Are Fingerprint Identifications Such that Can be Considered Valid Evidence
Fingerprint identification is a means of personal identification that is infallible and this is the reason that fingerprints have replaced other methods of identification of criminals. The science of fingerprint identification is stated to stand out among all other forensic sciences for the following reasons: (1) fingerprint identification has served governments across the globe for more than 100 years in the provision of accurate identification of criminals. In billions of human and automated computer, comparisons there are no two fingerprints found to be alike. Fingerprints are the basis for criminal history in every law enforcement agency worldwide; (2) the first forensic professional organization, the International Association for Identification (IAI) was established in 1915; (3) the first professional certification program for forensic scientists was established in 1977; (3) fingerprint identification is the most commonly used of all forensic evidence worldwide; (4) fingerprint identification continues to expand as the primary method for making positive identification of persons; and (5) Fingerprints harvested from crime scenes lead to more suspects and generate more evidence in court than all other forensic lab techniques combined. (FBI, 2012, p.1) While other visible human characteristics have a tendency to change with age, fingerprints do not change unless the individual's hands are injured or if the individual undergoes surgery. Fingerprints are reported to be processed presently through the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System and are submitted through mail or electronic submissions and a response received in two hours or less for electronic criminal fingerprint submissions and twenty-four hours or less for electronic civil fingerprint submissions. (FBI, 2012, p.2)
II. History of Fingerprint Identification
The first known instance of fingerprint identification was in ancient Babylon as fingerprints were utilized on clay tablets in the conduction of business transactions. Fingerprints or specifically, thumbprints were found on clay seals used in ancient China. (FBI, 2012, p.1) The first use of fingerprints by the English occurred in 1858 when Sir William James Herschel, Chief Magistrate of the Hooghly district in Jungipoor, India, used fingerprints on native contracts. While Herschel did not at first understand how unique each individual's fingerprints were in the beginning, as his collection grew, it is reported that Herschel "began to note that the linked impressions, could, indeed, prove or disprove identity." (FBI, 2012, p.1)
In 1863, Paul-Jean Coulier of Val-de-Grace in Paris published his observations that latent fingerprints can be developed on paper through use of iodine fuming. Fingerprint identification is the "method of identification that uses the impression made by the minute ridge formations or patterns found on the fingertips." (FBI, 2012, p.1) Fingerprints are recorded on a standard fingerprint card or can be recorded digitally and transmitted electronically to the FBI for comparison." (FBI, 2012, p.1) There are reported to be several types of fingerprints including those shown in the following illustration labeled Figure 1 in this study.
Figure 1 - Fingerprint Pattern Type
Source: FBI (2012)
The American fingerprint system is reported to have "evolved through several stages, including nationalization, computerization, and digitization." (Cherry and Imwinkelreid, 2006, p.54) First inked fingerprint cards were used and were not stored in alphabetical order but were sorted into "one of several predefined categories specified by the Henry Fingerprint Classification System: (1) whorl; or (2) tented arch. (Cherry and Imwinkelreid, 2006, p. 54)
The Henry System is reported to have used all ten of the individual's fingers and the "interrelationships in classifying an individual." (Cherry and Imwinkelreid, 2006, p.54) As the years passed, the databases of government agencies grew so large that manual searches were consuming a vast amount of time making this method of searching impractical. In addition, many of the offender's crimes were not limited to a single metropolitan area or state. When computer based Automated Fingerprint Systems were introduced "the files were split into computerized criminal files and manually maintained civil files. In the criminal database alone, there were approximately 25 to 30 million criminals represented.
The system used presently or the IAFIS computer system fails to incorporate the Henry System, which means that the reliability has been compromised.
It is reported that the reform of the fingerprint system "…should follow where the research, including data mining, leads. However, it seems relatively clear that research will point to the need to reinstitute some version of the Henry System." (Cherry and Imwinkelreid, 2006) The automated computer fingerprint systems are reported to check 130,000 arrest booking, watch0list, criminal background pre-employment checks and other go or no-go decisions." (Cherry and Imwinkelreid, 2006) Lacking however, is the 10 finger matches and the corroboration of neighboring fingers found in the Henry Classification System. (Cherry and Imwinkelreid, 2006, paraphrased) Only the index finger is analyzed in the IAFIS and in the event the prescreening results in a very low score than a decision is made for a non-match and the images of the other finger is not analyzed which may result in an individual not being identified . It is stated in the report as follows:
"Jeremy Jones is a recent example of this failure. Jones was an alleged serial killer who killed a woman each time he was released from custody. Even though the IAFIS library included images of Jones' fingerprint patterns, the computer system failed to "match" those images to the new images produced each time Jones was re-arrested." (Cherry and Imwinkelreid, 2006)
Also cited, as a weakness of the IAFIS is that, the systems may "incorrectly match a prospective employee with someone who had a criminal past." (Cherry and Imwinkelreid, 2006)
III. Admissibility of Fingerprints as Valid Evidence
Leo (2005) states that fingerprint identification "has enjoyed a long history of judicial acceptance throughout the world. In the United States, fingerprint evidence was first offered into evidence in People v. Jennings, 254 Ill. 534, 96 N.E. 1077, 43 L.R.A. (N.S.) 1206, (1911). In Jennings, the Court ruled that: "We are disposed to hold from the evidence of the four witnesses who testified, and from the writings we have referred to on the subject, that there is a scientific basis for the system of fingerprint identification and the courts are justified in admitting this class of evidence." (Leo, 2005, p.2)
Since Jennings, fingerprints have been held to be the 'gold standard' for forensic identification. In 1993, the use of fingerprint evidence was challenged in a landmark case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 592, (1993) on fingerprint evidence in the court system. In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Daubert that the trial judge was the "gatekeeper" to prevent "junk science" from entering the courtroom." (Leo, 2005, p.2) Daubert resulted from a lawsuit relating to the drug Bendectin and this drug's link to birth defects. A series of expert witnesses testified to both sides of the issue and the Court stated in its opinion as follows:
(1) the "general acceptance" test of Frye v United States (1923) 54 App DC 46, 293 F. 1013, 34 ALR 145, was superseded by the Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE), and thus general acceptance is not a necessary precondition to the admissibility of scientific evidence under the FRE, given that (a) nothing in the text of Rule 702 of the FRE, governing expert testimony, establishes general acceptance as an absolute prerequisite to admissibility, and (b) there is no indication that Rule 702 or the FRE as a whole were intended to incorporate a general acceptance standard; (2) under the FRE, a federal trial judge must insure that any and all scientific testimony or evidence is not only relevant but reliable; and (3) in a federal case involving scientific evidence, evidentiary reliability is based on scientific validity." (Leo, 2005, p.3)
The Court make provision of guidelines to used by a Judge when considering whether scientific evidence should be admitted at trial in…