict study done on the fingerprints.

    Now I can only think of how many lives have been wasted and thrown into the prison system for crimes they may have not committed at all, but because their fingerprints resembled that of someone else’s there freedom was taken a lot sooner.

    Samantha Jackson
    ESC 2000

  17. Abbi Brown
    Abbi Brown says:

    The Spanish National Police decided to share the latent print they had found a bag containing detonating devices following the Madrid terrorist bombing with other agencies. The FBI found twenty possible matches from their database. One of the matches led them to Brandon Mayfield who was a lawyer representing a member of the Portland Seven. They identified him as the prime suspect based on a fingerprint analysis done by Terry Green who said the fingerprint was a one hundred percent match to the print found on the bag. This match was later verified by John Massey. He was subsequently arrested and held in custody for more than two weeks as a material witness. However, he was never charged because the FBI was arguing with the Spanish National Police over the accuracy of the fingerprint analysis. The Spanish National Police had identified a suspect living in Spain. The FBI refused to believe that they had made a mistake they even sent their own guys over there to show the Spanish Police that they were right. The FBI finally came to the conclusion that they had made a mistake and released Mayfield as well as offering an apology for their error. The FBI believes that fingerprinting is the number one way to identify suspects. They even stated that their error rate was zero which is not true. The truth is that no fingerprints are alike even on the same person depending on the amount of pressure being applied. Simon Cole from the University of California identified twenty seven cases were suspects were misidentified based on their fingerprints since 2004. Fingerprinting is not as foolproof as the FBI claims it is. There should be other ways to identify suspects so that the results prove the suspects guilt and they wont be able to plant doubt in peoples minds.

  18. Patriziaplanzo
    Patriziaplanzo says:

    Wow, This blog post was very informational and an interesting read for me! I enjoyed reading this because I had no idea about the “behind the scenes’ per say, of fingerprinting- or what would happen if the FBI made a mistake. I am very much interested in Forensics as a pass time, but never really have time to get around to it. I have always wondered How accurate fingerprinting was because, how is it that every single person in the world has a unique skin pattern? I am completely fascinated by this. Isn’t it inevitable for them to make at least one mistake? Although, it could destroy an innocent persons life once they indeed make that mistake. Very cool post!

    -Intro to Earth Science Class-
    Patrizia Planzo

  19. ebustamante2
    ebustamante2 says:

    The article is about how during an investigation that the FBI was helped the Spanish National Police investigate about a terrorist attack that happened on March 11, 2004. The Spanish National Police asked for help from many police agencies to help find the suspect with a fingerprint that they had found at the crime scene on a bag that contained an explosive. The FBI found 20 possible matches in their systems but one of the matches led them to a person that was on the United States terrorists list. After questioning the suspect and the suspect informing them that he had not been out of the country in the last few years, the FBI still didn’t believe the suspect and even after the Spanish National Police had already found a suspect on their own an Algerian refugee that lived in the city. The FBI even came out with a statement implicating that they had the suspect in custody and informed the Spanish National Police that the suspect they had detained was not the one that had committed the crime because the fingerprint was 100 percent match with the suspect the FBI had detained. A numerous of fingerprint specialist verified that the fingerprint was indeed a perfect match to the Mr. Mayfield. In addition, to prove to the Spanish Police that the FBI was correct they sent agents to prove that Mr. Mayfield was the suspect they were looking for. This was not the first case that the FBI had stated that they had detained the correct suspect. The article was informing about how the fingerprints are not as perfect as one may think. Countless error can occur while trying to lift the fingerprint from the surface of any object, and many other human errors can happen as well. Fingerprints are not as reliable as the FBI claims it is, they have received many law suits because the fingerprints can leave a different mark with the pressure that the finger touches the surface. Also, the fingerprints on your hands are not the same pattern, each finger is different. In addition, at the University of California, Simon Cole has identified that there have been 27 cases that have misidentified a suspect in cases since 2004. As well as in the study done by Ralph and Habar, found that only 45% of the cases given to the examiners were match and identified correctly the suspect.

  20. Joseph Cox
    Joseph Cox says:

    I’m not at all surprised by the fallacy of fingerprint testing. Rather, I am shocked by the amount of faith that we put into one test to prove someone’s guilt or innocence. For example, the article talk about Stephan Crowans, and how it was only DNA evidence that was able to release him from jail. However, DNA evidence, unless a good sample is found, can be just as testy as a fingerprint.

