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TIM RUTTEN

The LAPD flunks fingerprinting

October 18, 2008|TIM RUTTEN

Our criminal justice system essentially grades on the pass-fail system, and, as anybody who watched O.J. Simpson's first trial will recall, the Los Angeles Police Department has a history of flunking science.

Now, an internal LAPD report obtained by The Times' Joel Rubin and Richard Winton raises urgent questions about the persistence and extent of the department's forensic failures. According to the report, an analyst in the police crime lab's Latent Print Unit erroneously identified fingerprints in two burglary cases -- leading to the extradition of the wrong man from Alabama and to the prosecution of innocent people. In at least one of the cases, the mistake came to light only after a diligent defense attorney had the supposed match reviewed by an independent expert, who pointed out the LAPD's failure.

As a result of the investigation that followed, the department fired the analyst involved and suspended three others who supposedly reviewed the false identifications. Two supervisors also were replaced and, according to the report, oversight was tightened. That sort of internal scrutiny and accountability is a refreshing and substantial break with history, and one of the things that distinguishes William J. Bratton's tenure as chief from those of his predecessors.

That's the good news; the bad news is a) it took two reporters to bring to light a problem that strikes at the criminal justice system's fundamental integrity; b) we don't know for certain just how extensive this problem may be; and c) the City Council has a demonstrated history of indifference to the fiscal demands of solving the LAPD's problems with forensic science.

To gauge the significance of the city's problem, it's important to keep two things in mind. The first is that Americans are by nature empiricists, and our juries give extraordinary weight to "scientific" evidence, such as identification by fingerprint. The use of DNA evidence by the Innocence Project's Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld to show wrongful convictions has done more to prick the nation's conscience on capital punishment than all the columnists, philosophers and theologians who oppose the death penalty combined. In recent years, juries' expectations of forensic evidence have been heightened by films and TV shows, like the "CSIs," which give forensics an infallible high-tech sheen that, frankly, doesn't exist in the most competent of real worlds, let alone the slipshod one the LAPD inhabits.

(Popular culture's role in winning public acceptance for scientific detection isn't new. In the late 19th century, many Americans learned about the technique of fingerprint identification from Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi" and "Pudd'nhead Wilson." )

The second element is that fingerprint identification isn't exactly the forensic walk in the park that TV makes it out to be. As Michael Baden, co-director of the New York State Police Medicolegal Investigative Unit, told The Times on Friday, the police don't always get 10 clear fingerprints: "In the real world, investigators in police crime labs often are dealing with partial prints, and that's where the importance of training and peer review becomes vitally important."

Jurors aren't the only ones who need to be able to accept fingerprint evidence as reliable. Councilman Jack Weiss, who chairs the city's public safety committee, already has announced plans to hold hearings on the crime lab's failures. He's a former assistant U.S. attorney who plans to run for city attorney, and, as he said Friday, "As a former prosecutor I know that we rely on fingerprint evidence without question. ... Given the kind of conduct indicated in this report, it's reasonable to assume that these problems aren't isolated."

Weiss added: "If you know that such a key element in the criminal justice system is failing, that you're implicating innocent people in crimes, I have questions about why they didn't drop everything else to resolve the problem."

Good question, though part of the reason may be found in the LAPD's experience with Weiss' City Council colleagues. Partly because of politics and partly because the City Council has refused to admit that forensic science done right costs money, the LAPD has remained desperately short of the education, training and rigorous peer review required for this increasingly vital part of the criminal justice system.

The Times reported, for example, that the LAPD had been rebuffed when it asked for $450,000 to bring in an outside expert to evaluate its latent print operation. In fact, the department planned for the money but never included it in its budget request.

Why? Well, earlier this year, Weiss pushed through the council a measure authorizing the LAPD to hire an additional 16 scientists to work on its scandalous backlog of unexamined DNA evidence. His colleagues were happy to sign off on that, but he's yet to persuade them to appropriate the money to pay the new scientists.

Public safety begins with justice, and the LAPD's continuing inability to guarantee the integrity of its scientific evidence fundamentally undermines the criminal justice system. That's clear, but the problem won't be resolved until the department makes correcting this failure a high priority and the council realizes that, in the 21st century, it's just as important to put white coats in the crime labs as it is to put blue shirts on the street.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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