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Chicago Fingerprint Unit Flawed, Under Scrutiny

by Bill Barton

In 2016, Cook County prosecutors relied on a fingerprint lifted from a laptop as pivotal evidence against a juvenile charged with robbery.

According to Chicago Reporter coverage of the case, Judge Stuart Katz “ripped into the competence of Chicago police Sergeant Thurston Daniels III, the forensics expert who testified that he had matched the print to the defendant.”

Katz found the youth not guilty and said Daniels “seems oblivious and doesn’t seem concerned about educating himself as to what’s going on in his own field.” The situation, he said, was a symptom of a far bigger problem with Chicago cops and fingerprints.

“The Chicago Police Department procedures, where they have no audits, no verification of their procedures, no participation—they don’t follow the FBI rules—casts a doubt on their whole departmental procedures,” Katz said.

According to an expert review commissioned by the Cook County Public Defender’s office, “The unit has no quality control and keeps poor documentation; examiners have minimal training and often testify in court using language discouraged by professional associations. The unit has not obtained accreditation from an outside group of experts, which the Department of Justice recommends as a signal that its procedures and documentation meet industry standards.”

The public defender’s office said that since 2016 it has called attention to those problems to poke holes in testimony by the unit’s examiners, which has led to not-guilty verdicts in four property crime cases and favorable plea deals in nearly a dozen more.

The Better Government Association, a nonprofit news organization based in Chicago, was told by the public defender’s office that, “going forward, it can likely use the noted deficiencies to undermine prosecutions in any property crime cases that turn primarily on fingerprint evidence—potentially leaving the crimes unsolved and unpunished.”

“When fingerprint analysis is done correctly, it’s valuable and powerful evidence,” said Glenn Langenburg, one of the fingerprint experts who reviewed the Chicago unit’s procedures. “The concern is we have no way of knowing how good the CPD is at what they’re doing. They’re not following standards.”

The Chicago Reporter story noted that “Chicago’s latent print lab has fallen far behind industry best practices, which have undergone significant revisions in the past decade. Some of those reforms followed a 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences that raised questions about the scientific foundation of all pattern evidence, including fingerprints. Pattern evidence, the markings or impressions left at crime scenes, has long been a staple of criminal forensics. It ranges from fingerprints and shoe prints to tire treads and handwriting. Experts say such evidence can be useful in the legal system but should not be considered infallible or treated as objective science—particularly if proper quality control measures are not taken.”

Brendan Max, chief of the public defender’s forensic science division, said, “There are a surprising amount of cases in Chicago where guilt or innocence hinges directly on the testimony of a fingerprint examiner. There are jurisdictions around the country where that little amount of evidence will not suffice. But in Chicago, those can move forward.”

In a recent trial for a residential burglary, Judge Cynthia Ramirez questioned not only the fingerprint examiner’s credentials but also the professionalism of the unit as a whole. “I’m also concerned about the fact that the CPD lab has no accreditation, no auditing system, no quality review, no error check process, no written professional benchmarks, that there’s no standard operating procedures or guidelines,” Ramirez said. 



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