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Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Historic Rick Jackson Fingerprint Misidentification Case

     In 1997, detectives in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, a community outside of Philadelphia, arrested Rick Jackson shortly after Jackson's friend, Alvin Davis, was stabbed to death in Davis' apartment. In the interrogation room, detectives showed Jackson a crime scene photograph of a bloody latent print found near the body. According to a pair of fingerprint examiners with the Upper Darby Police Department, one of whom was also a police superintendent, that latent  had been left at the scene by Jackson.

     Rick Jackson didn't deny that he had been in Davis' apartment, but he denied killing him, and said he was certain the bloody print wasn't his. Jackson was actually relieved when he realized that the police were basing their case on a misidentified print. He figured that once the police realized their mistake, they would look elsewhere for a suspect.

     With Jackson so insistent that the bloody print wasn't his, Michael Malloy, his attorney, took the unique step of having it examined by outside experts Vernon McCloud and George Wynn. The retired FBI fingerprint examiners had 75 years of experience between them. Both men had been certified by the International Association of Identification (IAI). (Only a handful of the nation's fingerprint examiners have gone through the rigorous IAI certification process.) Wynn and McCloud, to their amazement, found that the bloody crime scene latent was not Rick Jackson's.

     The district attorney, confronted with a defense bolstered by a pair of prominent fingerprint experts who disagreed with the local examiners (who were not IAI certified), pushed forward with the trial anyway. In anticipation of the then unheard-of-situation of fingerprint examiners squaring off against each other in court, the district attorney brought in a fingerprint expert from another state to add quantity if not quality to the prosecution's case.

     In 1998, the Jackson case went to trial, and the jury, despite the conflicting fingerprint testimony, found Jackson guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without parole.

     Vernon McCloud and George Wynn were so concerned abut the fingerprint misidentification in the Jackson case, they asked the IAI to gather a group of experts to review the evidence. When the IAI panel agreed that the crime scene latent was not the convicted man's, the district attorney began to doubt his own experts, and sent a photograph of the bloody print to the FBI Lab for analysis. The examiners in Quantico, Virginia, agreed with McCloud and Wynn and the IAI panel. Rick Jackson had been sent to prison on the strength of a misidentified crime scene latent.

     In December 1999, after Rick Jackson had spent two years behind bars, his conviction was set aside, and he was set free. The out-of-state fingerprint examiner who testified at the trial was fired, but the Upper Darby examiners were not disciplined or prohibited from future fingerprint work. Moreover, they would continue to insist that they had been right, and all the experts were wrong. In 200l, Rick Jackson filed a civil suit against the examiners and the Upper Darby Police Department. He lost the case.

     The Jackson case is historic because it is one of the first cases in which the identification of a crime scene latent was successfully challenged by the defense. This and later misidentification cases raised serious questions about the scientific backgrounds and qualifications of police department fingerprint examiners. Today, because of law enforcement budget cuts, there are fewer fingerprint examiners working in the nation's police departments than there were ten years ago. As a result, latent fingerprint identification plays less a role than it once did in our criminal justice system.

     The Jackson fingerprint case is just another example of how forensic science, as once envisioned by its pioneers, has turned out to be a failed promise. 

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