Who Says No Two Humans Have the Same Fingerprints? 'Frontline: The Real "CSI"'

This episode of PBS's Frontline series is fascinating, but maybe not as fully realized as it could have been.

Frontline: The Real "CSI"

Distributor: PBS
Cast: Lowell Bergman
Release date: 2012-06-26

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

The Force, which details the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts, is best viewed as a complimentary work to prior Black Lives Matter documentaries, such 2017's Whose Streets? and The Blood Is at the Doorstep.

Peter Nicks' documentary The Force examines the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts to curb its history of excessive police force and systemic civil rights violations, which have warranted federal government oversight of the Department since 2003. Although it has its imperfections, The Force stands out for its uniquely equitable treatment of law enforcement as a complex organism necessitating difficult incremental changes.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.