    I also find it very disturbing that there is such a high rate of fingerprint inaccuracy with modern testing. As the article stated, “Regarding the pairs of latent and exemplar prints that did not match, there were six individualized (matched) that should not have been — a 0.1% error.  Even if the error is representative of examiners in general (and there is plenty of reason to believe the error rate is higher according to the Habers), it is too high.  Put another way, if 100,000 prints are matched with a 0.1 percent error rate, 100 individuals are going to be wrongly “fingered” as a perpetrator.  And the way juries ascribe infallibility to fingerprint matches, 100 innocent people are going to jail.” This is why, as stated before, I dislike how much emphasis is put on fingerprint evidence.

    This is further highlighted by understanding how fingerprint match is found. When a fingerprint is scanned and put into the computer to find a match, the computer looks for a number of spots on what is called a minutia map. A match is found what 12 point on the suspect fingerprint are found on the same places as those on a minutia map on a file fingerprint. However, a good fingerprint can have up to 50 of these points on its minutia map. That means that a fingerprint only needs a 24% match for it to be considered hard evidence. To me, that hardly seems faultless.

  21. Tatiana Picon
    Tatiana Picon says:

    After thoroughly reading this article and analyzing everything I was completely astounded at all the facts and stories provided within it. As I began reading this article the one sentence that stood out to me was in the very beginning when Fingerprint Specialist, John Massey said, “I’ll preach fingerprints till I die. They’re infallible.” The reason it stood out was because I just could not fathom that after the entire case and ending results, this man was still so closed minded about everything. The sad part is that people with this type of mindset are the reason why there are so many innocent individuals that have been incorrectly framed for crimes. My main issue with this whole idea and evidence is why the FBI and government haven’t sought a new way to improve the way they finger print. Especially with the study done at Ulery, stated in the article, when there were 169 supposedly highly trained examiners with 100 latent and exemplar prints. In the end the results of the matches were only 45% being identified correctly and the rest were either misidentified. Obviously, there is something seriously wrong with either the system, examiners, or overall analytics, which is why something needs to be done. Personally, it seems very illogical and absurd given with the advanced technology we have nowadays, that there has not been gradual improvements. The most frustrating part is these people don’t care or bother to try a new tactic because they are so caught up in the “their way,” which to them is and will always be the “right way.” In addition, as to why they don’t care is because unless the person they were fingerprinting was close to their heart, they will go with whatever the analysis says. That is not fair and inhumane, people should be given the right to fair trail and by not examining things properly goes against what this country even believes in, or at least what people say they do. The priority of the FBI is to find justice and do these examinations to find the truth behind the crimes and make sure they are right and done in a precise manner, right? Well, why is not happening? This leaves me wondering if it’s just pure laziness? At the end, these people don’t see that they are the ones making the FBI look horrible and are contradicting everything the FBI stands for. I believe these examiners should be working to find justice and the truth in a fair and diligent manner. No person should have to face the consequences of another individuals wrongdoings.

  22. emmasanderson
    emmasanderson says:

    In the criminal justice system, it seems that many key points and pieces of evidence revolve around the findings of matching fingerprints found at crime scenes and various criminal and civil databases, meanwhile their are such existing error rates that should make us question this use of tactic as a major point of evidence, even a damning piece of evidence in judicial cases. I find it almost comical that such mistakes in identifying and matching finger prints can lead to pointing the finger at someone who was already serving time at the time of a crime. While I understand that fingerprint evidence is most often a very sound piece of evidence pointing in the right direction, there are indeed cases of mistakes being made that affect peoples lives, relationships, jobs, so on and so forth that could alter there lives. As you stated with the Mayfield case, that was an infamous mistake made by one of our own government agencies that we as taxpayers had to amend in a large financial settlement, deservingly so for Mayfield, all because the FBI didn’t want to accept the assistance or science that a different government (the Spanish) had offered up that had proven differently from the FBI’s findings- if they had just accepted the information and reviewed it against their own, perhaps we wouldn’t have had to payout so much and perhaps Mayfield would have been
    found innocent much sooner than it took; and his family and private life left alone. Bugging homes, tapping phones etc., being held for 2 week WITHOUT any following charges is much too much a price to pay being a victim of a mistaken fingerprint match. I wonder if any larger scale government officials and court systems had any idea about the FBI not accepting to material offered to them by the Spanish government?

