Category Archives: Fingerprints

Houston in the Blind

Blind studies and procedures are the gold standard of evaluating the quality and reliability of scientific results. Unfortunately, this has long been lacking in forensic science. Fortunately, strides are being made to introduce blind testing to forensics, most notably in the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC).

Currently, forensic scientists are tested periodically on their knowledge and ability through proficiency tests. However, scientists typically are aware they are completing a proficiency test and not case work. This allows for the Hawthorne effect to play a role in the testing, or the phenomena of a person behaving differently when they know they are being observed. Blind testing in forensic science will allow for blind samples to be included with case work in a manner that scientists cannot distinguish between a blind and a real case. This will help distinguish whether or not a laboratory adheres to guidelines and whether best practices are used in a day-to-day setting, as opposed to simply during an anticipated exam.

This article describes the efforts of Dr. Peter Stout, the HFSC’s chief executive officer (and former member of the NC Forensic Science Advisory Board), to implement a “blinds program.” So far, 329 blind samples have been integrated into normal casework in the firearms, toxicology, DNA, fingerprint, and digital forensic sections of the lab. In 2018, the lab plans to grow the program to 800 blind tests per year, or 5 percent of the lab’s workload.

Disguising a blind as a case sample is not a simple task, as the Forensic Magazine article describes. In addition to the challenge of creating a case submission that appears authentic, another particularly challenging aspect has been determining whether the blind samples could be searched in databases like AFIS, NIBIN, and CODIS.

At the HFSC, no errors have yet been reported in the testing of a blind. Use of blind tests will allow the lab to begin reporting error rates and confidence intervals, which will strengthen the testimony of analysts and allow them to answer questions about reliability of their work.

If you’ve made it this far in the post and are still wondering about the title, “Houston, in the blind” refers to a phrase used by astronauts when they aren’t receiving any response from ground control. The phrase indicates that they will continue to communicate, not knowing if ground control is receiving their message. My hope for forensic science is that communications about blind testing will not be “in the blind.”



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Uniform Language for Testimony and Reporting for Fingerprints

At the February 2018 American Academy of Forensic Science meeting, DOJ Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the Uniform Language for Testimony and Reporting (ULTR) document for fingerprints. The purpose of the document is to standardize language used by Department of Justice fingerprint examiners in their reports and testimony. While the document does not apply to examiners in state or local laboratories, it is important for legal practitioners to understand what standards exist in the field. While the new language makes some advances by limiting some past overstatements (such as prohibiting examiners from saying “two friction ridge prints originated from the same source to the absolute exclusion of all other sources;” using terms like “individualize” or “reasonable degree of scientific certainty;” expressing 100% certainty; or implying that fingerprint examination has a zero error rate), it still goes beyond what the data support.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) CEO Rush Holt responded by stating in a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein,

There is no scientific basis for estimating the number of individuals who might have a particular pattern of features; therefore, there is no scientific basis on which an examiner might form an expectation of whether an arrangement comes from the same source. The proposed language fails to acknowledge the uncertainty that exists regarding the rarity of particular fingerprint patterns. Any such expectations that an examiner asserts necessarily rest on speculation, rather than scientific evidence. As there is no empirical basis for examiners to estimate the frequency of any particular pattern observable in a print, the term identification or, in your proposed language source identification, should not be used.

The AAAS comments rely on the Forensic Science Assessments – A Quality and Gap Analysis: Latent Fingerprint Examination report published in September 2017 which addressed the validity and reliability of latent fingerprint examinations.


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Techniques for Collecting and Analyzing Fingerprints

Fingerprint evidence left behind by a suspect or victim may identify who was at a crime scene and what he or she touched. However, it is important for defense attorneys to know, and to inform the jury, that the techniques used to locate and identify fingerprints are far from a perfect science. An understanding of how fingerprints are located and lifted can help attorneys recognize if a flawed analysis was performed by investigators or lab technicians. Further, knowledge of the various fingerprint collection techniques is essential to successful cross-examination of crime scene technicians and fingerprint examiners. This post attempts to provide an overview of the techniques used to locate, lift, and identify a fingerprint.

