Los Angeles Criminal Law Blog

Improper Fingerprint Evidence in Los Angeles Criminal Courtrooms

Posted on: October 21, 2008 at 3:55 p.m.

Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers who defend burglary, murder, and other serious crimes in Southern California courtroom frequently contend with expert testimony related to fingerprint evidence. For example, in trial, a crime scene expert would testify that a print was lifted from the point of entry in a burglary case, and then a scientific examiner testifies that Defendant's prints (based on an expert comparison) match the lifted print from the entryway. In trial, jurors find this testimony very compelling because the use and knowledge of fingerprints science (whether you are providing your fingerprints at the DMV, the notary public, or for some other formal documentation) is part of everyday life for many.

A necessary step in trial preparation for a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer is to hire a defense fingerprint expert, to reexamine the work of the prosecutor's forensic examiner to deterimine whether the testing and comparison of the lift to the defendant's prints was done accurately.

The importance of reviewing law enforcement forensic work cannot be overstated. A recent confidential report, regarding LAPD fingerprint testing, concluded that people have been falsely implicated in crimes because the department's fingerprint experts wrongly identified them as suspects. The 10-page internal LAPD report highlighted two cases in which criminal defendants had charges against them dropped after problems with the fingerprint analysis were exposed. LAPD officials do not know how many other people might have been wrongly accused over the years as a result of poor fingerprint analysis and do not have the funds to pay for a comprehensive audit to find out, according to police records and interviews.

Subsequently internal discipline investigations led to the firing of one fingerprint analyst, who had been involved in both of the mishandled cases. Three other analysts received suspensions. In addition, two supervisors responsible for overseeing the unit were replaced, staff was bolstered and oversight tightened, she said.

There are 78 forensic print specialists assigned to the unit, according to the department's website. They are not sworn police officers but among the hundreds of civilians who fill specialty jobs in the department. After prints are lifted from a crime scene, the specialists run them through automated databases to find possible matches and then analyze those to seek a more precise match. Two other analysts are then supposed to check the work for accuracy.

LAPD department officials, however, described a poorly run operation, in which records and evidence were left lying around or misplaced, and supervisors "were stuck in the old way of doing things." Pressed to explain the sloppy work of the unit, the commanding officer of the Scientific Investigation Division, speculated that "people were reviewing the work of friends and just rubber stamping it without really reviewing it."

In one of the cases highlighted in the report, a man was extradited from Alabama to face burglary charges after an analyst matched his prints to those found at the scene. The mistake was missed by two reviewers and was caught only when a third reviewer was preparing to testify at the trial.

In the other example, Maria Delosange Maldonado, a pregnant hospital technician, was charged in February 2006 with breaking into a San Fernando Valley cellphone store. When questions were raised about the accuracy of the print analysis, the LAPD said the prints could not be reexamined because they had been lost. The audit characterized the fingerprint identification in that case as "erroneous."

The LAPD's internal investigation challenges the widely held view that forensic matches made by fingerprint experts are airtight. The authors of the internal LAPD report recalled the infamous example of an Oregon man who was linked through faulty fingerprint analysis by three federal agents to the 2004 terrorist train bombings in Madrid.

Tagged as: police misconduct


Lauren Ransdell Com 174 on December 2, 2008 at 2:49 p.m. wrote:

This is a case where we can apply Jonakait's opinion that in order to improve our criminal trial system, we have to focus on the type of evidence being submitted for juries and judges to reveiw. We need to focus on the source of the evidence, and here it is connected with law enforcement and expert witnesses. The police, and fingerprint experts in this case failed. Then their testamony and their evidence was shown to people who depend on their expert knowledge and professionalism to understand what they are being told. If a jury or a judge isn't given proper evidence, how can they make a proper ruling in a case? I always wonder why police never collect fingerprints when things are stolen, apparently it's not a very reliable piece of evidence!

M Phung Tu on October 28, 2008 at 9:06 p.m. wrote:

In the Jonakait reading, two of the reforms for our court system were better preservation of evidence and improve on discovery. This article is a good example to why we need the reform that Jonakait mentions. The jury can only deliberate and make a lucid decision if the evidences were collected properly and preserved well to proofs of beyond-a-reasonable-doubt in trials. But what can we do are where can we start on improving the system with little money and numerous cases? How can we prevent future cases or audit past cases?

Christin Dorsey on October 28, 2008 at 5:38 p.m. wrote:

This doesn't surprise me. As Jonakait points out, 'evidence is the prime determinant of a jury's verdict.' (280) And if a jury takes tainted evidence at face value and accepts it as such - justice won't be done, because the facts haven't been properly presented to them. I believe that the burden of review falls on a good attorney to ensure that the police work and evidence that emanates from an investigation has been properly attainted and handled. This can mean the difference between a strong or weak case. As Jonakait highlights: 'When defense attorneys are not doing their job, evidence suffers. Such a failure came to light in a series of wrongful convictions that occurred when a West Virginia forensic scientist repeatedly faked laboratory results. That such a 'scientist' was 'able to thrive for years is a backward tribute to the anemic work of defense attorneys...As Public Defender George Castelle of West Virginia points out, if even one defense lawyer had challenged [the scientist] to present his notes during his ten-year reign of error, the charade would have come to an end.' But none did.' (283). The lesson here: Caveat Emptor. Buyer beware, the evidence presented should be looked upon with a skeptical eye, on both sides of the bench.

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