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Fingerprint Forensics

Justice reviewing use of fingerprint evidence, citing recent mistakes

See the PBS NOVA feature: Forensics on trial

CHICAGO - (KRT) - Four years after scuttling a study into the reliability of fingerprinting, the research arm of the Justice Department is seeking answers to fundamental questions about the grandfather of forensic science.

Flawed Fingerprint Forensics

The National Institute of Justice recently called for researchers to explore such crucial issues as how to measure the quality of fingerprints lifted from crime scenes and the accuracy of comparisons made by law-enforcement examiners.

The research solicitation seeks to "provide juries with increased information about the significance and weight of fingerprint evidence" and also to create tools "to improve the fingerprint examination process," said Catherine Sanders, spokeswoman for the Office of Justice Programs, which includes the institute.

The agency's decision is the latest example of an unmistakable shift in the previously defiant world of fingerprint experts. Until recently, they had pointed to nearly a century of convictions in U.S. courts to dismiss calls for a closer examination of their discipline.

The institute's solicitation is "very significant because it's recognizing that there is an area that needs to have research done, and they're willing to step up to the plate and fund it," said Ronald Singer, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

"What I think NIJ is hoping is that they can fund the research that will validate the process and answer a lot of the questions that have come up over the last couple of years."

Across the nation, law-enforcement and forensic officials are beginning to acknowledge the need to show whether science supports the expert witnesses whose opinions have long been accepted as gospel in American courts.

Stephan Cowans

The broader reassessment of fingerprint comparison is largely being driven by a series of high-profile errors committed by examiners, including their role in the wrongful conviction of Stephan Cowans (right), a Boston man imprisoned for six years after a false match linked him to the shooting of a police sergeant.

A few months after Cowans' release last year, an even more embarrassing mistake occurred when the fingerprint world's elite - examiners at the FBI lab - falsely connected Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer, to Madrid train bombings in 2004 through a print found near the scene.

For several years, the National Institute of Justice has sought to walk a fine line over fingerprint comparisons, seeking to bolster the scientific foundation of a time-honored discipline without admitting it has weaknesses.

Calling for research gives ammunition to defense attorneys who can suggest that the need for such a study shows that the discipline is not entirely reliable.

Robert Epstein, a defense attorney in Philadelphia, did that several years ago when his client was charged in a robbery. In one of the only cases in which a judge has told prosecutors to prove the scientific validity of fingerprint comparison, the FBI asked crime labs across the country to help the bureau convince the judge, in part by examining fingerprint evidence from the case.

While most examiners agreed with the FBI's conclusion that the defendant's prints matched those found on the getaway car, 17 examiners in nine states were unable to make an identification, underscoring that the discipline is much more subjective than many fingerprint experts have acknowledged.

After receiving the conflicting responses, one of the FBI's top fingerprint experts asked the dissenting examiners to take another look, with the help of some FBI enlargements of the prints in question.

"These enlargements are contained within a clear plastic sleeve that is marked with red dots depicting specific fingerpint characteristics," wrote Stephen Meagher, chief of the FBI lab's latent print unit, in a June 1999 letter. "Please test your prior conclusions against these enlarged photographs with the marked characteristics."

Three months after Meagher's letter, the National Institute of Justice approved a call for research into fingerprinting, only to eventually let it die amid uproar from police and prosecutors.

Contacted last month, the FBI declined to elaborate on the letters, saying they were part of the public record.

But continuing questions about the reliability of fingerprint comparison and the experts who practice it helped spur the new request for research and prompted crime labs to re-evaluate how they do their work.

The FBI, for instance, has long left it up to individual examiners to determine whether they have enough points of comparison - among the loops, whorls and arches that make a fingerprint - to identify a match.

The bureau is now considering imposing guidelines on them, including the hundreds of examiners who evaluate tens of thousands of prints a day at the FBI's fingerprint database headquarters in West Virginia.

"Probably within the next year, we're going to set our own standards, a minimum number of points needed to declare a match," said Charles Jones Jr., a fingerprint examiner instructor at the FBI's West Virginia facility.

Asked why the bureau was considering the change, Jones explained, "I guess the Mayfield case was an eye-opener for everybody."

Noting that the examiners at the FBI lab outside Washington, D.C., have "always been the cream of the crop," he added, "If those guys can make a mistake, so can we."

In Boston, Stephan Cowans' exoneration has forced the police department to shut its fingerprint unit and rebuild it.

Six years after authorities used a fingerprint match to implicate him in the shooting of a Boston police sergeant, DNA tests excluding Cowans forced them to recheck the print. The re-examination last year revealed that his print wasn't even close to a match of the one found at the crime scene.

Six years into a 35- to 50-year prison sentence, Cowans was released from prison last winter.

The disclosure prompted prosecutors to seek perjury charges against Dennis LeBlanc, a veteran examiner with 18 years in the fingerprint unit who had falsely matched Cowans' print to a glass mug.

A state grand jury chose not to indict LeBlanc. But according to an outside consultant's report obtained by the Chicago Tribune, he "discovered his mistake" before he testified in Stephan Cowans' 1998 trial "and concealed it all the way through the trial."

A second report on the entire Boston fingerprint unit found that "excellence (was) not expected, therefore not achieved, " with supervisors failing to provide proper training for examiners.

The report also said that a "never ending stream" of work exceeded the "perceived abilities" of the unit's examiners, and that testing showed they made false identifications.

After receiving the second report last October, Boston police shut the fingerprint unit. Deciding the unit was fundamentally flawed, the department has gone "back to ground zero," in the words of Capt. Detective Thomas Dowd, who was named to reform the unit.

