REPORT : U.S. CRIME LABS SUCK,0,954369.story
Report questions science, reliability of crime lab evidence: The National Academy of Sciences says many courtroom claims about fingerprints, bite marks and other evidence lack scientific verification. It finds forensics inconsistent and in disarray nationwide.
by Jason Felch and Maura Dolan / February 19, 2009

Sweeping claims made in courtrooms about fingerprints, ballistics, bite marks and other forensic evidence often have little or no basis in science, according to a landmark report released Wednesday by the nation’s leading science body. The National Academy of Sciences report called for a wholesale overhaul of the crime lab system, which has become increasingly crucial to American jurisprudence. Many experts said the report could have a broad impact on crime labs and the courts, ushering in changes at least as significant as those generated by the advent of DNA evidence two decades ago. But the substantial reforms would require years of planning and major federal funding. In the meantime, the findings are expected to unleash a flood of new legal challenges by defense attorneys. “This is a major turning point in the history of forensic science in America,” said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted. He said the findings would immediately lead to court challenges. “If this report does not result in real change, when will it ever happen?” Scheck asked.

The Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office plans to use the National Academy report to file challenges on the admissibility of fingerprint evidence and is reviewing cases in which fingerprints played a primary role in convictions, officials said. Separately, the Los Angeles Police Department has been reviewing 1,000 fingerprint cases after discovering that two people were wrongfully accused because of faulty fingerprint analyses. The academy, the preeminent science advisor to the federal government, found a system in disarray: labs that are underfunded and beholden to law enforcement and that lack independent oversight and consistent standards. The report concludes that the deficiencies pose “a continuing and serious threat to the quality and credibility of forensic science practice,” imperiling efforts to protect society from criminals and shield innocent people from convictions.


With the notable exception of DNA evidence, the report says that many forensic methods have never been shown to consistently and reliably connect crime scene evidence to specific people or sources. “The simple reality is that the interpretation of forensic evidence is not always based on scientific studies to determine its validity,” the report says. For example, frequent claims that fingerprint analysis had a zero error rate are “not scientifically plausible,” the report said. The scientific basis for bite mark evidence is called “insufficient to conclude that bite mark comparisons can result in a conclusive match.”

Recent cases of CSI gone awry have underscored the report’s urgency. In the cases of the 232 people exonerated by DNA evidence, more than half involved faulty or invalidated forensic science, according to the Innocence Project. Margaret Berger, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and a member of the panel, explained: “We’re not saying all these disciplines are useless. We’re saying there is a lot of work that needs to be done.” Said U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Harry Edwards, co-chairman of the panel: “There are a lot of people who are concerned, and they should be concerned. Forensic science is the handmaiden of the legal system. . . . If you claim to be science, you ought to put yourself to the test.”

Although the panel’s recommendations are not binding, they are expected to be influential. Among the recommendations:
* Create a new federal agency, the National Institute of Forensic Science, to fund scientific research and disseminate basic standards.
* Make crime labs independent of law enforcement. Most crime labs are run by police agencies, which can lead to bias, a growing body of research shows.
* Require that expert witnesses and forensic analysts be certified by the new agency, and that labs be accredited.
* Fund research into the scientific basis for claims routinely made in court, as well as studies of the accuracy and reliability of forensic techniques.

Those recommendations have been cautiously embraced by leading associations of forensic scientists, which in 2005 helped convince Congress that the study was necessary. “You can’t continue to do business in 2009 the way you did in 1915,” said Joseph Polski of the International Assn. for Identification, whose members include examiners of fingerprints, documents, footwear and tire tracks. “We knew there would be things in there we’d like and things we didn’t like.” Many forensic scientists were hesitant to criticize the report for fear of seeming resistant to testing and scrutiny. But there were some delicate complaints. “It’s not the science of forensic science that is in need of repair, I think; it’s how the results are interpreted in the courtroom,” said Dean Gialamis, head of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, who was quick to add that his group welcomed the recommendations.

The report was hailed by many defense attorneys, scientists and law professors, who for years have been raising scientific and legal challenges. “The courts were highly skeptical of experts and resistant to hearing their arguments,” said Simon A. Cole, a professor of criminology at UC Irvine who has often testified for defense teams about the limitations of fingerprint evidence. “I feel like I’m Alice coming out of the rabbit hole and back into a world of sanity and reason.” The report had harsh words for the FBI Laboratory and the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department, which have shown little enthusiasm for exploring the shortcomings of forensic science. “Neither agency has recognized, let alone articulated, a need for change,” the report states, adding that they could be subject to pro-prosecution biases.

Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. signaled in comments to reporters shortly before the report was released that he would take its concerns seriously: “I think we need to devote a lot of attention and a lot of resources to that problem.” Prosectors on the front lines, however, were more skeptical. “I know the defense is probably starting bonfires, but this should not in any way shake up anyone’s confidence in forensics,” said Paula Wulff, manager and senior attorney of the DNA Forensic Program of the National District Attorneys Assn. She called the recommendations a “Cadillac of aspirations,” and expressed doubt that they would be followed given the poor state of the economy. All sides, however, agreed that the report signals an aggressive reentry of scientists into issues that for decades have fallen to lawyers, judges and juries to resolve.


STATE of the ART

“Over the years we have published information on a range of techniques to develop fingerprints on exhibits retrieved from scenes of crime. This information helps police detect more fingerprints more successfully. We produce the Manual of Fingerprint Development Techniques which is endorsed by the Association of Chief Police Officers and is used by every police force in the UK, and around the world. Copies of the Manual of Fingerprint Development Techniques and its companion guide for scenes of crime, the Fingerprint Development Handbook, are supplied free to UK police forces. We charge other users £150 for the Manual and £10 for the Handbook (minimum order £50).”


Current Forensics Gets Poor Fingerprints Off Recycled Plastic
BY Colin Barras  /   06 April 2009

Recycling may be good for the planet, but it is causing problems for CSI teams. Chemists that set protocols for developing fingerprints at the UK government’s Home Office Scientific Development Branch (HOSDB) are having to rethink their techniques to make them workable on the recycled plastics that are now flooding the market.

Despite the advent of DNA forensic technology, traditional fingerprinting remains an important crime-busting tool. Since the 1970s, the Fingerprint and Footwear Forensics programme, based near St Albans, has studied how to best develop fingerprints on a range of porous and non-porous surfaces, and has written a comprehensive manual used by police forces worldwide. It advises which chemical approaches will best reveal the prints on a particular surface. New technologies such as laser scanning of fingerprints, or methods to retrieve them from bullet casings are constantly being added. But now these techniques must be adapted to the rise of recycling.

Mongrel plastics
“We noticed there were changes in the plastic products on the market around two to three years ago,” says Vaughn Sears, a project manager in the Fingerprint and Footwear programme. He suspects the changes are due to the increasingly popular recycling initiatives: “Recycled plastics are used in virtually anything that’s made from polymers these days.” The recycled products may look similar, but the physical and chemical properties differ so widely from the plastics they replace that the techniques honed over recent decades to lift fingerprints off plastics are no longer effective, he says.

Traditionally plastics were made from just one or two chemical building blocks, arranged in a predictable structure. But even plastics with just a trace of recycled feedstock become much more complex. Although consumers are encouraged to separate their plastics for recycling, the resulting plastics are inevitably more of a mongrel product than the pedigree plastics they replace. “These new products are made from an unspecified mix of polymers, which makes them much more difficult to work with,” says Sears.

Neglected science
Sears and Valerie Bowman, Fingerprints and Footwear programme manager at the HOSDB, are midway through a work programme designed to update their methods to work with the new materials. They hope to present their recommendations to police forces within six months, and restore the upper hand to fingerprint forensics departments.

John Bond, a fingerprint researcher with the Northamptonshire Police and a fellow at the University of Leicester, both in the UK, recognises the problems Sears and Bowman highlight, but thinks help could be at hand to prevent similar occurrences in future. For many years, research in this area has been a bit neglected. But TV-led increased public interest in forensics – what Bond calls the “CSI effect” – could lead to new, more powerful technologies. “I believe this renewed interest from universities will produce a new generation of fingerprint enhancement techniques to match what [the CSI scriptwriters] already think can be done,” he says.

Fingerprint Test Will Tell What A Person Has Touched
by Kenneth Chang  /  August 7, 2008

With a new analytical technique, a fingerprint can now reveal much more than the identity of a person. It can now also identify what the person has been touching: drugs, explosives or poisons, for example. Writing in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, R. Graham Cooks, a professor of chemistry at Purdue University, and his colleagues describe how a laboratory technique, mass spectrometry, could find a wider application in crime investigations. The equipment to perform such tests is already commercially available, although prohibitively expensive for all but the largest crime laboratories. Smaller, cheaper, portable versions of such analyzers are probably only a couple of years away.

In Dr. Cooks’s method, a tiny spray of liquid that has been electrically charged, either water or water and alcohol, is sprayed on a tiny bit of the fingerprint. The droplets dissolve compounds in the fingerprints and splash them off the surface into the analyzer. The liquid is heated and evaporates, and the electrical charge is transferred to the fingerprint molecules, which are then identified by a device called a mass spectrometer. The process is repeated over the entire fingerprint, producing a two-dimensional image. The researchers call the technique desorption electrospray ionization, or Desi, for short.