Step 1: Locating the fingerprint

Locating a fingerprint often requires a vigilant and calculated search. However, in circumstances where the print is visible to the naked eye, finding a fingerprint is relatively easy. The more intricate searches take place when the print is present on a surface but not visible. The type of fingerprint left behind usually determines the amount of time and effort investigators must put into locating the print.

According to Forensic Science, there are three types of fingerprints. D.P. Lyle, Forensic Science (ABA Fundamentals), p. 255 (2012):

  • Patent prints are easy to locate since they are visible to the naked eye. Patent prints occur when someone has a substance on their fingers such as grease, paint, blood, or ink that leaves a visible print on a surface.
  • Plastic prints are also easy to locate but are less common than patent prints since they occur when someone touches an object such as wax, butter, or soap and leaves a three-dimensional impression of the finger on the object.
  • Latent prints are the most common type of print and take the most effort to locate since they are invisible. Latent prints occur when someone touches any porous or nonporous surface. The natural oils and residue on fingers leave a deposit on surfaces which mirror the ridges and furrows that are present on the individual’s finger.

Investigators often follow a two-phase process when searching for fingerprints. The first phase involves looking for patent and plastic prints since they are visible. Often times, a flashlight is used during this phase. The second phase involves a blind search for latent prints, according to Scientific Evidence. Paul C. Giannelli, Edward J. Imwinkelried, Andrea Roth, and Jane Campbell Moriarty, Scientific Evidence, p. 949 § 16.03 (5th ed. 2012). To narrow the search, investigators usually focus on the entry and exits points that the suspect used and any items that appear to have been disturbed, such as overturned lamps or possible weapons. Id.

The type of surface being searched for fingerprints often determines the technique employed by investigators. Id. at 950.

Nonporous Surfaces:

A powder technique is usually used to identify latent prints on nonporous surfaces such as glass, marble, metal, plastic, and finished wood. Id. When powder is distributed on the surface, it adheres to the residue deposited from the finger’s touch, allowing investigators to find the print. Often times, to avoid smudging the print, a magnetic powder technique is used in which the powder is poured on the surface and then spread evenly over the surface using a magnetic force instead of spreading the powder with a brush. See Forensic Science by D.P Lyle p. 256. The color of the powder should contrast with the surface that is being searched to allow better visibility. For example, the investigator should use a white or grey powder if searching a black marble countertop for prints. See Scientific Evidence by Paul C. Giannelli p. 950.

Attorneys should find out whether the crime scene technician who collected prints using fingerprint powder used a disposable brush. If a brush is reused in different locations at a crime scene or reused at another crime scene, the brush can transfer trace amounts of DNA evidence.

Another popular technique for fingerprint location and identification used by both lab technicians and investigators at the crime scene is superglue fuming. Superglue fuming is a chemical process that exposes and fixes fingerprints on a nonporous surface. Id. at 959. In the lab, the process works by using an airtight tank, known as a fuming chamber, to heat up superglue (liquid cyanoacrylate) which releases gases that adhere to the oily residue of print, thereby creating an image of the fingerprint, according to this article. Superglue fuming can also be performed at the crime scene. Rather than using a fuming chamber, crime scene investigators may use a handheld wand that heats up superglue and a florescent dye, according to Forensic Science by D.P Lyle p. 256. Superglue fuming performed at the crime scene can be vital to preserve prints on items that are being sent to the lab via mail. One of the drawbacks is that if the evidence is fumed too long, it can distort the print, rendering it useless, according to this article. To read the procedure used by North Carolina State Crime Lab to conduct superglue fuming in a fuming chamber, click here. To read the procedure used by the North Carolina State Crime Lab to conduct superglue fuming using a portable wand, click here.

Porous Surfaces:

The powder technique is not as effective on porous surfaces such as fabric, unfinished wood, and paper. Instead, investigators often use chemical methods to locate the print such as iodine fuming, silver nitrate, or ninhydrin. When one of these chemicals comes into contact with the chemicals present in the fingerprint residue (natural oils, fats), the print become visual. See Scientific Evidence by Paul C. Giannelli p. 951-53.

