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Matthew Radefeld & Dan Juengel
Matthew A. Radefeld and Daniel A. Juengel

Are fingerprints “junk” science?

On Behalf of | Jun 6, 2024 | Criminal Law |

Fingerprint evidence has long been heralded as a gold standard in forensic science, frequently used in courtrooms around the world to link suspects to crimes. 

However, recent scrutiny from the scientific and legal communities alike has raised serious questions about its reliability. 

Inaccurate readings can lead to wrongful convictions

According to a report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, fingerprint evidence should probably be reconsidered for its value. In fact, the report says, “print examiners should avoid claiming that they can associate a latent print with a single source and should particularly avoid claiming or implying that they can do so infallibly, with 100% accuracy,”

This turns the long-standing notion that fingerprints are a type of “gold standard” when it comes to evidence in criminal cases on its head – and rightly so. More than one jurist, scientist and forensic examiner has concluded that fingerprint identification is blatantly unscientific. Here’s why:

  • Fingerprint analysis is largely subjective, relying on the expertise and judgment of individual examiners. This introduces significant potential for human error.
  • There is no universally accepted standard for what constitutes a match between fingerprints. Different jurisdictions and examiners may apply varying criteria, leading to inconsistent results.
  • Examiners may be influenced by external factors, such as knowledge of a suspect’s identity or pressure from law enforcement, leading to confirmation bias and erroneous conclusions.

Unfortunately, just as the courts are slow to adapt to new technology, they can be slower to let go of precedents and previously accepted types of evidence. Until the courts catch up with the prevailing scientific understanding of what really is reliable evidence (and what is not), defendants need to assert their rights and raise the issues through their defense.