How to reduce fingerprint errors

 Before the advent of DNA testing, fingerprint comparison was considered the  best way to identify criminal perpetrators. To hear the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies tell it, there was virtually no chance of misidentifying someone because every fingerprint is supposedly unique and their highly trained examiners never made mistakes.

Although false fingerprint identifications were known to have contributed to wrongful convictions, the errors seemingly occurred because of fabrication and misconduct, not actual error.  The case of Portland, Oregon, attorney Brandon Mayfield helped change that perception.

Mayfield was arrested in 2004 after three of the FBI’s top examiners concluded that his fingerprint matched a partial print found on a plastic bag containing explosive detonators used by terrorists in a horrific Madrid bombing that killed 191 people. American officials said the match was “absolutely incontrovertible,” and Mayfield was arrested as a material witness even though the Spanish National Police insisted the print wasn’t his. Later, though, the FBI admitted that its infallible analysts were glaringly fallible. It admitted that the print belonged to an Algerian national and not Mayfield. The U.S. government agreed to pay $2 million in 2006 to settle a lawsuit Mayfield filed after his release.

A similar fingerprint identification controversy occurred in Scotland when police officials erroneously concluded that a fingerprint found at a murder scene belonged to one of their own detectives. 

A study published in the United States at the same time also determined that fingerprint identification is far from perfect. Simon Cole, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of California at Irvine, said he had found 22 cases over a span of several decades in which fingerprint-identification mistakes were made. While the number of errors he found was small, Cole said they were “most likely only the tip of proverbial iceberg of fingerprint misattribution.”

Now something is finally being done to reduce the chance of such errors. A new government report by a group of experts has documented the potential sources or error in fingerprint identification and recommended improvements to keep potential errors from occurring.  You can read more about the recommendations here.

One response to “How to reduce fingerprint errors

  1. Pingback: Let’s Talk About FINGERPRINTS | Wrongful Convictions Blog

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