In the experiments described in the Science paper, solutions containing tiny amounts of various chemicals including cocaine and the explosive RDX were applied to the fingertips of volunteers. The volunteers touched surfaces like glass, paper and plastic. The researchers then analyzed the fingerprints. Because the spatial resolution is on the order of the width of a human hair, the Desi technique did not just detect the presence of, for instance, cocaine, but literally showed a pattern of cocaine in the shape of the fingerprint, leaving no doubt who had left the cocaine behind. “That’s an advantage that this technique would have,” said Bruce Goldberger, professor and director of toxicology at the University of Florida who runs a forensics laboratory that helps medical examiners and law enforcement. Dr. Goldberger was not involved in the research.

The chemical signature could also help crime investigators tease out one fingerprint out of the smudges of many overlapping prints if the person had been exposed to a specific chemical, said Demian R. Ifa, a postdoctoral researcher and the lead author of the Science paper. Prosolia Inc., a small company in Indianapolis, has licensed the Desi technology from Purdue and is already selling such analyzers as add-ons to large laboratory mass spectrometers, which cost several hundred thousand dollars each. Prosolia has so far sold about 70 analyzers, said Peter T. Kissinger, the company’s chairman and chief executive. The most sophisticated $60,000 version that would be needed for fingerprint analysis went on sale this year.

However, fingerprints are not the main focus for Prosolia or Dr. Cooks. “This is really just an offshoot of a project that is really aimed at trying to develop a methodology ultimately to be used in surgery,” Dr. Cooks said. If a Desi analyzer can be miniaturized and automated into a surgical tool, a surgeon could, for example, quickly test body tissues for the presence of molecules associated with cancer. “That’s the long-term aim of this work,” Dr. Cooks said. In unpublished research, the researchers have successfully tested the method on bladder tumors in dogs. Prosolia is collaborating with Griffin Analytical Technologies, a subsidiary of ICx Technologies, on a Desi analyzer that works with a portable mass spectrometer. That product is probably a year or two away from the market, Dr. Kissinger said.

As it becomes cheaper and more widely available, the Desi technology has potential ethical implications, Dr. Cooks said. Instead of drug tests, a company could surreptitiously check for illegal drug use by its employees by analyzing computer keyboards after the workers have gone home, for instance.



by Joanna Blythman / 19 November 2006

“As little as 10 years ago, you took a risk when you bought a pineapple. The fruits that made it to the UK – a variety of pineapple known as the Smooth Cayenne – were scarily spiky, green on the outside and, more often than not, off-puttingly sour and fibrous within. Then in 1996, the Del Monte ‘Gold’ pineapple hit our shelves, the first of a new type of low-acid pineapple bred in Hawaii.

Seeing the profit potential for its winning pineapple, Del Monte tried to keep the market to itself. But the new hybrid pineapple had been developed at the Pineapple Research Institute in Hawaii in the 1970s and other fruit companies with research interests in this institute were adamant that the golden pineapple was not exclusive to Del Monte. Dole, a major player on the global fruit scene, brought out the Gold MD-2. The smaller Maui Pineapple Company launched a similar fruit, which it dubbed Hawaiian Gold.”

Toxicity and allergenicity of non-GM pineapple (occupational exposure) / Section 2.1.1 Bromelain
1. Pineapples can be toxic to workers who cut up pineapples.  Pineapples contain a protease called bromelain in pineapple sap.  Fingerprints can almost completely be removed by the combined pressure and keratolytic effect of bromelain by the removal of the stratum corneum.  In addition, moniliasis of the finger webs has occasionally been observed in pineapple cutters (Polunin, 1951).



“By 1891, researchers identified the proteolytic enzyme bromelain, which they found in the fleshy part of the fruit. This enzyme was discovered to break down protein, and as such, is still used to day as a natural meat tenderizer and digestive aid. By 1957, bromelain was widely recognized and research also began into such areas as muscle and tissue inflammation, burn recovery, infection, and even sinus problems. The most recognized use for bromelain is as a digestive aid. This enzyme is commonly used in cases in which an individual’s own digestive enzymes are deficient, frequently resulting from pancreatic disorders. Some laboratory studies suggest that bromelain may also be useful for reducing bad intestinal bacteria.


