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Is fingerprint evidence junk science?

On Behalf of | Aug 20, 2023 | Criminal Defense

Both judges and juries tend to think that fingerprints are some of the valuable, reliable pieces of evidence that a prosecutor can present in a trial – but are they?

As forensic technology improves over time, it may be time to take a new look at a “science” that hasn’t changed that much since it was first invented in the 1800s. 

Suspect accuracy, and not very scientific

There has been a lot of noise in the scientific community lately about “junk science” and the role it has (and continues to have) in criminal trials. It may surprise a lot of people to realize that the American Association for the Advancement of Science has called the idea that anyone can precisely identify another from a fingerprint “indefensible” from a scientific perspective. 

There are numerous problems with fingerprint evidence, including:

  • Nobody actually knows how unique fingerprints really are from person to person
  • Too many identifications are made on single prints or even partial prints
  • The accuracy of fingerprint analysis depends heavily on the skills of the examiner
  • There is a lack of standardization as to what makes a “match” between partial prints and a given suspect’s fingerprints
  • The quality of many partial prints and even full prints found at crime scenes is often poor, making inaccurate identifications more likely

Fingerprint evidence has been used in criminal cases in the United States since 1911, and that’s unlikely to change soon – despite the questions about the reliability of the data it provides. However, that doesn’t mean that a skilled defense can’t dismantle the value that the prosecution thinks this kind of evidence brings to their case.