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Escaping the Fingerprint Crisis

A Blueprint for Essential Research

There is a fingerprint crisis in the courts. Judges and jurors regularly convict criminal defendants based on fingerprint evidence, but there are serious questions about the accuracy and reliability of this evidence. The few studies delving into the accuracy and reliability of fingerprint examiners’ work suggest a high error rate and demonstrate that, when faced with the same prints under different conditions, fingerprint examiners frequently reach different results than they previously reached. Further, there is no scientific basis for fingerprint matching. It is unknown whether and to what extent fingerprints are unique; the degree to which fingerprints change under various forces relevant to the creation of latent fingerprints remains a mystery; and computerized fingerprint matching algorithms are even less successful than the questionable subjective matching methods of fingerprint examiners. This Article charts a scientific escape from the debacle, explaining that lawyers must work hand-in-hand with scientists to determine whether they can build a scientific foundation for fingerprint evidence. Detailed research on the uniqueness of fingerprints, the biomechanics of touch, and computerized matching algorithms is central to this endeavor, and more robust studies about fingerprint examiners’ accuracy and reliability could also be useful. If researchers pursue these four tracks of essential research, courts can dig their way out of this existing fingerprint crisis.

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