    It’s odd to think of all of the different people around the world that may have very similar fingerprints to our own, especially after growing up and listening to science teachers stress how each and every fingerprint is unique on this planet..and after watching all of these crime shows on television where they upload a fingerprint to their computer and get a hit match in seconds. How many people have a loop in the exact place i have my own? the possibility of my fingerprint bearing much resemblance to another persons is fascinating but also very nerve racking. What if another Mayfield mistake is made again involving my fingerprints and another’s prints that are just similar to mine? I could be blamed for a crime I didn’t commit.

    Very fascinating article and information…got to keep track of where I’m leaving my prints from now on I guess!

  23. rwenzlawsh
    rwenzlawsh says:

    It is astonishing to find that in fact we all share very similar characteristics within our fingerprints, after always being told in school that my fingerprint is like no other persons’ fingerprint. It makes me question the possibility of my fingerprints not resembling that of any other person out of the 7 billion population on Earth. If we all share the same three basic patterns (arches, loops, and whorls) how can we be sure that when the examiners go looking for minutiae’s that there is no possible way for them to mislabel or tamper with the print they are examining. Also, like you said the impression left by a fingerprint can vary every time due to pressure, changing its impression on an object. Proving again, the level of accuracy into pin pointing whose fingerprint it could have been is now lowered. On top of that, it is hard to think that the system that is used to test fingerprints is accurate when now learning that fingerprint examiners create and conduct all the research. Fingerprinting is supposed to be so prominent within the criminal justice system and just with that little bit of information you can tell that the system is biased. This article shows that mistakes are made by the examiners because there is no way to prove that they could have a perfect reading done by the examiners. Plus, if we can’t truly trust the fingerprint examiners to do an accurate examination there is no way we can begin to trust the accuracy of the automated search systems.

    When examining the information you have presented on the Mayfield case it is clear to say that fingerprint examination should not be used as the only evidence to justify who committed a crime. Why the FBI would conduct a fingerprint analysis and say that it has a 100 % match to someone when all the other information on the case disproves him as the suspect is the most astonishing part of this case. It just adds more fuel to the fire that fingerprints are not as accurate as we are told they are in justifying a criminal. Yes, they do add accredited evidence against a criminal if you already have DNA or info putting them at the crime but standing alone I do not see how it could convict someone of a crime. Clearly this is proven so in the Mayfield case because no other information pointed to him other than the prints the FBI were stated matched his. Yet, the Spanish National Police had a fingerprint analysis matching someone else’s prints who was at least in Spain at the time of the bombing when Mayfield was not.

    It all comes down to the fact that we can no longer say that “no fingerprint is identical” when the research has never been produced to say otherwise. Feasibly we cannot trust the FBI, fingerprint examiners, or fingerprint analysis systems in being accurate when we have no proof that the work they are doing is trustworthy. And the Mayfield case is pure evidence that it should not be trusted. Proof that it cannot be trusted again comes when you mention the study that was done at Ulery. How can you say that someone’s print is a 100% match when in this study there was at least a guaranteed 0.1 % error rate within the analysis of the fingerprints examined? So there is no possible way Mayfield’s prints could have been a 100% match. If 45% of the fingerprints were accurately identified that leaves 55% that were not. 55% where there was a clear match given in the case of the study and the examiners could not find the correct match. Such poor work is causing people to have an unlawful match of their fingerprints which could wrongfully convict them of a crime they have a good percentage of not having commit. This article goes to show that there are just too many inaccuracies within the fingerprint analysis system for it to scientifically be allowed to testify someone in a criminal stance.

    -Rachael Wenzlawsh

  24. kevinanglade1998
    kevinanglade1998 says:

