Court Case Update

FINGERPRINT EVIDENCE went through a nearly three-year ordeal in the New Hampshire court system, but eventually emerged unscathed. On April 4, 2008, the New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously reversed the decision of a lower court to exclude expert testimony regarding fingerprint evidence in the case of The State of New Hampshire v. Richard Langill. The case has been remanded back to the Rockingham County Superior Court.


Latent-print examiners across the nation have carefully followed this case since the original decision by Justice Patricia C. Coffey of the Rockingham County Superior Court to exclude the testimony of a New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory (NHSPFL) fingerprint examiner, Lisa Corson. Here is a summary of the case as it meandered through the court system:

March 25, 2004—Police in Derry, New Hampshire respond to a report of a burglary at an apartment. The complainant claims someone has stolen $1,200 from a safe in her bedroom bureau and approximately five dollars in coins from a bottle.

April 1, 2004—Police lift latent prints from the bureau, bottle, and the top and right side of the safe. The prints are forwarded to the NHSPFL.

February 2005—Criminalist Lisa Corson, working in the fingerprint unit, identifies the prints from the crime scene as belonging to the defendant, Richard Langill. This single fingerprint is the only evidence in this case.

May 2005—Richard Langill is indicted for burglary. Before the trial can begin, his attorney files a motion to exclude Corson’s testimony regarding her fingerprint comparison.

January 27, 2006—Day One of a two-day Daubert hearing takes place. Corson offers evidence to support the science of fingerprint identification.

October 11, 2006—Nearly nine months later, Day Two of the Daubert hearing is carried out. This day, the defense expert, Professor James Starrs, offers evidence stating that stricter guidelines and more documentation concerning latent comparisons are needed throughout the field. Criminalist Stephen Ostrowski with the NHSPFL offers testimony to counter points that had been brought forward by Starrs.

January 19, 2007—Judge Coffey grants the defendant’s Motion to Exclude. In her decision, Judge Coffey rules that although Corson is qualified to testify as an expert in fingerprint identification, and while the principles underlying fingerprint identification are sound, her testimony is inadmissible because “her application of the ACE-V (Analysis, Comparison, Evaluation, and Verification) methodology to the single latent print in this case was unreliable as a result of incomplete documentation and possibly biased verification.”

February 9, 2007—The state files a Motion to Reconsider.

March 29, 2007—Judge Coffey affirms her original decision and denies the state’s Motion to Reconsider. She reiterates that there is “simply not enough information to support a finding that the ACE-V methodology was properly applied in this particular case.”

Further, Judge Coffey explains that the examiner could have recorded “bench notes memorializing how the protocols were adhered to in a specific instance.” She also states that the court would have been satisfied if blind verification processes were in place. However, the NHSPFL’s written protocol does not require blind verification—nor does the written protocol of 42 forensic-
science laboratories represent-ing 38 states and Canada, according to a telephone survey conducted by the NHSPFL and submitted to the court. Following this ruling, New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office files an appeal with New Hampshire Supreme Court, arguing that the trial court exceeded its role as “gatekeeper” of scientific evidence and inappropriately imposed standards that are not established by the scientific community.

February 13, 2008—The state and defense present oral arguments to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

April 4, 2008—The New Hampshire Supreme Court issues its ruling, revers-ing the decision to exclude Corson’s testimony and remanding the case back to the Rockingham County Superior Court. In its opinion, the court addressed the trial court’s two main arguments for excluding the fingerprint testimony:

1) The trial court argued that it was impossible to tell if the ACE-V method-ology was appropriately followed because of Corson’s failure to take bench notes. The New Hampshire Supreme Court writes that even if NHSPFL protocol required bench notes, and even if Corson failed to follow that protocol, the trial court overstepped its bounds by finding Corson’s testimony inadmissible based upon this error. The New Hampshire Supreme Court writes that the decision of whether the expert appropriately applied the ACE-V methodology should be left in the hands of the jury, which will have the opportunity to hear the expert’s testimony, as well as cross-examination by the defense.

2) Judge Coffey wrote that had the NHSPFL employed blind verification as part of the fingerprint examination process, the trial court would have been satisfied that the methodology had been applied appropriately. The New Hamp-shire Supreme Court addressed this issue by citing several other federal courts that have found ACE-V to be a reliable method and pointed to Starrs’ testifimony that, in the fingerprint community, the “blind verification process is a new thing entirely.”

The New Hampshire Supreme Court writes: “While we acknowledge that a small number of misidentification cases using ACE-V methodology do exist, it is undisputed that ACE-V methodology has been reliably applied in countless cases without the use of blind verification. Further, as the testimony of Starrs and Ostrowski demonstrates, the fingerprint community is currently debating whether blind verification actually leads to more accurate results. To be sure, while blind verification may ensure with a higher level of certainty that an identification is correct, the record contains no indication that non-blind verification is unreliable.”

The Editor thanks Stephen Ostrowski of the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory for keeping us up to date on this case as it progressed.

  May-June 2008 (Volume 6, Number 3)
Evidence Technology Magazine
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Item of Interest

The language barrier between English-speaking investigators and Spanish-speaking witnesses is a growing problem. (Updated 28 February 2011)