Iodine fuming takes place in a fuming chamber. The process works by heating up solid crystal iodine which creates vapors that adhere to the oily residue of print, producing a brown colored print, according to Forensic Science by D.P Lyle p. 257. One of the drawbacks of using iodine fuming is that the print fades quickly after the fuming takes place and therefore must be photographed quickly. Alternatively, if the print is sprayed with a starch and water solution, it can be preserved for several weeks. Id.

Silver nitrate, when exposed to latent prints, reacts with the chloride of the salt molecules found in print residue, forming silver chloride. When exposed to ultraviolet light, silver chloride turns black or brown, making the print visible. Id. This method works particularly well on impressions left in cardboard and paper-like surfaces, according to Scientific Evidence by Paul C. Giannelli p. 952.

Ninhydrin is more commonly used than iodine fuming and silver nitrate techniques to locate a latent print. Id. The object on which the print is located can be dipped in or sprayed with a ninhydrin solution, which reacts with the oils in the print’s residue to create a bluish print. Forensic Science by D.P Lyle p. 257. One of the drawbacks of using ninhydrin is that the reaction is very slow, often taking several hours for the print to become visible. Id. To accelerate the reaction, the object containing the print can be heated to 80 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Id. To read the North Carolina State Crime Lab’s procedures for ninhydrin, click here and here.

A variety of other techniques are sometimes used. For example, laser illumination creates a contrast between the print and the surface which exposes the print. To learn more, see Scientific Evidence by Paul C. Giannelli p. 955-58.

Human Skin:

Locating and identifying fingerprints left on human skin is incredibly difficult. According to Scientific Evidence, the first major obstacle is finding the print since the oily residue left by fingers that creates the fingerprint itself is often present on human skin, making it difficult to create a contrast between the surface (skin) and the print. Further, after a print is left on human skin, the oily residue often disperses and is absorbed into the skin, blurring the print. Two hours is the maximum amount of time that a print on skin may be viable. See Feldman, Meloan, & Lambert, A New Method for Recovering Latent Fingerprints from Skin, 27 J. Forensic Sci. 806 (1982). For more information about current techniques used to identify fingerprints on human skin, see Scientific Evidence by Paul C. Giannelli p. 961-64.

Textured Surfaces:

Surfaces that are not flat or have a rough surface, such as a painting with brush strokes or a golf ball will make the process of identifying and collecting fingerprints more difficult, but not impossible. Click here to read about fingerprints collected from golf balls and other difficult surfaces.

Step 2: Photographing the fingerprint

After the print is located, it is vital that it is photographed before it is lifted. A photograph captures where the print was located in comparison to other objects and captures the orientation of the print. Further, a photograph can serve as a key piece of identification of a patent or plastic print and can be used to compare and possibly match the print to its source. Photographing the print’s location at the crime scene also guards against tampering of evidence. See Scientific Evidence by Paul C. Giannelli p. 964-65.

Step 3: Lifting the fingerprint

“Lifting a fingerprint” means to make a permanent impression of the fingerprint. Lifting a print can be accomplished on either flat surfaces or round surfaces. Lifting a print usually involves a rubber tape with an adhesive surface which is applied to the fingerprint, leaving an imprint on the tape. Often times, a flat object, such as a ruler, will be slowly swiped across the top of the tape to ensure that there are no bubbles or ripples in the tape that will affect the imprint. Next, the tape is carefully peeled off the surface and a plastic cover is placed on the adhesive side of the tape to prevent disruption of the print. Identification information and a description of the location of the print should be written on the back of the tape or card. Id. at 967-68.

After the print is lifted, it is converted into digital data that can be modified to create a clearer image.

Step 4: Comparing the fingerprint

The final step involves a close examination of the characteristics of the fingerprints. For more information about the system of friction ridge classification, click here to read chapter 5 in The Fingerprint Sourcebook by Scientific Working Group on Friction Ridge Analysis, Study and Technology (SWGFAST).

