However, if you're like millions of other Americans, and you were glued to the tube during the opening night of "The Sopranos", you'll remember when Christopher Moltisano, higher than a kite on toot, remarked about the possibility of prosecution based on fingerprint evidence - "They got nuthin."
Now, with the increased judicial perception that DNA testing is 99.999% reliable, fingerprints have moved back under the microscope. Lawyers are again challenging the admission of print evidence as a perfect system of identification. They are also questioning examiner's testimony in criminal trials, and, this in and of itself is significant, because for the last twenty years most defense attorneys passed on cross examination unless the "experts" underlying credentials were questionable.
A recent Pennsylvania case, "The State vs. Jackson," sheds light on the renewed interest in fingerprint reliability. In 1998, Richard Jackson was given life in prison for a murder conviction based mostly on a fingerprint substantiated by the testimony of three experts. Though unsuccessful, defense attorneys argued vigorously that the prints didn't match. Nevertheless, after Jackson spent two years in prison the prosecutors admitted the very errors Jackson's lawyers had complained about and he was set free.
The New York Times reported an even more revealing case. "In Scotland, a murder case was upended when detectives found a fingerprint at the scene of a crime that belonged to a police officer - who claimed she'd never been there in the first place. To verify her claim, she brought in two fingerprint analysts who attested that not only had her fingerprints been misidentified, but so had a print found on a tin at the home of the accused, originally attributed to the victim."
Simon Cole, author of "Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification", says that "the relevant question isn't whether fingerprints could ever be exactly alike - it's whether they are ever similar enough to fool a fingerprint examiner, and the answer, it's increasingly, unnervingly clear, is a resounding yes. A recent test discovered that one out of five print examiners misidentified print samples.
While innocent citizens going to jail is an intolerable situation, and, in no way, do I feel it is less a crucial issue, the more fundamental problem to me is how readily our society adopts what it's told as gospel, particularly when the source is scientific or judicial.
In the age of digitalization, pictures can be manipulated, and voices can be altered to the extent that what we see and hear may not be a realistic and factual representation. People with money or position can access the technology that makes these manipulations possible, but poorer, less educated Americans don't even know what's available, much less obtain access to it. This creates a new type of disparity - where increasingly, the haves and the have-nots are separated by the wall of scientific advancement.
Today we argue over cloning, stem-cell research, DNA testing and laser enhancement. I don't have a clue about what's behind these technologies and I doubt we could find more than one or two people on the Island who does. Doesn't this frighten you? It has been suggested for over two hundred years that our science is outrunning our spiritual development and I believe this.
We accept proclamations of "scientific fact" far too easily. Remember Thalidomide? When the pharmaceutical companies told us it was a miracle drug, we embraced it. I wonder how the victims who were born with horrible disfigurements, after their mothers took the drug, feel about the credibility of science now?
And what about the 132 inmates who were convicted on the basis of scientific evidence? They were released from prison last year, but only after witnesses came forward and exonerated them. If these folks hadn't stepped forward these men would still be living in the brutal confines of imprisonment.
Remember Vietnam veterans who returned from service only to discover strange illnesses manifesting in their bodies? Agent Orange wasn't a joke - it was an unintended by-product of misplaced trust in science.
If you've ever seen "Silkwood," you know that program our nuclear power exposed many workers to deadly doses of radiation. Sure, safeguards have now been put into place, but the workers in the 60's all believed the "experts" hired by the energy companies to explain how safe nuclear reactors were. Now most of them are dead, or living with the devastation of leukemia.
I could go on and on, but the point is , while science is generally neutral and produces tremendous benefits, when ambitious and powerful factions want something to fit their agendas, they manipulate our science, and, what is even more deplorable, they buy the opinions of scientists to support their programs. This is a fundamental failure of ethics and, while most good men won't go for it, the few that do can cause far-reaching and irreparable damage. Media is deployed, advertising campaigns are launched and public opinion is manipulated.
While it will be almost impossible to prevent the reoccurrence of similar scenarios in the future we can contain their numbers and impact by remembering that science is not miraculous. It is an all-too-human creation- limited by the general failings we possess as imperfect beings.
Like Cole, I believe that legal and public trust can be won over with a culturally resonant image. Our world is increasingly complex, so it pays to stand admonished and consider that before we imbue the next discovery with the mantle of infallibility consider that, like fingerprints, until we’ve looked at every one we can't say for sure that no two are alike.
Age, more than anything has taught me that the more I learn the less I really know. So when the next “expert” speaks, remember your Latin - Caveat Emptor.