I’m sure everyone has seen some Law and Order or CSI type show where finding a suspect’s fingerprints at a crime scene seals the case.
However, it appears scientists, including members of the National Academy of Sciences are questioning the validity of fingerprints, especially partial fingerprints that have been smudged. From the LA Times:
In 2007, a Maryland judge threw out fingerprint evidence in a death penalty case, calling it “a subjective, untested, unverifiable identification procedure that purports to be infallible.”
The ruling sided with the scientists, law professors and defense lawyers who for a decade had been noting the dearth of research into the reliability of fingerprinting. Their lonely crusade for sound science in the courtroom has often been ignored by the courts, but last month it was endorsed by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.
The question is not whether fingerprints are unique — most scientists agree they probably are, though that assumption remains largely unstudied. The issue is whether the blurry partial prints often found at crime scenes — what Faulds called “smudges” — are sufficient to identify someone with any reliability.
The answer: No one knows. There are no national standards for declaring a fingerprint “match.” As a result, fingerprint identifications are largely subjective.
I will say if someone has to go to jail for the rest of their lives over evidence with no scientific credibility this is a bad thing. I’m not going to be able to watch these crime shows now without thinking “man, I wish I could be the defense attorney.”