Thursday, December 24, 2009

Fingerprint examiner: 'They put pressure on you shamelessly'

Having recently seen Houston PD release a majority of its fingerprint examiners for errors and possible misconduct, I was interested to see this story from Missouri Lawyers Media describing how police sometimes pressure forensic fingerprint examiners to match prints to their suspects:
A police officer rushes up to the fingerprint examiner and pleads for help.

The suspect sitting in the interrogation room is as guilty as can be, the officer insists, and a confirmed fingerprint match would surely bring about a confession.

Not exactly the environment to produce an unbiased examination.

But neither is it far-fetched in the sometimes boiling climate of crime-fighting. Police officers want arrests to stick, they want to get criminals off the street, and if the system allows them such access to the key processors of information, well, some officers will take advantage.

"They put pressure on you shamelessly," Pat Wertheim, a longtime fingerprint examiner, said. "I've felt it. "
Forensic examiners should have no access to case details or other information about suspects when they perform forensic analysis, but many labs operate on exactly the opposite assumption, considering themselves part of the team instead of an independent, scientific voice.

Whenever you see TV shows like Bones or CSI portraying analysts as intimately involved in detective work, they're flaunting best practices for preserving the scientific validity of forensics. That's how you end up with situations like the one in Los Angeles where fingerprint examiners falsely accused at least two people and potentially tainted hundreds of other cases.

The National Academies of Science earlier this year published its conclusions that fingerprint examination and other comparative forensic disciplines do not have a substantive scientific basis and may be unduly influenced by cognitive bias. This example demonstrates the mechanics of how that bias might play in the field.

1 comment:

NoMoreNoloContendere said...

Hey Grits,
Maybe you and/or a reader knows the following; (Who knows maybe an unemployed examiner will come forward?)

*A .22 or .25 cal. revolver w/ a two inch barrel was reported as the weapon used in a 1984 Houston area robbery. A .38 cal. revolver w/ a six inch barrel was displayed in front of a jury and listed as one of three number 2s located in two State's Exhibits docs. Strange isn't it?

This firearm is only mentioned in three places; Certified case file as a State's Exhibit, the court reporter's notes showing it being "checked out" from somewhere and in a letter from the Exhibit clerk saying she destroyed it. Everyone including the clerk's employer, FBI and ATF have no idea where it came from, where it was stored, or where it went to.
Note: The criminal defense lawyer on the case said it could be the Baliff's and just being used to show the type used, but then why wasn't a .22 or .25 used and why was it destroyed?

With this information; in order for this firearm to have been listed as a "state's exhibit", so it could be "checked out" and subesquently "personally" destroyed by the clerk, would "it" have gone through a crime lab to be processed (fingerprinted)? If yes, would there be a "chain of custody" formed to be signed off on. And does the state allow clerks to take weapons home so they can personlly destroy them? No documentation needed?

Since no records exist other than the list above, how would one get to the bottom of this mystery? Thanks.