Managing fingerprint evidence

By Robert Tie, CFE, CFP

June-S2W-fingerprintA recent federal report on fingerprint analysis says some human error is inevitable but recommends reforms in current forensic practices. Here's how you can optimize the quality of fingerprint examinations in your investigations right now.

Do you think you might have valuable fingerprint evidence? Then it would be wise to engage an experienced, fully trained specialist to determine whether the prints are clear enough to be interpreted, and if they are, to compare them with known prints for possible identification or differentiation. Here's an example of why that's so important.

Not long ago, the president of a global corporation headquartered in Atlanta got a nasty surprise when his secretary suddenly resigned and sued him for sexual harassment he knew he hadn't committed. So the president called his attorney, who — for reasons that'll become clear — quickly contacted Robert Whritenour, a certified latent print examiner in private practice.

Whritenour has more than 30 years of experience in his field, including service as a special agent, latent print examiner and training officer with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory.

The corporation president's accuser said she'd written two complaint letters to the company's human resources (HR) director when the president was allegedly harassing her. The HR director was stunned to find the letters in the accuser's personnel file. She hadn't seen them before.

Because employees had to request permission from HR to see their files — and the accusing secretary hadn't — the HR director reasonably suspected that the secretary somehow had obtained a key to the HR file room and surreptitiously planted the two letters without ever mailing them. But how could the company prove this fraud theory?

As the president's attorney had hoped, Whritenour knew what to do. First, using certain chemical solutions, he processed and examined every part of the accusing secretary's personnel file and obtained numerous clear prints. Next, he fingerprinted the few HR staff members who had access to the file. After he eliminated their prints from those in and on the file, about 25 unidentified prints remained.

If Whritenour found the accuser's fingerprints on the letters, it wouldn't prove her accusation was fraudulent. However, if he found her fingerprints on other documents in the file or on the file folder — neither of which she had legitimate access to — that would support the HR director's fraud theory and cast doubt on the secretary's truthfulness and allegations.

The president's attorney then asked for and obtained a court order compelling the accusing secretary to have her fingerprints taken to compare with the unidentified prints on her personnel file. However, she didn't comply, and she dropped her suit three days later. Case closed.

Of course, unskilled handling and examination of evidence can impair the clarity and usefulness of investigative results. To help mitigate that risk, CFEs should familiarize themselves with the "Fraud Examiners Manual" discussion (2012 edition, pp. 3.122ff) of identifying and preserving potential print evidence. Just as important, they should engage only fully qualified latent print examiners to analyze such evidence.



In several notorious incidents over the past 20 years, trained, experienced fingerprint specialists incorrectly interpreted evidence.

For example, in 1997 Stephan Cowans, a Massachusetts man accused of shooting a police officer, spent more than six years in prison following his wrongful conviction based on fingerprint evidence gathered and analyzed by the Boston Police Department. Subsequently discovered DNA evidence exonerated Cowans and lead to the temporary closure of the police department's fingerprint unit and improvements in its procedures.

To deal with this crisis, the U.S. government and the scientific community established advisory groups to improve forensic science practices and build consensus among federal, state, local and private laboratories and practitioners.

These efforts helped, but forensic problems persisted. In May 2004, the FBI — acting on its interpretation of a fingerprint found on a fragment of a terrorist bomb that had killed 200 people in Madrid two months earlier — arrested Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon attorney. Mayfield's prints had turned up in a search of the bureau's massive fingerprint database.

During its investigation, the FBI gave undue weight to what turned out to be irrelevant factors: Mayfield's Muslim faith, his marriage to an Egyptian immigrant and his legal representation of a convicted terrorist in a child custody case. The agency failed to discover any specific evidence linking him to the Madrid bombing.

Spanish officials determined that the print on the bomb fragment belonged to an Algerian national. The FBI then withdrew its identification of the print as Mayfield's, and he was released from custody. However, the bureau's erroneous conclusion and flawed methodology still demanded attention.

So the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice investigated. In 2006 it issued a report saying the primary causes of the FBI's failure to detect its error were the similarity of Mayfield's print to the one on the bomb fragment and the FBI's overconfidence in its examiners. The OIG report found no evidence of misconduct by those FBI employees involved in the Mayfield investigation.

Following the OIG's review, the FBI issued its own report and said it "implemented a series of procedural reforms designed to prevent future errors," and that the OIG concluded these were " ‘significant steps.' ".

However, the Mayfield case was only one of several such analytical failures that occurred around the world. To assess the situation, the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Department of Justice in 2008 convened the Expert Working Group on Human Factors in Latent Print Analysis. In February 2012, the group issued its landmark report, "Latent Print Examination and Human Factors: Improving the Practice Though a Systems Approach." 

The group documented 149 potential sources of human error in the analysis of crime scene fingerprints, including inadequate training, extraneous knowledge about the suspects in the case, poor judgment, health problems, limitations of vision, complex technology, stress, lack of standards or quality control, poor management, insufficient resources and substandard working conditions.

"Such errors can be devastating, resulting in missed opportunities to identify the guilty or wrongful convictions of the innocent," the group wrote in its report.

