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Monday, September 20, 2004


Alexander Cockburn uses the CBS typography debacle as a jumping-off point for an interesting article on evidence:

If proven to have been fooled, CBS will survive, the same way Hersh, Dacre (though he was badly dented) and the London Daily Mail moved on from their debacles. But now consider the juries which listen to forensic experts marshaled by the prosecution solemnly attesting to the undoubted authenticity of finger prints, ballistic data that point overwhelmingly to the guilt of the defendant.

Most of this evidence survives scrutiny because the defense teams can't afford the expert witnesses necessary to challenge the prosecution's team. When a rich defendant like O.J. Simpson comes along, the forensic evidence is usually exposed as improperly collected, inadequately stored and erroneously examined.

"Fingerprint" evidence was regarded as virtually beyond challenge, until replaced in recent years by DNA hits as the very quintessence of certainty. For years I've thought this was nonsense, and that it was the mere reputation of finger print data that carried the day for the prosecutors. After all, the British civil servant in nineteenth century India who retrieved an old Chinese technique did so merely because he wanted to impress his workers with the thought that if he could not tell them apart by facial appearance, he could detect when they were turning up twice in the pay line by checking their fingerprints. He pretended to, but he never did. It was all theater. Down the decades all a prosecutor had to do was claim a "sure match" of prints, and it was all over.