The Myth of Fingerprints

I have days when I feel like everything I thought I knew turns out to be wrong. Like when I talk to my five year old about dinosaurs.  Or my six year old about math.

But, mostly, I have to say, my fancy book learning, for all its shortcomings, has held up pretty well.  I’m usually reasonably confident in my understanding of life, the universe and How Things Work.  In fact, I’d say that my fundamental beliefs have remained virtually unchanged through adulthood.  I guess I’ve been lucky that way.  Or sheltered.

So I thought it was a pretty big deal, several years ago, when an attorney friend of mine, working pro bono on a criminal defense case told me about arson investigation.  That, in a nutshell, much of what we thought we knew about fire was wrong.  And the “science” of investigating suspicious fires was profoundly flawed.  (Read more here, if you’re interested.)

I was fascinated enough by this idea—the notion that we were convicting people of arson, putting them in jail, because of “evidence” that really wasn’t evidence of anything except our own flawed assumptions—that I used it as the basis for a book.  I’m working on that manuscript now.  I hope it will become my second novel.

As I’ve been writing and researching, though, I’ve come across other areas of criminal investigation that sound an awful lot like arson.  Which is to say that investigators tend to look a scenario, make a conclusion about it and then start to see facts that back up that conclusion.  There’s shaken baby syndrome: a small child dies, an examination reveals damage to the brain or skull, and, naturally, the last person caring for the baby is charged in his or her death.  It’s logical and, perhaps more important, it satisfies our need to make sense of a tragedy.  But, as it turns out, these cases are not nearly this simple.  There are underlying birth defects, previous injuries, even diseases that can all look like what we once assumed to be evidence of shaking or abuse.  (Again, I won’t go into the science, but you can read more here.)

Then, on Friday, Washington Post reporter Radley Balko launched a series of reports into what he calls “the flawed ‘science’ of bite mark analysis.”  (Read part one here and part two here.)

Add all this stuff together and you’re getting pretty close to the idea that there’s very little truly reliable evidence out there.  (Let’s not even get into eyewitness testimony.)

How can we convict people, let alone sentence them to death, on the basis of such flimsy truths?  I’ve got that Paul Simon lyric stuck in my head:

“There’s no doubt about it
It was the myth of fingerprints
I’ve seen them all and, man,
They’re all the same”

And I’m wondering, just really wondering, as a journalist-turned-novelist, how it’s possible to even know what’s true?  Where to even begin? When I write fiction, I can call it fiction.  But where does that leave us in regard to what I’d like to call the facts?