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Tuesday, March 10, 2009
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CSI: WITHOUT A CLUE

A NEW REPORT FORCES POLICE AND JUDGES TO RETHINK FORENSIC SCIENCE

By KATHERINE RAMSLAND

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Last updated: 1:15 pm
March 7, 2009
Posted: 1:07 pm
March 7, 2009

Dust off the history of forensic science and you'll find Henry Faulds, a Scottish physician who in the late 19th century discovered that powder could make the perspiration from fingertips visible, and thus possible to study and match. In 1880, Faulds was the first to link the fingerprint from a crime scene to a perpetrator, and others who were thinking along the same lines implemented the method at Scotland Yard, developing a classification system and a large collection of fingerprints.

In 1903, fingerprint evidence got a boost in the United States when two convicts with the same name and same physical measurements were found in Fort Leavenworth prison. Only their fingerprints clearly distinguished them.

Eight years later, the Illinois Supreme Court became the first American court to evaluate the methodology. An intruder had shot and killed a man, Clarence Hiller, in his home. Thomas Jennings was apprehended, wearing bloodstained clothing and carrying a revolver that was matched to unused cartridges from Hiller's residence. In addition, four fingerprints were found in fresh paint on a fence near the window through which the intruder had entered, and four experts testified that Jennings was the source. The jury convicted Jennings, but his attorney appealed, challenging the admissibility of fingerprint evidence.

Since fingerprints had been admitted in Great Britain, and the method was commonly use by law enforcement, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that there was a scientific basis. "Expert evidence is admissible," the court stated, "when the witnesses offered as experts have peculiar knowledge or experience not common to the world, which renders their opinions founded on such knowledge of experience, an aid to the court or jury in determining questions at issue." The sentence stood and Jennings was hanged.

Yet fans of "CSI" and other popular forensic science television programs today may be surprised to learn that the court never demanded, and the examiners had not produced, clear evidence of the reliability of fingerprints. Accepting them into court became a simple matter of "the experts know," but nothing was used to back up that expertise.

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