Bromelain is so effective at digesting protein that workers who frequently cut the fruit often lose their fingerprints to the active properties of the enzyme. As well as this fruit’s amazing digestive qualities, it is also an excellent source of vitamins A and vitamin C, a benefit the Spaniards took advantage of on their many extended trips out to sea. The fibrous nature of pineapple however, is also known to relieve constipation, as well ancient cultures frequently used pineapples to cure jaundice and kill intestinal parasites. Ripe pineapple juice is well known as a remedy to induce menstruation and relieve painful periods. Bromelain’s photolytic properties also make this enzyme a natural blood thinner. The digestive substance in the enzyme breaks down the blood clotting protein called fibrin, which inhibits circulation and prevents tissues from effectively draining.

European studies have consistently shown that bromelain is also an excellent treatment for those recovering from sports injuries and in tissue repair necessary after surgery. Evidence suggests that some supplemental enzymes in particular can be absorbed directly into the circulatory system in their active form where they then exhibit anti-inflammatory and pain relieving actions. Bromelain has proven especially effective when applied directly to the skin to remove dead tissue resulting from severe burns that have reached all skin layers. These third-degree burns as they are known, are extremely susceptible to infection and swelling. The digestive properties of the bromelain cleanse the areas and remove the excess dead tissue and as well, its anti-inflammatory properties may help to reduce the pain caused by swelling. Countries such as Japan and Taiwan and in the state of Hawaii where pineapples are abundant, widely recognize bromelain as a remedy to cleanse wounds. Another interesting use for bromelain may be as a cough suppressant and nasal decongestant.


According to experts, in most cases, bromelain should only be taken for between 8 and10 days. There are two recognized drug reactions with bromelain. This enzyme is said to enhance antibiotics. One study shows that amoxicillin blood levels are increased when combined with bromelain. Additional studies show that the antibiotic tetracycline is better absorbed when used in conjunction with bromelain, however researchers say that further investigation is still necessary since studies in this area are conflicting. If you are taking the herbs gingko, ginger, vitamin C or garlic or medications such as aspirin or warfarin, a common blood thinner, bromelain could potentially increase the risk of bleeding. It is therefore best to avoid this enzyme. In any case, if you are taking any type of prescription medication, it is always best to speak with a health professional prior to adding any herbs or supplements since interactions are often common.



“All of us started working in the pineapple canneries when we were 12 or 13 years old. There were no child labor laws then. I packed and trimmed pineapple and picked eyes out of the so-called jam. I worked in the cafeteria, which was supposedly the gem of jobs, because you made 27 1/2 cents an hour as against 18 cents an hour packing pineapple. In season we worked 12 hours a day. That was how we supported the family and got back to school during the fall.

Education was extremely important to me. I felt it was a window to the world, and that being able to read, write, and speak English–my first language was Chinese–offered special opportunities. I became the editor of the school paper in intermediate school and decided to concentrate my efforts on learning the English language well. I went to the University of Hawaii during the period of the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. The cause of the anti-fascist side affected many of us. We felt we had a part because we boycotted Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. I also joined an activist group called the Inter-Professional Association in those pre-World War II years before the ILWU came to Hawaii in strength.

pineapple field

In 1938, Jack Hall, who eventually became Hawaii’s most famous ILWU organizer and the union’s Regional Director, was arrested during the Inter-Island Steamship Navigation Co. strike by the Inland Boatmen’s Union. I remember when somebody came to our Inter-Professional Association meeting and announced, “Jack Hall has been beaten!” That IBU strike culminated in the August 1, 1938 “Hilo Massacre,” when police gunfire wounded 50 pickets. The ILWU’s success in organizing thousands in 1944 came about because exploitation was perceived by the two major ethnic groups, Filipinos and Japanese, and because the ILWU was able to use the leaders in the ethnic work camps to sign up people without the bosses knowing about it. We knew the ILWU was a union that was devoted to non-discrimination, and that there was no need for us to repeat the mistakes of earlier organizers, who in past decades created associations of only Japanese, Filipinos, or whatever group it might be. So we set up one union made up of all ethnic groups under the ILWU.


Another crisis started in 1947 when Ichiro Izuka published a red-baiting pamphlet that was inherently a move to separate out various ILWU groupings so they would become independent unions. This move failed, but we felt a great need to close ranks. When the Izuka pamphlet came out, we still had a number of locals devoted to sugar and to industrial groupings such as pineapple and miscellaneous trades. We decided that for the strength of the union and its members it was better to have one consolidated local. Then we could send out the same message to all units that we would have solidarity in political action so people would have an opportunity to come together and discuss what it was that concerned them in their various industrial groupings. That’s how we eventually became Local 142 in a consolidation process that began in 1947 and concluded in 1951. We ended up with one big local of longshore, sugar, and pineapple, plus, later, the supermarkets, hospitals, and hotels.

