Can Fingerprints Lie?: Re-Weighing Fingerprint Evidence in Criminal Jury Trials
Tamara Francita Lawson
St. Thomas University School of Law
February 1, 2005
American Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 31, No. 1, 2003
This article discusses fingerprint evidence and its use in criminal jury trials. It is commonly thought that fingerprints "never lie"; however, this article reveals the little known fact that the "science" of fingerprint identification has never been empirically tested or proven to be reliable. It further exposes the seldom-discussed issue of fingerprint misidentification and latent print examiner error. The article explains the importance of fingerprint evidence and its extensive use in all phases of the criminal justice system. Specifically, the article plays out the dramatic courtroom scenario of incriminating fingerprints being found at a crime scene and matching the accused all while the defendant strongly claims innocence. The expert opinion testimony of the latent fingerprint examiner becomes seminal to the case and is often received as powerfully persuasive evidence of guilt - virtually guaranteeing conviction.
Notwithstanding the fact that fingerprints are nearly universally accepted as infallible proof of identity in court, defense attorneys are currently urging courts to exclude fingerprint identification evidence from criminal jury trials by arguing that the findings of latent fingerprint examiners are scientifically invalid and legally unreliable. Notwithstanding the nearly universal acceptable of fingerprint evidence, at least one state court in Maryland refused to admit fingerprint evidence at all. This article dissects the defense’s argument for exclusion and explains the larger debate over the correct application of the evidentiary rules for expert witnesses articulated by the United States Supreme Court in Daubert and Kumho Tire. Although the exclusion of fingerprint evidence may sound outlandish, this article illuminates the substance of the argument and why due process requires judges to closely monitor whether the opinions of latent fingerprint examiners are accurate and reliable evidence to be considered by the jury. Further, this article proposes a special jury instruction that would be given in certain criminal cases to guide jurors in weighting the value of the fingerprint evidence.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 66
Keywords: fingerprints, forensic evidence, jury instructions, daubert, expert testimony, frye
Date posted: July 2, 2009 ; Last revised: January 24, 2012