Prior to and after 1950 fingerprinting as a biometric method of identifying criminals in the field of forensic science had been settled upon as one of the most reliable methods of identifying criminals in the criminal justice system. One striking case where fingerprinting vindicated itself was when two men who looked exactly alike could not be differentiated until fingerprints were used to identify them.
They were later known to be Will and Willam West. When Willam West was sent to jail at U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth it was discovered that another look alike and with similar names had been imprisoned instead of the real Willam (Volokh, 1997).
The Bertillon system had been used to erroneously identify the victim. However, upon a thorough investigation and use of the fingerprinting system to distinguish between the persons, it was established that the wrong person had been sentenced in place of the actual criminal. That event caused the Bertillon system a serious blow as to its reliability. Apparently, the two men were discovered to have been identical twin brothers.
Though finger printing had been developed as a technique for the purpose of criminal record keeping, later centuries saw this technique being used as a tool for conducting forensic investigations. According to Volokh (1997), later fingerprinting led to the establishment of a database to facilitate their access and retrieval for criminal investigations.
Sir Francis Galton, described as one whose acuteness of understanding was unequaled in the field of statistics in his time, outstandingly pioneered fingerprinting, a technique that saw wide acceptance into the twentieth century. This was after the eugenic movement he had founded for criminal identification. Galton’s classification of fingerprint patterns was into three categories of loops, arches, and whorls. This approach was based on manual searches of identifying identical fingerprints.
Though Galton’s work continued to receive improvements and wide usage in the criminal justice systems in various countries, it was not until other agencies such as the FBI adopted the use of fingerprints in identifying suspects for criminal records. Computerization added impetus to fingerprinting with the establishment of fingerprint database systems.
In the early 1940’s and 1960’s, data processing technologies for fingerprint imaging were developed. This technology was the foundation upon which FBI processed several million fingerprints in 1946. Using the automated fingerprint identification system (AFCS), the FBI is said to have computerized fingerprints into two categories. One category was for criminal files and the other for civilian purposes. This was based on the newly acquired knowledge on data processing techniques.
Subsequent years saw other countries adapting this system and creating systems like the 1977 fingerprint society.The Finger Print Society had an international scope. The 1977 world’s certified fingerprint system by the Latent Print Society Certification Board was established with an overwhelming vote from delegates who attended a fingerprint conference at Louisiana on 1st August 1977.
At this conference, it was generally agreed that practitioners do make mistakes, concerns that could be addressed by the Latent Print Certification Board. Other later establishments included the 2005 Interpol’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System, and the 2010 advanced fingerprint database operated by the Department of Homeland Security (Volokh, 1997).
Warden (2003) asserts that in the scientific mind of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries, fingerprints were known to posses the unique attribute of remaining the same with time in addition to being known to be unique to each individual. Scientist had settled on fingerprinting as a system for identifying and categorizing fingerprints for identification purposes. Methods developed for this purpose included fingerprint identification, classification, capture, and detection as discussed below.
Fingerprints are classified into exemplar, plastic, patent, latent, and electronic prints. In the criminal justice system, exemplar fingerprints are taken by rolling them from one edge of the finger to the other of a criminal suspect. The most frequently used finger collection method is live scans or paper cards in this case.
On the other hand latent fingerprints can be made visible through chemical, electronic, or physical processing methods. These techniques exploit contaminations in the form of a stain, sweat, ink, or any kind of dirt. Latent finger prints had the disadvantage of being distorted during the collection and analysis phases.
The plastic print category had the critical attribute of making such friction ridge impressions on a body. This makes fingerprints easy to collect using a camera without any enhancements. However, possibilities of criminal accomplices’ fingerprints getting collected when investigating the principle criminal’s finger prints on surfaces that have clear impressions can be done by employing other techniques.
Such other methods include the electronic print. This approach is where someone sending electronic data also sends parts of his or her finger prints in the process, an impeccable source to capture and reproduce the finger prints for purposes of criminal investigations.
