Arising Legal Challenges

After nearly 100 years of courtroom acceptance both fingerprint identification and firearms identification have become the subjects of challenges as to admissibility. In order to appreciate the legal basis for these challenges, a little legal history is needed with respect to the admis-sibility of scientific evidence in a court proceeding. The first Supreme Court decision of significance on this subject was in 1923 in the case Frye v. United States of America. This case addressed the admissibility of novel scientific evidence and ruled that such evidence was admissible only when "generally accepted by the relevant scientific community." The intent was to keep so-called junk science out of court proceedings. Immediately a majority of the states adopted the "Frye standard," with a number of states still adhering to it.

In 1993 the Supreme Court heard Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. The decision that was handed down established the judge as a "gatekeeper" as to the admissibility of scientific evidence. Like Frye, it requires acceptance by a majority of the relevant scientific community but goes on to provide guidelines for establishing acceptability. These include the ability to be tested, have been published and peer-reviewed, have an established error rate, and whether standards exist. A number of states adopted the Daubert standard and adhere to it.

Accordingly, when there is a potential question concerning the admissibility of scientific evidence a Frye or a Daubert challenge may be made, depending on the relevant standard. This results in a hearing in which both sides argue their case for admissibility versus inadmis-sibility. Based on the arguments presented and the applicable standards, the judge makes a ruling.

In 2001 the Supreme Court of Florida reversed the death sentence given in the third trial of Joseph J. Ramirez for the 1983 murder of a night courier (Joseph J. Ramirez v. State of Florida), concluding that the tool mark evidence did not meet the Frye standard. In this case a knife in the defendant's possession had been positively identified as having made the tool marks found in the sternum of the decedent. The defense challenged all three of the convictions on the basis of the tool mark evidence not meeting the Frye standard and was successful each time. The court ruled that there were no criteria for identification that were generally accepted in the field (tool mark examiners).

Similar challenges have been made specifically to firearms identification, but these have been unsuccessful to date. The author participated in a Daubert challenge to firearms identification in which the question of criteria for identification was raised. That occurred in Texas, a Daubert state. The judge in that case ruled in favor of firearms identification meeting the Daubert standard.

In general courts have been hesitant to throw out what has been accepted for so many years. That all changed in 2007 in a murder trial in Baltimore, Maryland, in which fingerprint evidence was the key evidence linking a suspect to the crime. In an unprecedented move in response to a defense motion, the judge ruled that the fingerprint evidence would not be admissible at trial. In one full swoop 100 years of accepted technology was thrown out. The judge cited that the ACE-V (analysis, comparison, evaluation, and verification) method was "subjective" and prone to error. The misidentification of a fingerprint in the Madrid bombing case in 2004 by FBI experts was cited by the judge as supporting the unreliability of the technique. The judge stated that while the ACE-V method may be acceptable under the Daubert standard, there was insufficient supporting documentation to allow it.

The ramifications of the Baltimore case are yet to be determined; only time will likely tell. The responses to Frye and Daubert challenges to both firearms identification and fingerprint identification by the scientific communities had begun long before the Baltimore fingerprint case and the Florida tool mark case. It has been recognized for some time that research into the determination of error rate and the establishment of criteria for identification is needed. Both the firearms community and the fingerprint community have established study groups to work on these issues. As of this writing these are still works in progress. The ability to identify a fingerprint to a specific individual or to identify a bullet to a specific gun is not in question, what is in question is how to define when there is an identification and when there is not. It will be interesting to watch all this unfold. Perhaps the reader will have an opportunity one day to weigh in on the issue.

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