Often, when police officers do not know who committed an alleged crime, they will search the scene for fingerprints to help identify a suspect. If a fingerprint matches one in the law enforcement database, police can use the match as probable cause to obtain a warrant and make an arrest. A prosecutor will likely rely heavily on the fingerprint evidence in the subsequent criminal case, and juries often take fingerprint evidence as proof beyond a reasonable doubt of a defendant’s guilt.
The infallibility of fingerprint evidence is a myth, however, and this myth can result in a wrongful conviction if you don’t have the right defense representation.
The Science of Fingerprints
Fingerprint evidence is based on two main assumptions:
- That fingerprint reading is objective
- That every person has completely unique fingerprints
Neither of these assumptions is 100 percent true.
First, reading and matching fingerprints is not an exact science. Fingerprint comparison is instead highly subjective, and fingerprint examiners must use their judgment to determine whether a match is accurate. In many situations, prosecutors will bring forensic “experts” to the stand to testify to a fingerprint match. The prosecutor may rely on the expert’s experience in the fingerprint field to convince the jury to believe whatever the expert says. However, even experienced forensic scientists can make mistakes when it comes to reading and comparing fingerprints.
Matches become even more difficult when police find only a partial fingerprint, which is common. A jury must understand that not all fingerprint evidence is completely reliable, and your attorney should know how to cast doubt on fingerprint evidence so the jury realizes it’s not infallible.
In addition, contrary to popular belief, not every set of fingerprints is necessarily unique. While fingerprints are a good indicator of identity in many cases, fingerprint evidence has implicated the wrong person on more than one occasion.
After the train bombings in Madrid in 2004, for example, Spanish authorities found fingerprints on a bag that held detonating devices. They found 20 potential matches to the fingerprints and sent them out to international authorities for further comparison. Examiners concluded that One of the matches was a lawyer in Oregon who had previously submitted his fingerprints after joining the military. The FBI claimed the match was 100 percent verified. It surveilled then arrested the lawyer. He was detained by federal authorities and his charges were leaked to the media.
Ultimately, Spanish authorities found that the lawyer had not left the United States for many years and the fingerprints actually matched an Algerian national. The misidentified lawyer later filed a lawsuit and received $2 million and a formal apology from the U.S. government.
How can supposedly infallible fingerprint matches implicate a man who hadn’t left the country in a terror attack halfway across the world? Either someone incorrectly read the fingerprints or FBI authorities exaggerated the match due to the suspect’s conversion to Islam. In either case, this error led to completely wrongful accusations and attacks on an innocent man’s reputation.
The above is only one of several examples in which fingerprints have implicated the wrong person. Unfortunately, too many people may receive wrongful criminal convictions if they don’t have the right defense attorney handling their case—someone who knows how to successfully challenge fingerprint evidence.
Fingerprint Evidence in Your Criminal Case
Authorities can use fingerprint evidence in a wide variety of criminal cases. Fingerprints are often found on:
- Drug evidence
- Inside burglarized homes or buildings
- At homicide scenes
- On stolen items
- On or inside stolen vehicles
It is also important to remember that even if an examiner correctly determines that a defendant’s fingerprint is the same as that found on evidence or at a scene of a crime, the fingerprint itself will not reveal when it was left on the object or scene. A defendant may have had a legitimate reason to touch an object or be at a crime scene at some point before or after the crime occurred and could have deposited his fingerprint then without having any actual connection to the crime.
Call a Connecticut Criminal Defense Attorney
No matter the charges, you may face serious penalties and a hard legal road ahead if police base your identification and arrest on fingerprint evidence. However, if you seek help from the right criminal defense attorney, you have a shot at showing the jury that fingerprint evidence is not infallible and avoiding a wrongful conviction. Call Koffsky & Felsen, LLC at (203) 327-1500 or write us online for assistance today.