In 1954, I was hired as ILWU Local 142 Social Worker. The union had moved into the area of negotiated medical plans, pension plans, later on dental plans, and a whole slew of social legislation that required the interpretative work of a social worker. Because I had done volunteer work during the 1946 tidal wave and the ’46 sugar and ’49 longshore strikes, the local’s leaders realized that a social worker could perform valuable services, including things elected officials could not do.”


~1000-2000  B.C. – Fingerprints were used on clay tablets for business transactions in ancient Babylon.

3rd Century B.C. – Thumbprints begin to be used on clay seals in China to “sign” documents.

610-907 A.D. – During the T’ang Dynasty, a time when imperial China was one of the most powerful and wealthy regions of the world, fingerprints are reportedly used on official documents.

1st Century A.D. – A petroglyph located on a cliff face in Nova Scotia depicts a hand with exaggerated ridges and finger whorls, presumably left by the Mi’kmaq people.

14th Century A.D. – Many official government documents in Persia have fingerprint impressions. One government physician makes the observation that no two fingerprints were an exact match.

1686 – At the University of Bologna in Italy, a professor of anatomy named Marcello Malpighi notes the common characteristics of spirals, loops and ridges in fingerprints, using the newly invented microscope for his studies. In time, a 1.88mm thick layer of skin, the “Malpighi layer,” was named after him. Although Malpighi was likely the first to document types of fingerprints, the value of fingerprints as identification tools was never mentioned in his writings.

1823 – A thesis is published by Johannes Evengelista Purkinje, professor of anatomy with the University of Breslau, Prussia. The thesis details a full nine different fingerprint patterns. Still, like Malpighi, no mention is made of fingerprints as an individual identification method.

1858 – The Chief Magistrate of the Hooghly district in Jungipoor, India, Sir William Herschel, first used fingerprints to “sign” contracts with native Indians. In July of 1858, a local businessman named Rajyadhar Konai put his hand print on the back of a contract at Herschel’s request. Herschel was not motivated by the need to prove personal identity; rather, his motivation was to simply “frighten (Konai) out of all thought of repudiating his signature.” As the locals felt more bound to a contract through this personal contact than if it was just signed, as did the ancient Babylonians and Chinese, Herschel adopted the practice permanently. Later, only the prints of the right index and middle fingers were required on contracts. In time, after viewing a number of fingerprints, Herschel noticed that no two prints were exactly alike, and he observed that even in widespread use, the fingerprints could be used for personal identification purposes.

1880 – Dr. Henry Faulds, a British surgeon and Superintendent of Tsukiji Hospital in Tokyo, published an article in the Scientific Journal, “Nautre” (nature). He discussed fingerprints as a means of personal identification, and the use of printers ink as a method for obtaining such fingerprints. Faulds had begun his study of what he called “skin-furrows” during the 1870s after looking at fingerprints on pieces of old clay pottery. He is also credited with the first fingerprint identification: a greasy print left by a laboratory worker on a bottle of alcohol. Soon, Faulds began to recognize that the distinctive patterns on fingers held great promise as a means of individual identification, and developed a classification system for recording these inked impressions. Also in 1880, Faulds sent a description of his fingerprint classification system to Sir Charles Darwin. Darwin, aging and in poor health, declined to assist Dr. Faulds in the further study of fingerprints, but forwarded the information on to his cousin, British scientist Sir Francis Galton.

1882 – Gilbert Thompson, employed by the U.S. Geological Survey in New Mexico, uses his own fingerprints on a document to guard against forgery. This event is the first known use of fingerprints for identification in America.

1883 – “Life on the Mississippi,” a novel by Mark Twain, tells the story of a murderer who is identified by the use of fingerprints. His later book “Pudd’n Head Wilson” includes a courtroom drama involving fingerprint identification.

1888 – Sir Francis Galton’s began his study of fingerprints during the 1880s, primarily to develop a tool for determining genetic history and hereditary traits. Through careful study of the work of Faulds, which he learned of through his cousin Sir Charles Darwin, as well as his examination of fingerprints collected by Sir William Herschel, Galton became the first to provide scientific evidence that no two fingerprints are exactly the same, and that prints remain the same throughout a person’s lifetime. He calculated that the odds of finding two identical fingerprints were 1 in 64 billion.

1892 – Galton’s book “Fingerprints” is published, the first of its kind. In the book, Galton detailed the first classification system for fingerprints; he identified three types (loop, whorl, and arch) of characteristics for fingerprints (also known as minutia). These characteristics are to an extent still in use today, often referred to as Galton’s Details.

