Who Says No Two Humans Have the Same Fingerprints? ‘Frontline: The Real “CSI”’

[25 June 2012]

By Jedd Beaudoin

Everything you think you know about fingerprints is wrong.

Or, at the very least, much of it may be.

This episode from the always memorable Frontline series looks more closely at the field of forensic science and raises questions about how reliable the science portion of that equation is.

An attorney from Portland, Oregon is arrested for participating in a terrorist bombing. Despite having remained very firmly rooted in the United States while the bombing took place abroad, the forensic evidence strongly suggested otherwise and but for an 11th hour reprieve, he faced charges that not even his own lawyers believed him innocent of. Fingerprint matching, the long uncontested mark of who did or didn’t do it, it turns out, has never been scientifically tested. The belief that no two humans have the same fingerprints, we learn, is not necessarily true. It’s merely sounded good all the years and we’ve felt pretty good about following the wisdom that this belief held. 

Others branches of forensic science are held up to scrutiny, as well––such as the matching of bite marks and, in the case of the Casey Anthony trial, the field of olfactory forensics. If the latter seems like a bit of a stretch, be warned that there are those who are strong proponents of it as a field of expertise. And why not? Given the scientifically reliability of the other methods brought into question here, one might as well believe that reading tea leaves would be a positive method of determining guilt or innocence.

But therein lies part of the problem: the evidence against those tried and true methods of forensic sciences is new enough and––at least through its shaky presentation here––flimsy enough that changing perceptions about their validity is likely to be slow-going to say the least. It’s easy to believe that these methods have been faulty, that certification as an expert in forensic science is almost as easy as a heterosexual couple gaining a marriage license, and that nothing––save DNA––can really be used as a convincing marker of guilt or innocence. But what should they be replaced with and how should we go about un-doing these long held beliefs that have been distorted and destroyed by popular major network police procedural dramas remains unanswered.

This hour-long episode raises great questions and, as usual, asks and potentially answers some tough questions––but maybe not enough of them. It’s true, when it comes to the application of forensic science in the justice system, mistakes have been––and doubtless will continue to be––made. But how to curb that trend and prevent more such mistakes in the future? That’s something that’s nebulous, at best.

Correspondent Lowell Bergman may be too affable a man to probe this question as deeply as it needs to be. There are times when, although he seems to be asking tough questions, he comes off instead as positively chummy with the very men a different correspondent would be skewering.

Still, that shouldn’t change our minds that forensic science needs some rethinking––or that we, at the very least, might benefit from being a little more skeptical of it. What good is science, after all, if it doesn’t have to endure a few shake-ups now and again?

There are no extras on this DVD.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/160245-frontline-the-real-csi/