    Indeed, this article focuses on the many errors that the act of
    fingerprinting identification brings in court or in crimes. This article
    discusses how many people are going to jail or prison for something that
    they did not and that they are not guilty of. Very often, sometimes an
    offender who at the time that pleaded guilty, is not really guilty. They
    only pleaded because the evidence from the “fingerprint identification”
    result say that they fingerprint match, and when really sometimes it may
    very well not been them. Fingerprinting identification can be unreliable
    and false, and the ones who are guilty sometimes are being exonerated
    because of the inaccuracy of the fingerprint identification. This article
    includes many cases in which one has been sentenced to jail and exonerated
    because of the misleading and error of the fingerprint identification. On
    one of the cases, a man named Brandon Mayfield was arrested and they held
    him for more than two weeks as a material witness. Despite him being
    arrested, he was not charged, but he pleaded his case and protested that he
    did not have a passport and have not traveled out of the country for ten
    years. They tapped his phone, bugged his phone and broke into his home
    twice. They soon find out that they was wrong and the fingerprint identity
    was incorrect and released him. Many of the false fingerprinting
    identification cases now days are not being resolved and going unnoticed,
    because the FBI and examiners are not admitting to the fact that they make
    mistakes, even with the fingerprinting. If they do, then they will have to
    go back and look back at other cases, where there could have been an error
    and the use of fingerprint identification would be unreliable.

    Thus, I strongly dislike how they are not admitting to their wrongdoings
    because they are allowing the numbers of innocent people going to prison
    increase. A plethora of families are ruined because of this, their loved
    ones may have been not guilty and have to suffer. Those who actually
    committed the crime, are being exonerated and are going back out there to
    hurt more individuals. I don’t like how the FBI are not admitting to their
    wrongdoings because I mean everyone makes mistakes, and it will not hurt to
    admit that they are wrong and same goes for the so-called examiners. Being
    that there are many flaws with fingerprinting identification, actions need
    to be taken to resolve such issue and find new ways of finding who commits
    a crime or not.

    We cannot just depend on such a method that is not accurate, and
    unreliable. ” It is then the responsibility of the examiner from the entity
    that submitted the latent to review the potential candidates to look for a
    match. “Even with the examiner making a ‘match’ the normal procedure is to
    follow up with the investigation to corroborate other evidence to
    support/confirm the ‘match’.” I agree with this statement because one
    cannot just rely on the ‘latent’ match, they should have more evidence to
    back up their findings. They should go and do other research and see if
    what they found to match the fingerprint identification. Like it is stated
    in the article, it is stupid for a prosecutor to go to court on a solely
    latent match. What if the other lawyer proves that the prosecutor with the
    latent is wrong, then they will look stupid and look at their past evidence
    as false and unreliable. I really enjoyed reading this article and the
    commentary of others about the errors of fingerprinting identification and
    the arrogant actions of the FBI.

  25. ebustamante2
    ebustamante2 says:

    I was so surprised when reading the article because in high school I was taught that fingerprinting are never the same for two people. I found it more shocking that four FBI agent verified that the fingerprint was a 100% match to Brandon Mayfield. I think that there are some issues that need to be fixed with the fingerprint and the DNA database because the database is limited to those who have been convicted of a felony or in the military. I can’t believe that the FBI still continued to accuse Mayfield because of the fingerprints even though the Spanish Police had followed their own leads and it had lead them to a different person. I don’t agree with the FBI that they stated that there is 0% chance of error because people make mistakes because the analysts have to check to make sure the fingerprints are a match and there is sometime human errors.

  26. lebaronk
    lebaronk says:

    I am very surprised by this article, we are always told that fingerprints are never identical. But you have to think, with billions of people on this planet along with all deceased people, there is no way there are that many differences in one small pattern. Sadly enough, I had never questioned this theory because it’s something that everyone knows and is told.
    It’s so crazy that an FBI case was overturned like that over fingerprints, you would think they would look more into it. Another thing I was surprised by was that in 1993, only 23 years ago, the Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals case was the one to actually make science a necessity when determining a case. Even with the lower-quality technology, you would think this would be a common sense factor, especially when dealing with things like murder.
    I am impressed with this article, it was intriguing to say the least, and I definitely took a lot from it.
    Forensics is something I’ve always been interested in, in the back of my mind so I really enjoyed reading this.