1892 – Juan Vucetich, an Argentine police official, had recently begun keeping the first fingerprint files based on Galton’s Details. History was made that year when Vucetich made the first criminal fingerprint identification. A woman named Rojas had murdered her two sons, then cut her own throat to deflect blame from herself. Rojas left a bloody print on a doorpost. After investigators matched the crime scene print to that of the accused, Rojas confessed. Vucetich eventually developed his own system of classification, and published a book entitled Dactiloscopía Comparada (“Comparative Fingerprinting”) in 1904, detailing the Vucetich system, still the most used system in Latin America.

1896 – British official Sir Edward Richard Henry had been living in Bengal, and was looking to use a system similar to that of Herschel’s to eliminate problems within his jurisdiction. After visiting Sir Francis Galton in England, Henry returned to Bengal and instituted a fingerprinting program for all prisoners. By July of 1896, Henry wrote in a report that the classification limitations had not yet been addressed. A short time later, Henry developed a system of his own, which included 1,024 primary classifications. Within a year, the Governor General signed a resolution directing that fingerprinting was to be the official method of identifying criminals in British India.

1901 – Back in England and Wales, the success of the “Henry Fingerprint Classification System” in India was creating a stir, and a committee was formed to review Scotland Yard’s identification methods. Henry was then transferred to England, where he began training investigators to use the Henry Classification System after founding Scotland Yard’s Central Fingerprint Bureau. Within a few years, the Henry Classification System was in use around the world, and fingerprints had been established as the uniform system of identification for the future. The Henry Classification System is still in use today in English speaking countries around the globe.

1902 – Alphonse Bertillon, director of the Bureau of Identification of the Paris Police, is responsible for the first criminal identification of a fingerprint without a known suspect. A print taken from the scene of a homicide was compared against the criminal fingerprints already on file, and a match was made, marking another milestone in law enforcement technology. Meanwhile, the New York Civil Service Commission, spearheaded by Dr. Henry P. DeForrest, institutes testing of the first systematic use of fingerprints in the United States.

1903 – Fingerprinting technology comes into widespread use in the United States, as the New York Police Department, the New York State Prison system and the Federal Bureau of Prisons begin working with the new science.

1904 – The St. Louis Police Department and the Leavenworth State Penitentiary in Kansas start utilizing fingerprinting, assisted by a Sergeant from Scotland Yard who had been guarding the British Display at the St. Louis Exposition.

1905 – The U.S. Army gets on the fingerprinting bandwagon, and within three years was joined by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. In the ensuing 25 years, as more law enforcement agencies joined in using fingerprints as personal identification methods, these agencies began sending copies of the fingerprint cards to the recently established National Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

1911 – The first central storage location for fingerprints in North America is established in Ottawa by Edward Foster of the Dominion Police Force. The repository is maintained by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and while it originally held only 2000 sets of fingerprints, today the number is over 2 million.

1924 – The U.S. Congress acts to establish the Identification Division of the F.B.I. The National Bureau and Leavenworth are consolidated to form the basis of the F.B.I. fingerprint repository. By 1946, the F.B.I. had processed 100 million fingerprint cards; that number doubles by 1971.

1990s – AFIS, or Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems, begin widespread use around the country. This computerized system of storing and cross-referencing criminal fingerprint records would eventually become capable of searching millions of fingerprint files in minutes, revolutionizing law enforcement efforts.

1996 – As Americans become more concerned with the growing missing and abducted children problem, and law enforcement groups urge the fingerprinting of children for investigative purposes in the event of a child becoming missing, Chris Migliaro founds Fingerprint America in Albany, NY. The company provides a simple, at-home fingerprinting and identification kit for parents, maintaining the family’s privacy while protecting and educating children about the dangers of abduction. By 2001, the company distributes over 5 million Child ID Fingerprinting Kits around the world.

1999 – The FBI phases out the use of paper fingerprint cards with their new Integrated AFIS (IAFIS) site at Clarksburg, West Virginia. IAFIS will starts with individual computerized fingerprint records for approximately 33 million criminals, while the outdated paper cards for the civil files are kept at a facility in Fairmont, West Virginia.

[Galton’s book includes a number of tables and illustrations, including this proof of the way a child’s fingerprints remain the same over time. Later in the Introduction Galton indicates how his original interest in fingerprints was linked to an idea that they might serve to establish definitive racial differences.]

“In November, 1892, after he had already decided to feature the story of changelings but while the details of that plot were still evolving, MT acquired a copy of Finger Prints, by Francis Galton. Galton (1822-1911) was a British scientist and a cousin of Charles Darwin whose main interest was in heredity. He coined the term “eugenics.” At several points in Finger Prints he discusses his subject in the context of race and class, although he acknowledges that the data will not support his “great expectations” — that fingerprints would display racial differences. After reading Galton’s book, MT enthusiastically decided to feature fingerprints in the story. In Chapter Two MT’s narrator says Roxy’s race is “a fiction of law and custom.” When Wilson uses fingerprint evidence in the courtroom to prove Tom and Chambers’ “true” identities, however, he is in a sense using them to establish race.