Dowd said the department wants to replace the sworn officers who had made up the six-person fingerprint group with civilian employees led by a respected forensic expert, whom Dowd still is trying to find.

One of the improvements, he said, will be to ensure that examiners who review their colleagues' work do so without knowing the other's opinion. Such blind reviews could solve a recurring problem, like that of the Mayfield case.

Though LeBlanc's false comparison played a key role in convicting Cowans, LeBlanc's mistake wasn't the only flawed part of the prosecution. The sergeant who was injured, for instance, falsely identified Cowans as his assailant.

"The system failed me," LeBlanc said in a recent interview in his modest Boston-area home, contending he made an honest mistake. "And the system failed Cowans."

LeBlanc, 53, who is on paid administrative leave because of the case, reluctantly discussed his role in it, fearful his bosses would fire him.

Cowans, a petty thief and burglar, insisted on his innocence in the police shooting even as a judge sentenced him in 1998. In prison, Cowans sought to earn money for DNA testing by volunteering for "biohazard" duty, which paid him $3 a day to clean up blood and whatever else was left after prisoner fights and other violence.

His attorneys, meanwhile, pushed for DNA testing on a hat found near the home where the police sergeant's attacker fled and saliva on the mug from which LeBlanc claimed to have found the print match.

In the fall of 2003, a forensic lab said its tests showed that Cowans could not have been a contributor of the DNA.

Faced with the test results, prosecutors fell back on the fingerprint evidence as proof that Cowans committed the crime. But in January 2004, when the state rechecked the fingerprint on the mug, it determined the print didn't match Cowans'.

Authorities have yet to find who shot the police officer.


FBI apologizes to lawyer held in Madrid bombings
Man feels he was singled out because he's Muslim

PORTLAND, OR - Offering a rare public apology, the FBI admitted mistakenly linking an American lawyer's fingerprint to one found near the scene of a terrorist bombing in Spain, a blunder that led to his imprisonment for two weeks.

The apology Monday came hours after a judge dismissed the case against Brandon Mayfield, who had been held as a material witness in the Madrid bombings case, which killed 191 people and injured about 2,000 others.

Mayfield, a 37-year-old convert to Islam, sharply criticized the government, calling his time behind bars "humiliating" and "embarrassing" and saying he was targeted because of his faith.

"This whole process has been a harrowing ordeal. It shouldn't happen to anybody," said Mayfield. "I believe I was singled out and discriminated against, I feel, as a Muslim."

Karin Immergut, the U.S. attorney in Oregon, denied Mayfield had been a target because of his religion and maintained that the FBI had followed all laws in the case.

Court documents released Monday suggested that the mistaken arrest first sprang from an error by the FBI's supercomputer for matching fingerprints and then was compounded by the FBI's own analysts.

FBI promises to review practices

"The FBI apologizes to Mr. Mayfield and his family for the hardships that this matter has caused," the bureau said in a statement. The agency also said it would review its practices on fingerprint analyses.

"We need to know more about how this happened. All of us in this country need to know more about how this type of mistake can be made," said U.S. Public Defender Steve Wax, Mayfield's attorney.

Mayfield, a former Army lieutenant, was released last week. But he was not altogether cleared of suspicion; the government said he remained a material witness and put restrictions on his movements.

Those restrictions were lifted Monday.

U.S. District Judge Robert Jones said all property that had been seized from the Mayfield residence should be returned, and all copies of Mayfield's personal documents held by the federal government were to be destroyed.

The case began when FBI fingerprint examiners in Quantico, Va., searched for possible matches to a digital image of a fingerprint found on a bag of detonators the day of the Spanish bombings on March 11.

The system returned 15 possible matches, including prints belonging to Mayfield, on file from a 1984 burglary arrest in Wichita, Kan., when Mayfield was a teenager.

Three separate FBI examiners narrowed the identification to Mayfield, according to Robert Jordan, the FBI agent in charge of Oregon. A court-appointed fingerprint expert agreed.

Spain doubted any connection

The FBI maintained its certainty even as Spanish authorities said by mid-April that the original image of the fingerprint taken directly from the bag did not match Mayfield's, Wax said.

Last week, Spanish authorities said the fingerprints of an Algerian man were on the bag. Jordan said FBI examiners flew to Spain, viewed the original print pattern of the fingerprint on paper, and agreed that it was not Mayfield's.

As additional evidence in support of Mayfield's arrest, the FBI pointed to Mayfield's attendance at a local mosque, his advertising legal services in a publication owned by a man suspected to have links to terrorism, and a telephone call his wife placed to a branch of an Islamic charity with suspected terrorist ties.

They also noted that Mayfield represented a man in a child custody case who later pleaded guilty to conspiring to help al-Qaida and the Taliban fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

According to court documents, FBI agents began their surveillance of Mayfield two weeks after the attacks in the Spanish capital. Under a provision of the U.S. Patriot Act, they entered his home without his knowledge - but aroused the family's suspicion by bolting the wrong lock on their way out and leaving a footprint on the rug that didn't match any family members.

During a later raid, FBI agents took Mayfield's computers, modem, safe deposit key, assorted papers, as well as copies of the Quran and what they classified as "Spanish documents" - apparently Spanish homework by one of Mayfield's sons.

Mayfield, who runs a small Portland law office, was never facing any formal charges. He was arrested as a material witness, and held in the Multnomah County Detention Center on the chance that he might have information about the Spain bombings.

At a press conference, Mayfield talked about his time behind bars, initially in solitary confinement and then in the jail's mental ward. Mayfield feared for his safety when inmates began to recognize him on the nightly news.

"The climate of fear of terror makes this a cautionary tale about the way in which that fear can ensnare an innocent person in the type of abuse to which Mr. Mayfield was subjected," Wax said.