LA Times reporters Joel Rubin and Richard Winton have a story about the LAPD’s fingerprint analysts that requires our attention:
The Los Angeles Police Department has acknowledged in a confidential report that people have been falsely implicated in crimes because the department’s fingerprint experts wrongly identified them as suspects.
The 10-page internal report, obtained by The Times, highlighted two cases in which criminal defendants had charges against them dropped after problems with the fingerprint analysis were exposed. LAPD officials do not know how many other people might have been wrongly accused over the years as a result of poor fingerprint analysis and do not have the funds to pay for a comprehensive audit to find out, according to police records and interviews.
“This is something of extraordinary concern,” said Michael Judge, public defender for Los Angeles County. “Juries tend to accord the highest level of confidence to fingerprint evidence. This is the type of thing that easily could lead to innocent people being convicted.”
Los Angeles police officials had initially planned to hire an outside expert last year to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the unit. They failed, however, to secure the $325,000 to $450,000 from city coffers needed for the review. In-house auditors were used instead, but Sims-Lewis acknowledged that they did not have the expertise required to comprehensively examine the unit’s past and current practices.
“We still want outside eyes to come in and make sure we’re doing things right,” she said. The focus of the audit would be improving the operation, officials said, but they also believe it would uncover past errors if any had been made.
Although there is no way to be certain without the full audit, Sim-Lewis said she was confident that faulty work by the unit had not sent an innocent person to prison or freed someone who was guilty. Mistakes, she said, would have been caught by experts hired by defense attorneys.
No, actually, they wouldn’t have been. There is no guarantee of that at all. Most of LA’s public defenders are the best and most dedicated of people. But I have also personally witnessed instances in which a PD assumed that his client was guilty—whether he or she was or not—and did little to challenge anything. Faced with fingerprint evidence, it would be worse. Too many overloaded defense attorneys would never imagine the fingerprints were anything but accurate.
Public Defender Mike Judge does not think all is hunky dory either and has asked the city to hire an outside auditor.
Judge is right. We are in difficult budgetary times. But there are some things we must find the money to afford. This is one of them.
We cannot take a chance with innocence.