Study: Fingerprint Evidence Isn't Infallible

That would seem a clear path for errors, but experts routinely testify that the "methodological error rate" is zero. How can that be, especially now that several cases have surfaced?

When fingerprint analysts testify that the method is perfect, they are talking about the fact that no two fingerprints are exactly the same, so one and only one person can match the prints. They frequently use mathematics as an analogy.

The equation 2+2=4 is correct. If a mathematician comes up with an answer of five, the method isn't wrong – the mathematician is.

But the chance that the fingerprint analyst is wrong is not taken into account when the evidence is presented to the court, Cole says. Repeatedly, during the 22 cases he documents, the experts testified that the chance of error was essentially zero.

Madrid Mix-up

The most celebrated case of mismatching involved a Portland, Ore., lawyer, Brandon Mayfield, who was arrested and held for two weeks as a suspect in the Madrid train bombing last year.

Spanish National Police sent fingerprints from the crime scene to law enforcement agencies around the world, including the FBI, in an attempt to identify the bomber.

Mayfield, in retrospect, may have been a sitting duck. He was a Muslim convert with an Egyptian wife, a United States Army veteran, and he had once represented one of the "Portland Seven" who had pled guilty to conspiracy to wage war against the U.S.

Spanish authorities questioned the match, and the FBI even sent agents to Spain to try to convince them that Mayfield was their man.

Spanish police, however, found another man who was a better match for the prints, and Mayfield was released. At the time of his arrest, Mayfield told authorities he had not been out of the country in 10 years, and didn't even have a passport.

And according to Cole, one of the FBI agents who had insisted the fingerprints were those of Mayfield had been reprimanded for making false attributions in 1969 and 1974.

Exonerated by DNA

One of the most troubling cases involves Stephan Cowans, who was convicted of attempted murder in 1997 for allegedly shooting a police officer while fleeing a robbery in Roxbury, Mass. He was implicated in the crime by the testimony of two witnesses, including the victim, and a fingerprint found on a cup.

Cowans insisted he was innocent, but several experts testified that the fingerprint was his. He was convicted and sent to prison.

While in jail he volunteered for "biohazard" work assignments to earn money for DNA tests. Three DNA samples from the mug and from a hat and a sweatshirt discarded by the perpetrator all excluded Cowans.

As a result, the Boston police department re-examined the fingerprint and determined that the match had been an error. It was later found that one of the fingerprint experts who had testified at Cowans' trial had "discovered" the error but concealed it.

Cowans was released, but he served six years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

And he owes his freedom not only to his own perseverance, but to happenstance as well. If the real villain had not been "so obliging" to drink from the cup and discard two pieces of clothing containing his DNA, "it is virtually certain that Cowans would have served his full sentence of 35 years without anyone ever knowing that the fingerprint evidence (and the eyewitness evidence) was erroneous," Cole writes.

It doesn't exactly sound infallible.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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