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The Champion

September/October 2003 , Page 36 

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The myth of fingerprints

By Edward J. Imwinkelried; Michael Cherry

There was a time — not very long ago — when we considered fingerprints to be the gold standard of scientific evidence. We assumed that fingerprint analysts were virtually infallible. Defense counsel not only rarely challenged the admissibility of fingerprint testimony; but on many occasions they also stipulated to the admission of the findings of fingerprint examiners.

However, in the past few years we have become more skeptical about the opinions of fingerprint examiners. The initial shock came when proficiency tests revealed a substantial margin of error, including false positives, in examiners’ findings.1 Finally, in 2002, the forensic science community was stunned when Judge Pollak excluded fingerprint testimony in United States v. Llera Plaza,2 before changing his mind.3  

To date, most of the attention has focused on the question of the reliability of the process by which the fingerprint expert “matches” the inked impression with the latent found at the c

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