October 30, 2007
The controversy over Baltimore County Circuit Judge Susan M. Souder's decision to throw out the testimony of a fingerprint analyst in a death penalty trial hasn't stopped. Her opinion has reached universities, judicial chambers and evidence labs across the country. But it's the National Academy of Sciences review of the forensic science field now under way that could have real implications for analysis of fingerprints, hair and other physical evidence - and their use in criminal trials nationwide.
The academy's Committee on Science, Technology and the Law should expedite its review and help settle an ongoing dispute over the supposed infallibility of fingerprint analysis, a claim that critics contend is based on "junk science."
In her recent ruling, Judge Souder found the traditional method of fingerprint analysis to be "a subjective, untested, unverifiable identification procedure that purports to be infallible." Excluding the fingerprint analyst as an expert witness has wrecked the state's case against defendant Bryan Keith Rose, which relied on partial fingerprints to link him to the murder, and reignited a debate that surfaced in 2002 when a federal judge in Philadelphia issued a similar ruling. That judge later reversed his decision, and the issue got little notice but for the nagging concerns of some scientists and the preoccupation of a few defense attorneys who found the evidence suspect.
But then Judge Souder issued her Oct. 19 decision on a motion by Mr. Rose's public defenders. County prosecutors have since asked her to reconsider the ruling, which isn't binding on any other court and can't be appealed.
The National Academy of Sciences study, commissioned by Congress last year at the urging of Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, has a broad charge: to ensure that the forensic science community has the funding and support needed to do its job. But the panel, whose members include judges, scientists and forensic examiners, has the leeway to go beyond funding questions and has discussed, among other things, the method of fingerprint analysis at issue in the Rose case.
This expert, independent panel is in the best position to assess the integrity of the process and determine what, if any, changes need to be made to policy and protocols. Fingerprint analysis has been a mainstay of criminal investigations for nearly a century, but the findings of the academy panel could go a long way toward answering serious questions about the evidence, improving the justice system and protecting the rights of all.