Among the methods developed that have been developed in the early twentieth century and twenty first century include the ones discussed below. This method of capturing finger print images through the fingerprint capture and detection methods involved the use of Livescan devices.
This is a more modern method that provides a good quality fingerprint image when measuring the difference between the physical ridges and valleys of a finger. A sensor captures these differences from a suspect’s finger when a finger is exposed to a sensing area.
The latent fingerprint detection uses enhancers which can be powder or other chemical agents. These chemical reagents produce such degree of contrast as to render a clear definition of fingerprint ridges.
Among the most frequently used methods in criminal justice systems in the world today are laboratory techniques. This uses the vacuum metal deposition technique. The item under investigation is evaporated in a vacuum which is used in micro-fabrications. The principle processes involved here are substrate evaporation and condensation of substances. Though the resulting vapors are fuzzy, reliable results can be established from these tests. Complex equipments are used in the process.
An analysis and criticism of the fingerprint classification method clearly shows the system to be prone to a high percentage of error when conducting comparisons between fingerprints. This method demonstrates a low degree of clarity, less details and content when compared to the actual ridge and groves.
Other methods could produce inconsistencies due to varied applications of pressure by a suspect this varying the actual outcome. The outcome depends on the pressure, physical orientation of the suspect, and variations in the shape of the elastic skin when a finger rolls on a surface, thus leading to inconsistencies in images captured from a suspect, a view held by (Ward, 1998).
An analysis of the latent fingerprint detection method indicates the method to be dependent on organic deposits such as water and inorganic salts to enhance its effectiveness. However, contaminations are bound to interfere with fingerprint findings. These contaminations result from the execration of sebaceous glands from the forehead.
These contaminations are further accelerated by man’s common behavior of touching the head or the forehead. This method can further be used to identify fingerprints in laboratories from items removed from a scene of crime. In the recent past and up to 2010, this method had registered a 50% success when used with other sophisticated techniques in investigating advanced crime scenes in laboratory environments.
On the other hand, laboratory methods suffer from the element of unreliability. Some chemicals used in the process increase the unreliability of the results. Among the chemicals include the use of zinc and gold. The results are not specific when analyzing items from a scene of crime.
This has been due to a thin layer of up to one molecule thick formed for in the analysis for detection. Further still, the method suffers from the disadvantage of the greater percentage of a fingerprint evaporating in the process and leaving only 10% of its weight.
However, more advanced and complicated laboratory techniques have been developed with more reliable results. These include the fluorescent detection technique that is widely used all over the world today. This method has a further advantage in that inherent finger prints can be detected from an item collected from a scene of crime in the process of analyzing fingerprints from a principle criminal.
The adequacy criteria to convict or not to convict a suspect criminal based on the use of no-intimate methods also referred to as fingerprinting relies on the probability of the significance of matches. A study by Collins and Jarvis (2008) on the wrongful convictions of forensic science reveals the free ride this field has enjoyed for over 50 years.
Systematic failures have been noted with these techniques due to either fraud or malpractice. One case study is that one of Professor Garrett. A research by Professor Garrett had led him to fail to give credit to the findings of forensic science. A suspect who was thought to have been involved in a carjacking incident in 2005, James Ochoa, who was later acquitted due to faults with forensic evidence presented during his trial later proved erroneous.
Another instance of the miscarriage of justice was witnessed when Ray Krone suspected of having a hand in a crime was prosecuted on evidence based on fingerprints. Krone is said to have maintained his innocence despite glaring forensic evidence. This case continued in the face of incompetent forensic evidence until an Attorney uncovered inherent problems with the forensic evidence adduced in court at the time.
In more modern times, the validity and reliability of fingerprinting has been questioned. The paradigms to evaluate, validate, and verify the degree of consistence and authenticity of fingerprints to assure validity of results is a question. That was what happened to Krone before other examinations were done to acquit him of the judges facing him.