  27. rose31
    rose31 says:

    I remember doing fingerprint activities in middle school, being able to identify the different types of fingerprints for each others fingers. I had always wondered how it would be possible that there are no alike fingerprints, similarly to snowflakes.
    I almost find it astounding that the U.S. would be so brute in accord to the Madrid case. To continuously pursue Mayfield based on a set of fingerprints, against the Spanish who were trying to follow their own leads seemed ridiculous! Not only because we were chasing our own tail, but also due to the fact that “we” (i.e. the taxpayers) in the end had to pay for it.
    As for the fingerprinting system itself, it seems that the FBI have led the people to believe in a faulty system being more than it actually is. Although the techniques and algorithms are complex, it’s apparent now that it is no where near perfect. I thought it was interesting that the fingerprints vary based on pressure to the surface. It just adds to the thought of how complicated fingerprinting can really be.
    Adding to the complications, I enjoyed reading about the testing for fingerprinting too. It was compelling to see how they proved the almost 50/50 system when it comes to identifying fingerprints. I can see why the FBI wouldn’t want to announce to the public that the “ideally perfect” way to catch criminals or solve mysteries isn’t what the public view. There must be several cases that have been affected by a faulty fingerprint, but hopefully they were backed by solid evidence, such as DNA.
    After reading this, watching Criminal Minds will be with a different perspective.

  28. ysimpson
    ysimpson says:

    I have to say that I am completely blown away by this article. I have been in law enforcement for 16 years now (non-sworn side) and had no idea of the mistakes made when matching fingerprints. While I am aware that real life is not like Hollywood makes it out to be, I am shocked that the number of mistakes. Prior to reading this article I had always wondered if it were true that there is no fingerprint that is the same. How do we know this to be fact? We cannot say for sure 100% that they are all different without having every person in the world printed.
    In the case of Brandon Mayfield, so many things went wrong with this investigation. The FBI’s urgency to solve this case was clouded by the simple facts that could have easily been checked. Such as the protests by Mayfield who advised them that he did not have a passport. That along with checking his whereabouts while he was in the country should have been enough to help disprove his involvement in the Madrid terrorist bombing. Why would the FBI ignore the Spanish National Police when they advised the FBI of their own fingerprint analysis that showed they had matched the print to an Algerian who was living in Spain at the time of the bombing? There are too many “simple” questions that were not answered and ended up costing the American people $2 million.
    While it may be true that no fingerprint is alike (although, I would question this), the pressure left by each fingerprint could subsequently show a different variation of the same print. The true question lies with the fingerprint specialist and their ability to distinguish each part of the ridges vs. a smudge or pressure point.
    One point that really caught my attention in the blog was that of “the judge must make sure the information from the witness is scientifically reliable. That is, the scientific knowledge must be shown to be the product of a sound scientific method. Finally the judge must ensure that the testimony is relevant to the proceedings which loosely translated means the testimony should be the product of what scientists do – form hypotheses, test hypotheses empirically, publish results in peer-reviewed journals, and determine the error in the method involved when possible. Finally the judge should make a determination of the degree the research is accepted by the scientific community8.” (Defant,M) How is this the responsibility of the judge? And without studying it carefully how can a judge determine if the testimony is relevant to the proceedings?
    All I can say is that this has opened a great can of worms in the legal system and leaves a bunch of room for reasonable doubt.

  29. Djanaika Chrispin
    Djanaika Chrispin says:

    Reading this article has left me completely in shock. I mean I am literally aghast. How is it that the people in the criminal justice system still allow for such a method to be used when they fully know that it has obvious signs of inadequacy? I just can’t fathom this. I don’t think it wise to completely cease considering fingerprints as reliable evidence but I firmly believe that they should not be the only, or most poignant, deciding factor. I always thought that any “other influencing agents” (such as the pressure applied, smears etc.) were brilliantly combed through and done rid of with the aid of a high tech innovation of some sort. Needless to say, I grossly overestimated the true state of our technological advancements. Another thing I cannot get over is the attitude the FBI has towards the whole affair. They are literally claiming that the method is faultless when clear evidence of the contrary is there for all to see. And why is it that the examiners are expected to make a match that is parallel to the direction of the investigation? That, in essence is not what an examination should be. An examination should be a quest, a search for the truth. It should not be about fitting an idea that has already been set. And to add insult to injury, some states are actually offering bonuses to labs when cases get solved. That just serves to encourage the examiners to do their best and match up with the hypothesis the investigation has already adhered to. I believe it’s important that fingerprint examiners apply due diligence, in favor of the truth, and use scientific method so that they can actually conduct impartial research and come up with results that are not tainted with others’ preconceived notions.

