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The New Controversy Surrounding Fingerprint Evidence

These days, DNA evidence is all the rage. That is, courtroom dramas love to portray criminal defense cases in which traces of DNA prove a suspect guilty-or innocent. And, as criminal defense attorneys learn to use this kind of evidence, DNA is exonerating prisoners around the country.

In fact, DNA is so popular that few people stop to consider its older, less flashy predecessor-fingerprint evidence. Used for more than 100 years in criminal defense cases, fingerprint evidence has been widely accepted by lawyers, judges and the public as a surefire way to peg someone’s identity. But a Maryland judge recently made a decision that could change all that.

Susan M. Souder, a Baltimore County Circuit Judge, ruled that fingerprints would be inadmissible in the murder trial of Bryan Rose, reports the Baltimore Sun. Her ruling, according to sources, is based on criteria set forth in 2002 about what can be admitted as evidence in criminal trials.

Apparently, fingerprint evidence does not meet those standards.

Even though criminal trials have used fingerprint evidence for more than a century, it may not be the most accurate way of determining who committed a crime. Sources show that in 1905, an early fingerprint expert noted that, even though it can be assumed that no two people share a set of ten fingerprints, using partial or distorted fingerprints to solve crimes is a bit of a stretch.

And yet, during the next 102 years of crime-solving, investigators continued to use them.

What’s more, fingerprint experts are reportedly required to report their examinations as 100% certain-even when there’s a possibility of error.

Judge Souder allegedly declared she accepts the notion that no two people share full sets of fingerprints. But, reports indicate, she believes smudged, smeared, or distorted fingerprints (the type found at crime scenes) are insufficient to link a person to an act.

In the Baltimore case, Rose could face the death penalty if convicted of the murder, the Sun reports. But the prosecuting attorneys were apparently shocked by Souder’s decision. In fact, Rose’s trial was postponed so that the prosecution could gather relevant evidence besides his fingerprints, which were found at the scene of the crime.

Although Souder’s ruling is unprecedented for a criminal trial, it’s not the first time fingerprint evidence has been called into question.

In 2004, fingerprints linked a terrorist attack in Spain to an American man who had no valid passport, and who apparently hadn’t left the U.S. in ten years. Luckily, investigations continued and he was cleared when DNA evidence pointed to another man.

Even exonerations of prison inmates have happened when new evidence has disproved fingerprint evidence.

In Baltimore, some officials are reportedly worried that Souder’s ruling will unsettle the criminal justice system. Many fear that not having a system-wide standard for accepting fingerprint evidence will mean that the outcome of a trial could depend on the judge hearing it.

If Souder’s decision has as large an impact as many expect it to, criminal defense cases across the country could be affected.

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