In addition to that, tests done to verify the validity of forensic science as a reliable and flawless method of identifying criminals has been thrown into doubt. Objectively focused investigations have revealed glaring faults with this system.
Examinations and presentation of results in different lights have thrown the justice system into a quagmire of doubt regarding the incomplete and faulty outcomes. However, notwithstanding the few events of misconstrued and poorly analyzed fingerprints, success and reliability have been asserted by this science (Warden, 2005).
With the impetus gained in the use of fingerprints in identifying criminals, it has become evident that governments of the world have emphasized on the use of this method to identify criminals. Fingerprinting has found its way to being the most fundamental tool for identifying criminals and the civilian population within policy agencies and the criminal justice systems.
Fingerprinting has also in modern times been identified to be more reliable compared with other methods such as DNA analysis. The extent to which this method could be relied upon facilitated the formation of international organizations such as the International Association for Identification. This facilitated the birth of other forensic disciplines with different certification programs.
Several instances have discredited and reduced the confidence and reliability of forensic methods for criminal convictions and acquittals. One of these was a case involving Brandon Mayfield. During the Madrid bombing, Mayfield the lawyer was identified to be one of the criminal perpetrators.
This error was based on a finger print match by the FBI. To assert his involvement, matches were shown to be completely positive. The Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) had been used to analyze the fingerprints. However, the Spanish National Police’s identification system found Mayfield to be the wrong suspect. Mayfield had already spent two weeks in police custody.
Wasby (1983) presents a case that involved Rene Ramon Sanchez. On July 1995, the immigrant was charged with driving while under the influence of intoxicants. At the same time, a man known as Leo Rosario convicted of trafficking in cocaine had his fingerprints being processed concurrently with those of Sanchez which had been placed on a card with the name social security number.
Then, on 11th October, 2010 while returning from Jamaica, Sanchez whose physical descriptions were not anywhere near those of Rosario was mistakenly apprehended by policy who were satisfied they had held Rosario. However, Sanchez was later released after having spent time in police custody.
Zalman (2005) asserts that several other cases such as that of Stephan Cowans who was mistakenly convicted of attempted murder in 1997 had been identified. The conviction was based on the testimony of a witness, a fingerprint on a glass the purported criminal had drunk from. It was until DNA evidence was adduced in court that Cowan was released from prison after six years in jail. Sadly, Cowan died a few years later.
Forensic science plays a key role in the criminal justice system. Certain cases require minute details that can only be made available through the advanced use of forensic science. The field has over the centuries grown in importance with more advanced techniques being developed to enable investigators pin point actual criminals from scanty evidence for all law enforcement agencies.
However, forensic science suffers from severe limitations. Among them is the reliability and validity of findings. In addition to that, some individuals mutilate their fingerprints when under investigations to destroy evidence. Investigators are prone to make errors as evidenced in the above case studies, an error that can lead one to erroneously serve a jail sentence.
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Volokh, A. (1997). Aside: n guilty men. University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 146, 173-216.
Ward, J. D. (1998). Public policy entrepreneur. In J. M. Shafritz (Ed.), The international encyclopedia of public policy and administration (Vol. 3, pp. 1850-1851). Boulder, CO: Westview.
Warden, R. (2003). The revolutionary role of journalism in identifying and rectifying wrongful convictions. UMKC Law Review, 70, 803.
Warden, R. (2005). Illinois death penalty reform: How it happened, what it promises. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 95, 381-426.
Wasby, S. L. (1983). Interest groups in court: Race relations litigation. In A. J. Cigler & B. A. Loomis (Eds.), Interest group politics (pp. 251-274). Washington DC: CQ Press.
Zalman, M. (2005). Cautionary notes on commission recommendations: A public policy approach to wrongful convictions. Criminal Law Bulletin, 41(2), 169-194.