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Nation: Federal judge bans expert testimony about fingerprint evidence

Copyright 2002 AP Online Print Story Email Story Save to your PDA with AvantGo

By JOANN LOVIGLIO, Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA (January 10, 2002 11:29 p.m. EST) - A federal judge in Pennsylvania has ruled that experts cannot testify whether a fingerprint taken from a crime scene matches that of a defendant, saying the century-old identification technique is not reliable.

While fingerprints themselves are unique and permanent, the technique to match them is subjective and scientifically unreliable, U.S. District Judge Louis H. Pollak said in a ruling Monday.

The decision involves a death penalty case in which three men are charged with operating a multimillion-dollar drug ring linked to four murders. The ruling applies to all three defendants: Carlos Llera-Plaza, Wilfredo Acosta and Victor Rodriguez.

Jury selection is continuing in the case.

Under the judge's ruling, fingerprint evidence may be presented during the trial, but no testimony is allowed about whether the defendants' prints match prints found at the crime scene.

Fingerprint evidence was first admitted to an American court 99 years ago, but its credibility has been challenged in recent years.

In 1993, a U.S. Supreme Court decision required judges to take a more active role in deciding what scientific evidence to admit. In the case of fingerprints, the guidelines would lead to questions such as: Has the practice of fingerprint identification been adequately tested? What's the error rate? Are there standards and controls?

Under these criteria, critics say, fingerprint identification could be challenged on the grounds that it has not been adequately tested, that the error rate has not been calculated, and that no standards exist for what constitutes a match.

"The judge is making a distinction between the assumption that every fingerprint is unique and the opinions that are yielded by the process," said Edward Imwinkelreid, a law professor at the University of California at Davis and co-author of a text on scientific evidence.

"You don't actually examine the finger; you compare the complete, nearly perfect fingerprint taken at the police station with a partial smudge taken from a crime scene," Imwinkelreid said. "And there's no universal agreement on how many similarities you have to find before you can declare it a match."

Pollak's ruling said experts can testify about and show illustrations of similarities or dissimilarities between "latent" fingerprints left at a crime scene and "rolled" fingerprints on file that the government contends were made by the same person. In turn, defense attorneys can present evidence countering the prosecution's testimony.

Llera-Plaza's lawyer, Jules Epstein, did not return telephone calls seeking comment Thursday. Attorneys for the other defendants could not immediately be determined.

Simon A. Cole, visiting scholar at Cornell University and author of a book on the history of fingerprinting, said he believed Pollak's decision to be the first to limit fingerprint evidence in that way.

"It sends a message to the entire scientific community that no one's exempt from scrutiny," Cole said. "If you want to call yourself a scientist on the witness stand, you better be able to point to scientific research to support your conclusions."

Pollak also ruled prosecutors' decision to seek the death penalty was not racially biased. Lawyers for the Hispanic defendants cited similarities with the case involving mob boss Joseph Merlino and three co-defendants, in which prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.

Pollak said those slayings had been ordered by Ralph Natale, Merlino's predecessor and the government's star witness.

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