“There is no prejudice to be overcome in procuring these most trustworthy sign-manuals, no vanity to be pacified, no untruths to be guarded against.” (Pp. 1-2)

[It’s not clear what Galton means by “prejudice” in the above. In fact throughout his book a strong connection is maintained between fingerprints and race. The first use of fingerprints for identification was by the British raj in India. In the paragraph below Galton connects his subject explicitly up with the subjects of imperialism. He is saying that fingerprints are especially useful in the colonies, where “they” all look alike and are all liars!]

In the tenth chapter we come to a practical result of the inquiry, namely, its possible use as a means of differentiating a man from his fellows. In civil as well as in criminal cases, the need of some such system is shown to be greatly felt in many of our dependencies; where the features of the natives are distinguished with difficulty; where there is but little variety of surnames; where there are strong motives for prevarication, especially connected with land-tenure and pensions, and a proverbial prevalence of unveracity. (P. 14)

In the twelth chapter we come to a branch of the subject of which I had great expectations, that have been falsified, namely, their use in indicating Race and Temperament. I thought that any hereditary peculiarities would almost of necessity vary in different races, and that so fundamental and enduring a feature as the finger markings must in some way be correlated with temperament.

The races I have chiefly examined are English, most of whom are of the upper and middle classes; the others chiefly from London board schools; Welsh, from the purest Welsh-speaking districts of South Wales; Jews from the large London schools, and Negroes from the territories of the Royal Niger Company. I have also a collection of Basque prints taken at Cambo, some twenty miles inland from Biarritz, which, although small, is large enough to warrant a provisional conclusion. As a first and only an approximately correct description, the English, Welsh, Jews, Negroes, and Basques, may all be spoken of as identitical in the character of their finger prints; the same familiar patterns appearing in all of them which much the same degrees of frequency, the differences between groups of different races being not larger than those that occasionally occur between groups of the same race. The Jews have, however, a decidedly larger proportion of Whorled patterns than other races, and I should have been tempted to make an assertion about a peculiarity in the Negroes, had not one of their groups differed greatly from the rest. The task of examination has been laborious thus far, but it would be much more so to arrive with correctness at a second and closer approximation to the truth. It is doubtful at present whether it is worthwhile to pursue the subject, except in the case of the Hill tribes of India and a few other peculiarly diverse races, for the chance of discovering some characteristic and perhaps a more monkey-like pattern. (Pp. 17-18)

[In Chapter XII, “Races and Classes,” Galton develops in a bit more detail his expectations about the relationship between those categories and the innate identity encoded in fingerprints. Like most 19th century discussions on the subject, Galton’s confuses nationality with race, and assumes his own racist predispositions are “reasonable.” To his credit, though, he accepts the fact that there is no empirical basis for racial discrimination based on fingerprints.]

It requires considerable patience and caution to arrive at trustworthy conclusions, but it may emphatically be said that there is no peculiar pattern which characterises persons of any of the above races [i.e. English, pure Welsh, Hebrew, Negro and Basque]. There is no particular pattern that is special to any one of them, which when met with enables us to assert, or even to suspect, the nationality of the person on whom it appeared. The only differences so far observed are statistical, and cannot be determined except through patience and caution, and by discussing large groups.

I was misled at first by some accidental observations, and as it seemed reasonable to expect to find racial differences in finger marks, the inquiries were continued in varied ways until hard fact had made hope no longer justifiable. (Pg. 192-93)

[As if determined to discriminate between races even in the face of the evidence, Galton did “find” the following “evidence.” He does not give any illustration to support this finding, however.]

The number of instances is of course too small for statistical deductions, but they served to make it clear that no very marked characteristic distinguished the races. The impressions from Negroes betray the general clumsiness of their fingers, but their patterns are not, so far as I can find, different from those of others, they are not simpler as judged either by their contours or by the number of origins, embranchments, islands, and enclosures contained in them. Still, whether it be from pure fancy on my part, or from the way in which they were printed, or from some real peculiarity, the general aspect of the Negro print strikes me as characteristic. The width of the ridges seems more uniform, their intervals more regular, and their courses more parallel than with us. In short, they give an idea of greater simplicity, due to causes that I have not yet succeeded in submitting to the test of measurement. (Pg. 195-96)

