When British researchers asked five crime lab examiners to evaluate a series of fingerprints, they were told one pair had been mistakenly matched to a terrorism suspect. The experts reached conflicting results. Only one judged the prints identical. The fingerprint examiners later learned that the samples were prints they each had previously reviewed and found to be the same. The study by Itiel E. Dror and two colleagues underscores what some defense attorneys in Maryland and elsewhere have argued - forensic experts can be influenced, and not in justice's favor.
Bias is among the concerns raised about the integrity of forensic science and its role in criminal prosecutions. Of more consequence is the lack of a scientific basis for the work popularized in such television shows as CSI: Miami and Law & Order. Critics say analyses of hair, fingerprints and gunshot residue - unlike DNA analysis - lack sufficient scientific methods and standards. Forensic science experts, including those at the FBI, have challenged these claims.
A new study from the National Academy of Sciences is expected to help settle the debate. As reported by The New York Times last week, the report's criticisms of forensic crime labs have postponed its release. But the extent of forensic evidence used in criminal trials today demands prompt public review and scrutiny.
Since fingerprint and other forensic evidence have entered the court room, defense attorneys have tried to discredit it -or use its absence to their advantageIn Maryland, state public defenders have systematically - often convincingly - attacked the methodology of forensic evidence examinations. Their work helped expose serious problems in Baltimore's police crime lab. The National Academy of Sciences study should help resolve the questions about forensic evidence and provide objective, scientific-based criteria on which to improve lab techniques. Its release should not be delayed any further.