For more than a century, a fingerprint match has been considered overwhelming evidence in a criminal case. The Boston Globe says that idea has been under intense scrutiny after high-profile errors by fingerprint examiners, one of which led to the imprisonment of an innocent Boston man after a false match tied him to the shooting of a police sergeant. Some critics say fingerprint analysis isn’t even a science.
Tomorrow, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to hear arguments about whether to quash key fingerprint evidence against Terry Patterson, who is being retried in the 1993 slaying of a Boston detective. Patterson’s attorney, John H. Cunha Jr., wants the court to do what no other state supreme court has done: bar fingerprint analysis from being presented in all criminal trials until it is subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny and proven reliable. Cunha, who has 15 scientists and scholars supporting him, said fingerprint analysis has never been systematically studied for its reliability. It lacks uniform standards for how many characteristics must be present in a latent print before analysts can declare a match, he said. Nor are there statistical models to calculate how often analysts err. Instead, its reputation for infallibility approaches an article of faith.