November 21, 2007
By Charles "Cully" Stimson
A Maryland trial judge recently ruled the prosecution couldn't
use fingerprint evidence in a murder trial. Why? Because, she said,
fingerprint evidence isn't reliable. Never mind that the
defendant's fingerprints were found on the car of the person who
was shot. Does this ruling make sense?
Fingerprint evidence has been a reliable crime-fighting tool for
more than a century. Police officers, security experts,
prosecutors, defense attorneys -- all rely on fingerprint evidence.
Indeed, its use and reliability isn't limited to the courtroom.
Many parents, for example, have their children fingerprinted so
that if they are abducted, law enforcement has a set of prints to
use in the investigation.
Fingerprints are also used to keep track of sex offenders. Under
the Adam Walsh Act, convicted offenders must register with local
officials, and their conviction and image is posted on a national
Web site so the public can know where they are. But they don't just
register -- they have to submit their fingerprints to the
authorities. Communities rely on the authenticity of those
As combat operations continue in Iraq and Afghanistan, coalition
forces continue to engage the enemy. As in all wars, some enemy
fighters are captured. Often, they are hard to identify, because
they refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions by wearing a uniform
and identifying themselves once captured. Those elusive terrorists
are identified by their fingerprints. The military relies on this
evidence. In fact, they stake their lives on it.
Foreign visitors to the United States are required to place their
finger on an electronic reader when they arrive. Their print is
instantly compared against a database of other prints. The system
was put in place after September 11, 2001, to determine whether
someone should be allowed into our country. The Department of
Homeland Security relies on fingerprint evidence to protect all of
In many states, convicted criminals must provide their
fingerprints to the government so that, in the future, if they
commit another crime, authorities can compare the known prints to
the new prints. Authorities do this because many career criminals
use multiple aliases. States rely on fingerprint evidence to hold
In some of the most secure business, government and military
buildings, you must place your fingers and palm into a reader to
gain access to sensitive areas. Since, as we all know, no two
fingerprints have ever been proven to be the same, there is a high
degree of confidence that the person presenting his or her
fingerprint to the reader is the person authorized access to the
top-secret area. Security experts rely on fingerprint evidence, and
for good reason.
It would be a different story if fingerprints were an untested
practice. In our criminal justice system, it is right and proper to
test the validity of new scientific techniques. The last thing
anyone wants is an innocent person detained or convicted based on
unreliable scientific methods.
We must keep an open mind when a criminal defense attorney tests
the prosecution's attempted use of a new scientific technique in
court whose reliability has not been established. Techniques that
have been accepted in the relevant scientific community as reliable
have been and should be admitted. Unreliable techniques, and
quackery, should be excluded.
But defense attorneys, too, have relied on fingerprint evidence
for years. They routinely argue that the lack of fingerprints in a
case, or the presence of a third parties" fingerprints at the scene
of the crime, is valuable -- reliable -- evidence for a jury to
Fingerprints, in short, have a long and dependable history. The
science of reading a fingerprint has proven to be reliable to
judges in every country, and indeed in every state in the United
States. You and I rely on fingerprint evidence everyday to keep us
safe. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion written in 1969
by Justice William Brennan said fingerprint evidence is a "more
reliable and effective crime-solving tool than eyewitness
identifications and confessions."
Perhaps the Maryland trial judge forgot to read that case.
Cully Stimson, a former prosecutor and defense attorney, is
a senior legal fellow.
First appeared in the Washington Times
A Maryland trial judge recently ruled the prosecution couldn't use fingerprint evidence in a murder trial. Why? Because, she said, fingerprint evidence isn't reliable. Never mind that the defendant's fingerprints were found on the car of the person who was shot. Does this ruling make sense?
Charles "Cully" Stimson
Manager, National Security Law Program and Senior Legal Fellow
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