The fingerprint examination process utilizes the ACE-V method which stands for Analysis, Comparison, Evaluation and Verification to compare a print collected from a crime scene to a set of known prints. For a detailed description of the ACE-V method and how it is applied, click here to read chapter 9 of The Fingerprint Sourcebook. This post will not address critiques of the ACE-V method, but additional information that can be used to challenge this technique in court can be found here.

A system called the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) was created to find a match to the print using a computer database. To learn more about the AFIS, click here to read chapter 6 of The Fingerprint Sourcebook.

For more information on the lab procedures employed by the North Carolina State Crime Lab in fingerprint collection and analysis, click here.


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“Forensics on Trial” program on NOVA

NOVA (PBS) aired a program called “Forensics on Trial” on October 17, 2012, examining the crisis facing crime labs in the U.S which lack central oversight, employ few scientific standards, and have poor regulation of examiners. The program investigates how the use of fingerprint, bite mark, ballistics, toolmark, and hair analysis evidence has led to wrongful convictions. The program will examine the 2004 Madrid bombing case in which a so-called fingerprint match was used to arrest an innocent man. The fingerprint was later matched to another suspect.  The program will also discuss how mishandling of forensic evidence impacts the criminal justice system, from wrongful convictions to the O.J. Simpson trial.  You can read about the details of the program here.

More information is also available on the NOVA website where the program can be viewed online.

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Free at Last! Willie Grimes Exonerated by 3-Judge Panel

A 3-judge panel found Willie Grimes innocent after thirty-minutes of deliberation on Friday.  Grimes had been sentenced to life in prison in 1987 after being convicted of two counts of first degree rape and one count of second degree kidnapping.  He was paroled in May of this year after serving twenty-four years in prison.

Grimes’s case was heard in April by the Innocence Inquiry Commission, which unanimously agreed that enough evidence existed to refer his case to the 3-judge panel.  The rape kit and hairs found at the scene had been lost and were unable to be utilized in exonerating Grimes.  However, a fingerprint on a banana, which the victim had claimed her attacker may have touched, was analyzed and confirmed as belonging to someone other than Grimes. Grimes was represented by attorneys Chris Mumma, director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, and Robert Campbell of Hickory.

You can read more here, here, or here.

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NIJ Has Made Available New Forensic Technical Reports

The National Institute of Justice has published several reports on novel techniques that are being investigated in order to improve forensic analysis. Take a look at the reports below to learn about some of the latest techniques that are being developed and to get a forecast of what techniques you may see coming soon to a forensic lab near you!

Application of Machine Learning to Toolmarks: Statistically Based Methods for Impression Pattern Comparisons (pdf, 99 pages)

Researchers created a database of 3D striation and impression patterns on Glock fired cartridge cases, screwdriver and chisel striation patterns. They attempted to objectively associate the toolmarks with the tools that created them using principal component analysis, canonical variate analysis, and support vector machine methodology. Researchers were able to estimate an error rate for toolmark identification using these techniques and a confidence level was assigned. Researchers suggest that this methodology is a useful means of gauging the quality of a toolmark “match.”

Application of Raman Spectroscopy for an Easy-to-Use, on-Field, Rapid, Nondestructive, Confirmatory Identification of Body Fluids (pdf, 80 pages)

Research indicates that new nondestructive, confirmatory testing could identify bodily fluids, including dried fluids, with a near 100% accuracy rate using a Raman microscope equipped with advanced statistics for rapid mapping of pure bodily fluids. The research further proposes that mixed samples can be identified if the samples are not completely mixed. This nondestructive testing, if adopted in the future, could help in the preservation of crucial DNA evidence. It also offers a heightened level of confidence in the results obtained due to its confirmatory nature and level of accuracy.