  30. Darla Pulley
    Darla Pulley says:

    Before reading your article, I would have trusted a computer algorithm to return a correct match. Now, I find myself doubting the validity since there is no data given to prove their accuracy and error rates. Even with a computer algorithm, an examiner has to verify the match and there is always room for human error. The whole process is subjective. The examiner’s database is limited to individuals with prior convictions or civil/government service. You can’t help but wonder if the examiner assumes that since the computer found a match, and the individual had a prior record, then he must have a match.

    The Spanish National Police shared a latent print with other agencies to identify a latent print following the Madrid terrorist bombing in 2004. Our own experts at the FBI felt they had a 100% match to a lawyer, Brandon Mayfield, when the latent fingerprint returned 20 possible matches. Even when the Spanish National Police found a match to an Algerian, Ouhnane Daoud, the FBI refused to believe it was true. The FBI was so dead set that he was guilty, they could not accept the possibility of an error on their part. They refused to look at evidence provided by the Spanish National Police. They refused to listen to Mayfield when he said that he did not have a passport nor had he been out of the country in 10 years. Daoud was living in Madrid and had every opportunity to follow through with the bombing. The FBI finally had no choice but to release Mayfield with an apology. Prior to this event, the FBI claimed that fingerprint analysis was infallible.

    Hearing that there is a 0.1% chance of error rate (Habers) is concerning to me. Many innocent individuals have gone to prison only to later be found innocent. As in the case of Commonwealth v. Cowans, he was convicted despite the hostages that could not identify him in a lineup. Fingerprint analysis convicted him, and 5 years later, DNA evidence exonerated him. The officer that was shot along with eye witnesses on the street felt they had their man in Cowans. These were all individuals that may have seen his face under poor lighting conditions or running away from the scene. Why then would they not consider the possibility that Cowans was not their man when the family said their captor was not in the lineup? Again, we return to the notion that if he committed a crime previously, then he must be guilty of committing this crime.

    Thankfully our courts use the Daubert standards which help to exclude “junk science” from being presented in a case. I learned in your article that, in the courtroom, the validity of a latent print is scrutinized for many reasons. They are smaller in size and could be smeared with contaminants causing the results to be skewed. In addition, if the correct protocols to retrieve the latent print were not followed, further contamination could occur. It would be hard to 100% match a latent print when no fingerprint of the same finger is alike. The pressure applied during the fingerprint process determines the dots and ridges visible to the examiner. Prior to reading your article, I always assumed a fingerprint would be the same each time it was taken and analyzed. Taking all of this into consideration, I could understand the difficult task of creating scientific standards to determine the quality and validity of a latent print.

  31. Queeny Simpson
    Queeny Simpson says:

    Where to even begin? You have provided a plethora of facts that do not only open a Pandora box but it leaves me with the same question that you have stated: how many people are being incarcerated due to the so “reliable” fingerprints and others walked free or maybe never caught. The biggest problem that society faces and we as humans constantly deny are our mistakes, we run from our responsibilities. However, these reputable agencies such as the FBI are upheld to higher standards, to be the best of the best in everything they do. Yet, they lack moral characteristics that focus in seeking justice, caring, and protecting the people. Restating Haber words of frustration: “No lab wants to expose that its examiners make mistakes”, but it is ok for people to pay for a crime they might have never committed simply because of an agency’s reputation? Mayfield was already in the FBI database however he provided an alibi that proved he was innocent but the FBI disregard his statements and proceeded with the 100% accuracy of the fingerprint match. Experts are relying more and more in technology dismissing the fact that no computer system is alike, just like no fingerprint is the same. Fingerprints studied in certain crime laboratories won’t produce the same results if placed in a different system. It seems to me that while we advanced in technology there are more problems after all more knowledge means more problems. The 20th century has opened up the doors to new ways of analysis crimes, what is and what is not admissible in court, laws are being recreated, yet the line drawing right vs wrong it’s blurred.
    I like how you mentioned different cases that are different in context but somehow related to fingerprints, how evidence is admissible to court, and even comparing fingerprints to DNA. Nonetheless, it amuses the number of years that pass by until experts discover they have the wrong person. This article has made me come up with the question: how accurate can DNA is, and how many cases have been brought to court for DNA result? If fingerprints and DNA are not 100% accurate and reliable, then what can we use to convict the person who committed the crime instead of the innocent?

