"Just about every academic who has given any real attention to the question of the validity of fingerprints has come away thinking that it's astonishingly understudied ... and yet the courts have just basically given fingerprinting a free pass," Mnookin said.
But prosecutors in the Patterson case insist that the reliability of fingerprint analysis is proven by the negligible number of mistakes that are made. Those few mistakes, argues Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley, are the result of human error.
Conley also cites the long history of the use of fingerprint identification evidence, which has been allowed as evidence in U.S. courts since 1911.
"Indeed, several reviewing courts have taken the opportunity to endorse fingerprint identification evidence as one of the most reliable and effective investigative tools in legal history," Conley's office argues in its legal brief.
But those who challenge the reliability of fingerprint analysis say there is no way of knowing how many errors are made.
"Fingerprint examiners routinely testify that they have 100 percent confidence in their results, but that's just not the level of confidence that we really ever have in systems that involve human beings," said David Siegel, a professor at the New England School of Law.
(c) 2005 The Associated Press