[Galton goes on briefly to admit that, although he compared “art-students” and “science-students” with “the worst idiots in the London district,” he has found “no notable difference” in fingerprints on any “class” basis.]


by Simon Cole / May 13, 2001

uture historians of science and law may well date the beginning of the end of fingerprinting to the opening night of the third season of “The Sopranos.” Coked to the gills, Christopher Moltisanti, Tony Soprano’s nephew, brings Livia Soprano’s wake to an absurd anticlimax as he muses on the claim that no two fingerprints are exactly alike. For scientists to know this, Christopher reasons, they would have to get everyone in the world together in one room to check. And not just everyone in the world, but everyone who ever lived. Since this would be impossible — even using computers — he concludes, “They got nothin.”‘
He’s right, as it turns out. The claim that no fingerprint has ever appeared twice was first popularized more than a hundred years ago, and by dint of analogy (with other natural objects like snowflakes), lack of contradiction and relentless repetition, this bit of folk wisdom became deeply enshrined. By extension, it lent the technique of forensic fingerprint analysis an aura of infallibility. More than just a useful tool, it came to be regarded as a perfect system of identification, and examiners’ testimony at criminal trials came to be practically unassailable.

Until now, that is. In 1998, in Delaware County, Pa., Richard Jackson was sentenced to life in prison for murder based largely on a fingerprint match to which three experts had testified. The defense argued, unsuccessfully, that it was a bad match. But after Jackson spent more than two years in prison the prosecution conceded the error, and he was freed. In Scotland a murder case was upended when detectives found a fingerprint at the scene of the crime that belonged to a police officer — who claimed she’d never been there in the first place. To verify her claim, she brought in two fingerprint analysts who attested that not only had her fingerprint been misidentified, but so had the print, found on a tin at the home of the accused, originally attributed to the victim.

As these cases suggest, the relevant question isn’t whether fingerprints could ever be exactly alike — it’s whether they are ever similar enough to fool a fingerprint examiner. And the answer, it’s increasingly, unnervingly clear, is a resounding yes. A recent proficiency test found that as many as one out of five fingerprint examiners misidentified fingerprint samples. In the last three years, defendants in at least 11 criminal cases have filed motions arguing that fingerprinting does not meet even the basic requirements for scientific and technical evidence. The first such challenge — filed on behalf of Byron Mitchell, who was being tried for robbery — involved five full days of testimony on the credibility of the technique by leading fingerprint examiners and academic critics, including myself. There’s no way to say how these cases, some of which are still on appeal, will be decided, but it is clear that puncturing the myth of fingerprinting’s infallibility and scientific validity poses a grave threat to its century-long reign.

But ultimately, the most dangerous threat to fingerprinting may be cultural, not legal. Much of the public’s faith in fingerprinting has derived not from law but from culture: from the ubiquitous use of the fingerprint as a metaphor (think of chemical and electronic fingerprints); as an icon (think of advertisements, mystery novels and the Court TV logo) of truth, science and most of all, individual identity. Our fingerprints were unique, and, therefore, so were we. As it happens, a new metaphor has arisen just in time to fill the breach. These days we are increasingly apt to believe that our individuality is vouched for by the unique arrangement of genetic material in our cells. And DNA can now do nearly everything that fingerprinting does. Forensic scientists can recover identifiable DNA samples from ever-smaller traces of biological material, even the stray cells left by the smudge of a finger. Forensic DNA profiling, which has notably shed the early nickname of “DNA fingerprinting,” is a perfect match for high-tech millennial sensibilities. Old-style fingerprinting, with its reliance on human observation and its correspondence to a romantic notion of our place in the universe looks . . . well, just so last century.

If this is indeed the beginning of the end of fingerprinting, history will be repeating itself. A century ago, fingerprinting was the upstart rival of the world’s dominant method of criminal identification: the Bertillon system, which used 11 bodily measurements, facial features, birthmarks, scars and tattoos to pinpoint individual identities. The transition to fingerprinting was treated as proof that the world was growing more rational, more discerning. But there may well come a time when our own genetically enhanced descendants find our belief in the power of fingerprinting as quaint as we find the Bertillon system.

What are we to make of the end of fingerprinting? Not simply that we are growing steadily less gullible and more scientific. Rather, that the consensus that coalesces around scientific ideas is more easily built than we might like to think, that legal and public trust can be won over with a culturally resonant image. Over the course of history, even those propositions that seem most indisputable become fragile; our belief in them, fickle. In this increasingly scientific era, it’s a fact worth remembering before we imbue the next foolproof system with the same aura of infallibility that we once ascribed to fingerprints.

{ Simon Cole is the author of “Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification” (Harvard University Press). }

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