  32. Deasery Ali
    Deasery Ali says:

    First of all well written article and very informative. Although in high school we were taught that no two persons have the same fingerprint, but I’ve always doubted the probability of error in fingerprint identification, I believe that it works sometimes and sometimes there are errors so therefore there need to be more research done to measure the reliability and accountability of the examiners. We are all humans and error happens. In reading the article and reading on the case of Brandon Mayfield, it seems like the FBI was just concerned about saying they found a terrorist than doing more investigating even after the Spanish National police linked the finger print to someone else. More research should have been done, although countries use different machines and technology to fingerprint there should be more research done to figure out the margin of error.

  33. cjcurran297
    cjcurran297 says:

    Prior to reading this article, I always thought that the entertainment industry overestimated the power and reliability of forensic technology. The constant stream of crime dramas shows us that machines are able to match fingerprints to a specific person without any further corroboration that the identification is correct. After reading your article, I feel that my concerns have been confirmed. Without a proven scientific method, fingerprint identification has the ability to let criminals go free and to put innocent persons in prison. The lack of research combined with consistent claims of “infallibility” and “0% error rates” allows the entertainment industry to continue to give the American public incorrect information. If TV shows were to acknowledge the downfalls of fingerprint identification, it may inspire people to research and improve methods of identification. This inspiration may lead to the creation of forensic devices that are seen today on the silver screen.

  34. jennyto2
    jennyto2 says:

    I browsed through the articles before commenting, and the fingerprints issue caught my immediate attention. I always questioned how reliable are they? After I read the article I am terrified because, of what happened to Mr. Mayfield can occur to any of us. I see more than one issue with fingerprints evidence. First, not all countries use the same system, this can be a international dilemma. Second, there has to be an error margin with these fingerprins results, as we can see it is not one hundred percent reliable. And the worst issue is how certain groups of people still deny the fact that fingerprints can be false. I think this issue is not near solving because the first step is to acknowledge the issue and then see how to correct it. Also, it is pathetic and upsetting how many people are serving jail time, when there is a chance they are innocent . I am aware the courts do not only take fingerprints into consideration for a decision, but neither should fingerprints be counted with such high realibility.

  35. ShaneAlbors
    ShaneAlbors says:

    It seems to me that the FBI singled out Mayfield because of his Muslim ties and didn’t even acknowledge his protests that he didn’t leave the country. To come out and conclude that the fingerprint matches 100% with Mayfield’s and then to release him after finding another suspect with the confirmed fingerprint is unacceptable. The FBI cannot make errors such as Mayfield’s in these type of situations because it could have been a lot worse if the Spanish National Police didn’t do a fingerprint analysis of their own. This was a mistake that the American people had to pay for with their own tax money and it could have been avoided. Even after the mistaken fingerprint situation, the FBI had the nerve to go on public television and tell the American people that the error rate for fingerprint analysis is zero. There are more cases than just Mayfield’s case of misidentification and yet the FBI still hasn’t tried to correct their errors in fingerprint analysis. Of course, this may be because of the FBI and laboratories not wanting to let people know that there are errors in the first place. If the people and courts were to find that there was an error rate in fingerprint analysis, then this may make it look unreliable and the FBI will have to go back and review many of their previous cases. The FBI and laboratories need to have a more standardized approach that eliminates fingerprint errors because locking innocent people up is highly unacceptable.

  36. Sarah Bacon
    Sarah Bacon says:

    This article was very interesting and sparked conversation with my husband. My husband is currently going to school for criminal justice and so far he hasn’t really learned about how there is so much error in fingerprint identification. Most of the studies he’s read about he tells me fingerprint is one of the top way’s they identify the criminal, killer, etc. I wasn’t aware either that depending on how hard or light you press your finger against something it could leave a different look. Also, i was shocked to read in this blog that the crime scene investigators that analyze this print hardly have any acutal “scientific training”. Why isn’t the FBI hiring the right people that are properly trained in science to analyze fingerprints? I have always felt our judicial system has a lot of error in it but not in relation to fingerprint identification. It’s awful to hear some get put away in prison for years wrongfully because of false evidence but I feel for some reason there will always still be errors that will happen unfortunatley.

  37. melib1
    melib1 says:

    I had no idea that the technology I see on CSI and shows alike is not real. I knew that humans were the ones that checked fingerprints to match ones found at crime scenes, but I guess I thought they had a machine that would double check. Because this doesn’t exist, we cannot be 100% sure that the fingerprints are a match and that person committed the crime. I wonder if anyone is in prison right now because of incorrect evidence shown by a forensic scientist who claims to have matched his/her fingerprint to the crime scene. I think that with the technology we have today, we could have a 100% full proof way to match fingerprints.