The group also made 34 recommendations, including:


  •  Fostering understanding that some human error is inevitable and that openness about errors leads to improvements in practice. 
  •  Establishing requirements and guidelines for reporting, documentation and testimony that are reviewed for each examiner at least annually. 
  •  Intensely preparing print examiners and other forensic experts to give credible and accurate testimony in trials, stressing skills such as using lay language, creating visuals that can easily be understood and thinking clearly under cross-examination. 
  •  Setting up continuing education, mentoring and accreditation/certification programs. 
  •  Implementing comprehensive testing programs to ensure examiner competency and proficiency. 

The above research and findings have spurred needed improvements in forensic practices and will continue to do so. But what are the chances that you'll investigate frauds in which fingerprint evidence is an important factor?


Asset misappropriation schemes are by far the most common type of occupational fraud, according to the ACFE's 2012 global fraud study, "Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse." Nearly nine in 10 cases (87 percent) included in this year's edition of the bi-annual report involved theft of cash, inventory and other assets, which continues a longstanding trend noted in previous editions.

As evidence, fingerprints primarily evoke images of violent crime. However, when it comes to fraud, the instrument of criminality is often a piece of paper. And paper bearing fingerprints plays a central role in check tampering and other frequent forms of asset misappropriation.

So the odds are that many CFEs, at some point in their careers, will have to gather and preserve fingerprint evidence and offer guidance on criteria to follow when selecting a fingerprint specialist. CFEs therefore need to understand latent-print examiners' operational and environmental factors and their best approaches and techniques.


Terms that should clarify a technical issue often can be ambiguous when used indiscriminately. Latent, which comes from the Latin word for "hidden," is a good example. Originally, it denoted prints not visible without being enhanced by chemical processing. That meaning, which still survives, distinguishes such prints from those that are patent or visible without enhancement.

An inexperienced investigator might think it's reasonable to call in a latent print examiner only when seeking latent prints and might believe no special expertise is necessary for processing patent prints.

"Not so," says Whritenour. "The term latent prints is now widely understood to mean all prints left inadvertently, as opposed to exemplars, which an individual knowingly provides when formally fingerprinted. Whenever prints might constitute evidence — even if they're visible without enhancement — it's important to have a fully qualified latent print examiner evaluate them."

Likewise, it's difficult to overstate the importance of experience.

"For example," Whritenour says, "one of the worst things you can do to fingerprint evidence is put it in a plastic bag; that promotes condensation. Water is the enemy of fingerprints. So, unless evidence is inherently moist, I store it in paper envelopes."

Whritenour also employs a fingerprint examination methodology known as ACE-V (Analysis, Comparison, Evaluation and Verification). Most sources credit the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with developing ACE-V in 1960 to evaluate physical evidence. Latent print examiners first adopted it for their purposes in 1980, and most still use it. However, the nuances of ACE-V are beyond the scope of brief training courses, which leaves minimally qualified fingerprint examiners without a rigorous and time-tested theoretical framework to guide their examinations.


Whritenour earned his latent fingerprint certification from the International Association for Identification (IAI), a U.S.-headquartered international professional organization established in 1915 that's widely regarded as the world's foremost certification authority for fingerprint examiners.

Applicants earn IAI's certification by satisfying its training, experience and education requirements and passing its written and oral tests of their fingerprint experience and competence. Continuing education and recertification are necessary to maintain the credential.

"You're only as good as your report or your testimony," Whritenour says. "I know great investigators who struggle to communicate their findings. CFEs should look for fingerprint examiners who not only are fully certified, but also can write clear reports that laypeople can understand. It's also important to be comfortable under cross-examination on the stand and to tell a jury, in simple terms they can understand, how you came to your conclusion."


In one case, Whritenour was hired by the attorney of a man accused of snatching a woman's wallet from her car while they talked.

The local police department's fingerprint examiner, whose only training was a two-week course, found three supposed fingerprints on the woman's car and confidently asserted they belonged to the defendant, Whritenour says. But when Whritenour compared those prints to the defendant's exemplars, he found no matches and determined that one of the three prints was from a portion of a palm — something the police department examiner had completely missed.

"I was flabbergasted by that incompetent analysis," Whritenour says. "A two-week course is just not enough. You need years of training and experience before you can accurately gather and examine prints."

The judge dismissed the case when the alleged victim failed to appear in court. Whritenour says the overall quality of fingerprint examinations would improve if there were more funding for training and education.

Given the difficult global economy, it's not clear when many law enforcement agencies (and fingerprint examiners in private practice) will have the funds to fully train at least some of their staffs in essential aspects of latent fingerprint examination.

In this climate, many fraud investigators understandably will believe that some training is better than none. However, they should remember that even the best two-week course can never fill all the gaps in a novice fingerprint examiner's skill and knowledge.

Each CFE should identify at least one fully trained and certified fingerprint examiner that he or she can recommend to an employer or client. Then they can be confident of quickly obtaining reliable expertise when they think they've discovered valuable fingerprint evidence.




Robert Tie, CFE, CFP, is contributing editor of Fraud Magazine and a New York business writer.