Op-Ed: DNA testing isn’t enough. We need the right to fingerprint matching

Fingerprints lifted from crime scenes can be used to exonerate wrongly convicted people.
Comparing fingerprints lifted from crime scenes with prints in law enforcement databases has helped to exonerate wrongly convicted people. But only four states currently give defendants the right to have this done.
(Federal Bureau of Investigation )

The effectiveness of DNA testing and searches of the national DNA database is well-known. Over the last three decades, 137 wrongly convicted people were exonerated through DNA database “hits,” which identified the person who had actually committed the crime. Currently, all 50 states, as well as the federal government provide some kind of right to post-conviction DNA testing.

But there is no such right to fingerprint matching in most states. Only Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois and Minnesota give defendants the right to have crime scene prints compared with prints in law enforcement fingerprint databases. If every state established this right, other innocent people who have been wrongly convicted could be exonerated.

Archie Williams, who was recently seen by millions in his performance on “America’s Got Talent,” was exonerated last year based on a fingerprint search. He was convicted in 1983 for a rape that he did not commit and served 36 years of a life sentence in Angola prison in Louisiana.


The source of the crime scene prints in Williams’ case, some in blood, was not identified. The Innocence Project tried unsuccessfully for 20 years in federal and state courts to have those prints submitted to the national fingerprint database for comparison. On March 14, 2019, a new judge on the case, Kinasiyumki Kimble, simply ordered the database search even though Louisiana did not have a statute that specifically required that procedure.

There was a database hit: a deceased serial offender who had pleaded guilty to a similar crime and admitted to committing other sexual assaults in Baton Rouge, which occurred while Williams was in prison. Williams was freed a week later.

Because the right to fingerprint database searching is so limited, we’ve found only nine individuals (four of whom were co-defendants), who have been exonerated because fingerprint database hits pointed to an alternate suspect. All nine exonerees were African American. These alternate suspects were responsible for at least 40 other crimes, including assaults and rapes, committed after the nine exonerees were convicted.

And in April, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed the murder convictions of Jonathan Smith and David Faulkner based in large part on a “palm print” database hit that came from the exterior of a propped-up window. The palm print belonged to an early suspect who had a record for similar burglaries in the area.

Improved fingerprint technology and the FBI’s Next Generation Identification system (the latest version of the repository of fingerprints submitted by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies) allow for better post-conviction database searching than earlier systems.

The failure of states to provide post-conviction access to fingerprint databases is inexcusable. Besides robbing innocent people of their freedom, refusal to do fingerprint searches means the guilty remain free.

Of course, neither fingerprint nor DNA analysis is infallible. And even a database match to someone other than the defendant is only evidence, not proof, of that person’s guilt. Moreover, the growth of law enforcement biometric databases can create ethical, legal and social hazards. But if these databases, built with taxpayer dollars, exist, then they should be made available to people who may have been wronged by the criminal justice system.


Simon A. Cole is director of the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society, University of Michigan Law School & Michigan State University College of Law. Barry Scheck is co-founder of The Innocence Project and a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University.