From the AP
December 25, 2005 BOSTON --Days after she was named Boston's new police commissioner, Kathleen O'Toole was briefed on a troubling case: a man had been wrongly convicted because of a mistake in analyzing fingerprints.
Stephan Cowans had been freed from prison three weeks earlier after prosecutors acknowledged that police who analyzed a fingerprint left by the man who shot and wounded a police officer had wrongly pinned the crime on Cowans.
"I just remember having a sick feeling," O'Toole said. "I said to the people who briefed me, 'Are we talking shoddy work or police corruption?'"
O'Toole shut down the department's latent fingerprint unit while a grand jury convened by Attorney General Tom Reilly investigated. No criminal indictments were issued, and a separate investigation by a private consultant concluded that poor training of the department's fingerprint analysts was to blame for the blunder.
More than a year later, the unit is about to reopen. Six civilians with advanced forensic training will replace the six police officers who once analyzed fingerprints.
The unit, which works to identify suspects by matching prints found at a crime scene with prints in police databanks, has historically been staffed by police officers. In the Cowans case, the unit's match was key evidence in the case that sent Cowans to prison for six years until he was freed.
A sharply critical report issued after the Cowans case found that the officers received inadequate training and were not prepared to do complex fingerprint analysis.
The report, by Ron Smith & Associates Inc., of Meridian, Miss., said the unit did not train its officers to keep up with standard practices in fingerprint analysis and had low performance standards.
"Excellence is not expected, therefore not achieved," said the report.
Smith, a nationally recognized fingerprint expert, estimated that it would take two years for the officers who worked in the unit to receive the necessary training.
We found the unit had little or no protocol or standardization of procedures," said Capt. Det. Thomas Dowd, commander of the police department's forensic technology division.
O'Toole decided to "make a clean break and get qualified civilians in, and get the unit operating in a professional manner," Dowd said.
The department recently hired Jennifer Hannaford, an experienced fingerprint analyst who worked for the Oakland, Calif., police and the Vermont State Police, as director of the unit.
Rachel Lemery, who also worked in the Vermont State Police lab, was hired as a senior criminologist. Three other civilians have been hired as criminologists, and the department is still searching for a second senior criminologist, Dowd said.
Hannaford, who has a bachelor's degree in forensic science from California State University, won numerous awards while working for the Oakland police from 1995-2000, including a certificate of commendation for work that identified a serial rape suspect.
Hannaford said she plans to require yearly proficiency tests for fingerprint analysts. She is also drawing up new protocols, and quality assurance and control programs for the unit, which is expected to reopen next month. The unit is working toward accreditation from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, a process Hannaford estimates will take at least 18 months to two years.
The overhaul comes at a time when fingerprint analysis has come under increased scrutiny after more than a century of being considered the ultimate in reliable evidence.
In addition to the Cowans case in Boston, the case of Oregon attorney Brandon Mayfield has also drawn sharp criticism. Mayfield was arrested after FBI fingerprint experts wrongly matched his print to one of the latent prints found on a detonator bag near the train bombing in Madrid that killed 191 people.
The state's highest court is now considering the case of Terry Patterson, a Boston man awaiting a second trial in the 1993 murder of Boston police Detective John Mulligan.
At Patterson's first trial, a police sergeant testified that four latent fingerprints found on the driver's side window of Mulligan's vehicle belonged to Patterson.
But Patterson's lawyers have asked the Supreme Judicial Court to stop prosecutors from using the fingerprint evidence at his second trial, arguing the method used to produce the match was unreliable. The sergeant testified that he identified the print as Patterson's by adding up matching ridge characteristics from three different fingers.
Patterson's lawyers have asked the SJC to ban the use of fingerprint analysis at all criminal trials until its reliability can be proven through scientific testing.
Hannaford said she understands the concerns raised by the recent high-profile mistakes, but says it's a highly reliable process when analysts are trained correctly.
"There is more involved in a (fingerprint) comparison than simply counting points. ... A properly trained analyst can come to a reliable conclusion."
Simon Cole, a professor of criminology at the University of California at Irvine who has been critical of fingerprint analysis, praised the Boston Police Department's decision to hire civilians.
There never really was any particularly good reason to draw latent print examiners from the ranks of police," he said. "If they were supposed to be doing scientific work, there's no reason you would think a sworn officer would be well-prepared for that."
Stephen Saloom, policy director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic that has helped exonerate 168 wrongfully convicted inmates, including Cowans, said hiring civilians could also help police cultivate objectivity when fingerprint analysts are called to testify in court in criminal cases.
"This is definitely a step in the right direction," Saloom said. "Objectivity is the essence of the value of forensic evidence."
Editor's Note: Denise Lavoie is a Boston-based reporter covering the courts and legal issues. She can be reached at dlavoie(at)ap.org
The original article can be found here.