Establishing the Quantitative Basis for Sufficiency Thresholds and Metrics for Friction Ridge Pattern Detail and the Foundation for a Standard (pdf, 53 pages)

Motivated by both the Daubert ruling and the findings of the National Academy of Sciences, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: a Path Forward (2009), researchers from multiple disciplines collaborated to develop a scientific foundation for fingerprint image quality, with a focus on latent prints.  Researchers followed an experimental approach and then performed statistical validation of their results. Their research yielded several noteworthy results, most salient being detection of unique features that can assist fingerprint examiners in drawing statistical likelihoods of a given feature. This project bolsters claims that existing methods of analysis are more of an art than a science and therefore more susceptible to human error.

Filling a Critical Need by Establishing a Fully Functioning, CODIS Dedicated Laboratory (pdf, 101 pages)

The state of Wyoming requires maintenance of a database of offender samples which historically have been processed via outsourcing to private agencies.  Through funding from both the NIJ and Wyoming State legislature, Wyoming has established their own CODIS lab to process offender samples for entry into CODIS. Currently, samples processed through the lab pass through to CODIS at a 95% success rate. Through creation of the state-run lab, sample processing time has been cut from more than two years to less than sixty days.

Implementation of a DNA Triage and Analysis System Dedicated to Increasing the Throughput of High Volume Crimes in a Forensic Laboratory (pdf, 133 pages)

Through the efforts of both the Orange County California crime lab and the Orange County District Attorney’s office, the crime lab implemented a team-oriented approach to processing DNA from property crimes. The approach employed a highly automated DNA processing method that the crime lab anticipated would free up time from the processing of property crimes, which are extremely high in volume, to devote to dealing with violent crimes. As anticipated, the new handling method decreased the turn around time on both property and violent crimes.

Taq Mutants Engineered for Forensics (pdf, 44 pages)

Researchers used novel genetically-engineered enzymes and a new protocol for DNA analysis to attempt to reduce false negative results and improve the efficiency of DNA testing. These novel enzymes and new protocol would work better with forensic samples that contain residual blood, soil, or other substances that inhibit forensic DNA analysis. Researchers found that their technique outperformed the techniques currently used in forensic DNA analysis.

Use of Scanning Electron Microscopy/Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy (SEM/EDS) Methods for the Analysis of Small Particles Adhering to Carpet Fiber Surfaces as a Means to Test Associations of Trace Evidence in a Way that is Independent of Manufactured Characteristics (pdf, 77 pages)

Typically, very small particles (VSP) are ignored by forensic science. However, researchers have made the first steps towards developing a method for collecting and analyzing VSP as part of trace evidence. Researchers have successfully collected VSP from carpet fibers and demonstrated the difference between carpet fibers themselves and the VSP adhering to them. Researchers urge that VSP can prove useful in the area of trace evidence by comparing VSP from crime scenes or suspects to any items of physical evidence.

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Impression & Pattern Evidence Symposium – Online today!

The Impression & Pattern Evidence Symposium is taking place today through Thursday, August 9, 2012. The live program, sponsored by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Office of Justice Programs and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Laboratory Division, is being streamed online here.

The agenda is available here. Topics include the latest developments and challenges to fingerprint, firearm, document, tiremark, bloodstain pattern and other types of pattern and impression evidence as well as context bias, calculation of error rate, documenting through bench notes, outsourcing lab analysis, and the way to present degree of certainty.

The entire program is available for free online streaming, so sign up and watch the sessions that are of interest to you!

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Crime scene forensics: How does it work?

BBC News has posted a series of videos explaining how forensic tests are performed in crime labs on their Crime scene forensics: How does it work website. These short videos demonstrate various techniques including fingerprint comparisons, use of ninhydrin and superglue fuming (cyanoacrylate) to locate latent print evidence, firearm and projectile comparisons, and examination of pieces of evidence using specialized light sources. The website also contains a limited description of forensic DNA analysis.

The demonstration of these lab techniques should help attorneys understand the function and the limitations of such tests. Viewing the video demonstrations while reading the State Crime Lab technical procedures for latent evidence examination may help attorneys visualize the tests that the technical procedures describe.

Another section of the website provides a 360° crime scene demonstration, which gives a basic description of the phases of evidence collection, the techniques used to preserve evidence, and the roles of crime scene technicians.

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