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Schwartz - Forensic Science Communications - July 2003

Schwartz - Forensic Science Communications - July 2003

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July 2003 - Volume 5 - Number 3

Book Review

Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification

Written by:
Simon A. Cole
Harvard University Press,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001
0-674-01002-7

Reviewed by:
Rebecca L. Schwartz
Research Chemist
Latent Print Unit
Federal
 Bureau of Investigation
Quantico, Virginia

 

Review
 
Upon completion of reading Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification, the reader may ask, What was Dr. Cole’s motive in writing this book? Was it to give a complete recount of the history of identification methods? Or was it to place doubt in the mind of the reader about the use of fingerprints as a criminal identification technique? Whatever his motive was, Dr. Cole approached the field of identification, and specifically fingerprints, from both angles, often intertwining the two.

The beginning of the book details early identification methods from physical attributes to photography to measurements to fingerprints. Dr. Cole successfully teaches the curious reader and the fingerprint examiner the history of how and why fingerprints became such a critical part of a criminal investigation.

In the first six chapters, Dr. Cole wrote an excellent compilation of the history of identifications and why reliable techniques are crucial. The author cites many court cases and the downfalls of primitive techniques within them, proving the necessity for a reliable science in the field of identification. Also included in these chapters are the misconceptions about fingerprints–such as using them to determine one’s predisposition to be a criminal or genetic deficiencies.

As Dr. Cole continues in his chronology of fingerprints as a criminal identification technique within the court system, he begins to move into what may be considered his second motive in writing this book–to place doubt in the minds of the reader that fingerprints can be used as a reliable identification method in criminal cases.

Whereas those in the field of fingerprints would agree with Dr. Cole’s discussion of the necessity to prove fingerprint identification is a science, many would argue the negative slant that he applies to the issues. Although important aspects of the argument against fingerprints are essential to discuss, the latent fingerprint examiner would not want defense attorneys to use this book as a guideline in understanding the issues involved in the recent questioning of fingerprint identification as a science.

Beginning in chapter seven and continuing to the end of the book, Dr. Cole writes of his skepticism of the validity of fingerprints as a criminal identification technique and the capability of the latent fingerprint examiners who testify to them. Included in these discussions are issues dealing with the serious issue of fraudulent fingerprints and the introduction of the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). At this point in his book, most of the cases mentioned focus on challenges to fingerprints, thus questioning the reliability of fingerprint testimony in a court of law.

Amidst his skepticism, Dr. Cole does discuss the important efforts aimed at responding to the challenges that he and others have posed to the fingerprint community. His doubts are obvious given his response to Ashbaugh’s ridgeology approach, which abandons the point standard. He writes “Knowing how ridges are formed does not actually prove they are unique, nor, if we simply assume they are unique in some absolute sense, does it measure how similar different friction ridge arrangements might be.” Continuing, he states “Having done away with point standards, Ashbaugh falls back on the expert judgment of the examiner.”

Book cover for Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification

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Whereas many
may not agree
with Dr. Cole’s
skepticism in using
latent fingerprints
as a criminal
identification technique,
his opinions
should be taken
seriously by the latent
fingerprint examiner...
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spacer.gif

Interestingly, Dr. Cole shows a great deal of support for DNA typing, the last identification technique discussed in his book. One of many powerful statements supporting DNA over other identification techniques, namely fingerprints, can be found on pg. 301, “Unlike the many pretenders that have arisen over the past century, DNA typing will certainly have a prominent place in the field of identification for years to come.”

Most people who are well-informed in the field of fingerprints will recognize that Dr. Cole does not always use his resources and references in a credible manner. In many instances, he misrepresents the true content or meaning of his reference. It is difficult not to question the credibility of Dr. Cole’s conclusions if the credibility of his use of resources is also in question.

Whereas many may not agree with Dr. Cole’s skepticism in using latent fingerprints as a criminal identification technique, his opinions should be taken seriously by the latent fingerprint examiner while remembering the discussion is written from only one side of the argument. The book clearly is not meant to be supporting reference material for the latent fingerprint examiner preparing for courtroom testimony, but perhaps beneficial reading in order to become familiar with what one may expect in a defense challenge. No matter what Dr. Cole’s goal was in writing his book, latent fingerprint examiners, curious readers, and those who wish to challenge the field of fingerprints can glean information from the pages.