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The Myth of Fingerprints

Posted by ESC on April 14, 2004

In Reply to: The Myth of Fingerprints posted by ESC on April 14, 2004

: : does anyone know the origin of the phrase "the myth of fingerprints"? there's a current movie with that title and it's a lyric in a Paul Simon song. I did a Google search for it but didn't find much.

: : Thanks.

: I don't know. Do you mean like: fingerprints are like snowflakes -- no two are alike.

: Over the mountain
: Down in the valley
: Lives a former talk-show host
: Everybody knows his name
: He says there's no doubt about it
: It was the myth of fingerprints
: I've seen them all and man
: They're all the same.

: .Over the mountain
: Down in the valley
: Lives the former talk-show host
: Far and wide his name was known
: He said there's no doubt about it
: It was the myth of fingerprints
: That's why we must learn to live alone.

Here you go:

The Myth of Fingerprints by Simon Cole, New York Times, May 13, 2001, 2004.

Future historians of science and law may well date the beginning of the end of fingerprinting to the opening night of the third season of "The Sopranos." Coked to the gills, Christopher Moltisanti, Tony Soprano's nephew, brings Livia Soprano's wake to an absurd anticlimax as he muses on the claim that no two fingerprints are exactly alike. For scientists to know this, Christopher reasons, they would have to get everyone in the world together in one room to check. And not just everyone in the world, but everyone who ever lived. Since this would be impossible -- even using computers -- he concludes, "They got nothin'."

He's right, as it turns out. The claim that no fingerprint has ever appeared twice was first popularized more than a hundred years ago, and by dint of analogy (with other natural objects like snowflakes), lack of contradiction and relentless repetition, this bit of folk wisdom became deeply enshrined. By extension, it lent the technique of forensic fingerprint analysis an aura of infallibility. More than just a useful tool, it came to be regarded as a perfect system of identification, and examiners' testimony at criminal trials came to be practically unassailable.

Until now, that is. In 1998, in Delaware County, Pa., Richard Jackson was sentenced to life in prison for murder based largely on a fingerprint match to which three experts had testified. The defense argued, unsuccessfully, that it was a bad match. But after Jackson spent more than two years in prison the prosecution conceded the error, and he was freed. In Scotland a murder case was upended when detectives found a fingerprint at the scene of the crime that belonged to a police officer -- who claimed she'd never been there in the first place. To verify her claim, she brought in two fingerprint analysts who attested that not only had her fingerprint been misidentified, but so had the print, found on a tin at the home of the accused, originally attributed to the victim.

As these cases suggest, the relevant question isn't whether fingerprints could ever be exactly alike -- it's whether they are ever similar enough to fool a fingerprint examiner...