  38. courtney piccirilo
    courtney piccirilo says:

    Reading this article definitely opened my eyes more to how the justice system needs to be fixed! I believe fingerprinting can be a big piece of evidence if there was no eye witness’s to physical see a suspect, however there needs to be some changes in the courtroom as well as on the forensic side. With the way technology is becoming more advanced I do believe that it will make finger print matching much more accurate. reading this article I didn’t realize how science can help so much in determining matches, and I believe they should be held and utilized a bit more when it comes to forensics or the courtroom. This article is also a great piece by showing how the justice system seems to always go after people who have a past record to just solve a case when there is another suspect involved such as the one discovered in Spain with his fingerprints the US just turned the cheek and didn’t want to hear anything. This was a excellent piece of reading very informational!

  39. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    This article changed my outlook completely; I took two forensic courses last year, and was basically taught that fingerprint analysis and identification were foolproof. That same course, did teach me that forensic evidence is not taken as serious as it should be in court – I now see why. I always believed the assumption that all fingerprints were unique and individual, but after reading this and really stepping back and thinking about it, it must be pretty difficult to identify the exact differences and it’s no wonder some prints may get mistaken and may appear similar – I mean the lines on our fingers are tiny for crying out loud. That being mentioned, the part of the article I’m most stuck on is the fact that Spain matched the prints to one person and the US to a completely different person – but they were the same print! That got me thinking, how many others have been wrongfully convicted? Sure, forensic evidence definitely has exonerated a lot of innocent people convicted for crimes they didn’t commit, but how trustworthy can it be with even the slightest faults? It’s a very scary and nervous thing to think about. I always looked on the positive side of forensics, and even found this article that highlighted 25 innocent people being exonerated due to forensic evidence (tried attaching a link but the comment won’t publish – I believe the link is why). It’s situations like those, that make me go back to trusting forensic evidence a lot. But after that whole two people, one fingerprint situation.. I have to stay on my toes now when it comes to believing forensic evidence – or at least just fingerprint identification. Thank you Marc, for opening my eyes and giving me new insight! I no longer feel too naive to fingerprint analysis.

    • Marc Defant
      Marc Defant says:

      Sharon nice response. I got confused a bit toward the end of the comment but the rest was clear. Not sure why your link did not post. You may try to reply again and leave it.

      I was quite surprised to hear that a class is teaching that fingerprints are full proof. In the 1990s, they had to shut down parts of the FBI lab because the science was so bad on explosives, fibers, etc.

  40. ShaneAlbors
    ShaneAlbors says:

    I find this article very interesting and was unaware with the high error rate in using fingerprint analysis. I agree with Nicole’s comment about human error and that there will be mistakes because of it. I do believe that all fingerprints are different, but I think that many can be so closely similar that the human eye can miss the differences. I think that the FBI hasn’t done anything about it because fingerprint analysis works the majority of the time and they aren’t too concerned about making an error here and there. I agree that someone has to step in and demand the FBI to a higher standard in forensics testing. The FBI needs to admit that their testing isn’t 100% conclusive and needs other forms of forensics testing to complement their fingerprint identification testing.

  41. Nicole Keener
    Nicole Keener says:

    I believe that people often forget that the way they see Fingerprint Analysis done in CSI or any other crime show is not the way it is done in the real world. Fingerprint are analyst by people with their own eyes. Therefore, the error rate cannot be zero. Humans make mistakes and even though their is a high chance of Fingerprints being unique they are still rather similar attributes to some. With the 7 billion people living on earth there has to be an overlap in pattern, I don’t quite believe that really all 7 billion fingerprints are unique. Maybe one day we get lucky and technology like on CSI will exist to cut down on the error rate but until then I firmly believe that there is an error rate and not a 0% error rate.

    • Marc Defant
      Marc Defant says:

      So Nicole did you know about the problems with fingerprints? These articles are meant to give students a view of the way science looks at the world. Do you see how science can be used to make fingerprint identification better? Why do you think the FBI has not done this?

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  1. […] 2009, the former head of the FBI’s fingerprint unit echoed this  sentiment when he testified6 that the  FBI had “an error rate of one per every 11 million cases.” However, the […]

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