HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Friday, October 7, 2005

A New Dawn for Forensic Evidence

Today's Wall Street Journal has an article, "Fingerprint Matches Come Under More Fire As Potentially Fallible," (paid subscription required) that surveys recent challenges to various types of forensic evidence: fingerprints, hair samples, residue from bullets, handwriting and voice ID, etc.  The evidence in support of such "scientific" judgments is increasingly slim.  Consider:

[W]hen scientists recently tested fingerprint IDs, they told examiners one set of prints were from Mr. Mayfield and the other set from the Madrid bombings. "We told them we were trying to understand what went wrong in that case," says Itiel Dror of Britain's University of Southampton, who did the study with student David Charlton. "Could they please look at the prints and tell us where the examiners had gone wrong."

One examiner said he couldn't tell if the pair matched. Three said the pair did not match and helpfully pointed out why. The fifth examiner insisted the prints -- notorious for not matching -- did match.

Give that one a gold star.

Unbeknown to the examiners, the prints were not from Madrid and Mr. Mayfield. They were pairs that each examiner had testified in recent criminal cases came from the same person. The three who told the scientists that their pair didn't match therefore reached a conclusion opposite to the one they had given in court; another expressed uncertainty, whereas in court he had been certain. Prof. Dror will present the study later this month at the Biometrics 2005 meeting in London.


I don't know if this is of interest to health lawyers.  Genetic testing seems to be the gold standard in forensics these days, but only a fraction of criminal cases yield genetic samples that would make genetic testing relevant.  For all you law professors who are dreaming of becoming the next John Grisham, though, I smell a best seller in this story . . . . [tm]

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