Lisa Black — a real-life forensic scientist and a book excerpt

Lisa Black, Kensington, Jan 2018

Welcome back to Lisa Black, a real-life forensic scientist and a heck of a thriller writer, with a great example of how real-life events inspire novelists. Read on for Lisa’s explanation and an excerpt from Perish, A Gardner and Renner Novel, new from Kensington Books. 

Why did the world’s economy crash in 2008? Well, as a Wall Street exec explains to my detectives in Perish:

“Remember way back when banks used to issue mortgages, knew who they were lending to and had incentive to make good loans? Then came computerized credit scores so consumers could shop around and get better rates. Then Lew Ranieri took these assets that weren’t liquid—mortgages take a long time to pay back and you can’t cash them out quickly—and turned it into something that could be bought and traded in the short term.”

“Securitization,” Maggie said.”

In the 1970’s Lew Ranieri of Salomon Brothers invented mortgage-backed securities. Mortgages are common and steady income, but have some qualities that make them unattractive to investors: they might be paid off early, ending the interest stream; at the same time thirty years is a long time to wait for an investment to trickle back; and since one pays down the principal every month, the amount of interest income decreases over time; and that the buyer might default and abandon the house (default).

“With securitization, mortgages were grouped together to create a pool of collateral and bonds are issued based on that collateral. The bonds are divided into ‘tranches’ based on risk—the top tranch will not suffer if any of the loans default, but the bottom tranch people agreed to a higher risk (and, not coincidentally, a higher return) and could lose their shirts. All quite aboveboard and fair, but there remained a flaw no one saw for nearly thirty years, as the exec explains:

“The two detectives sent her funny looks, but Bowman barely paused. “Exactly. This wasn’t a bad idea—even if housing prices fell in one city, they wouldn’t fall in all cities. Until they did. But instead of spreading the risk, it dispersed the disease.”

Bowman leaned back in the swivel chair, one ankle across one knee, then partially turned so he could look at the detectives, the sky outside, and the managers at their desks with only the slightest shift. “They based everything on the assumption that at the absolute worst defaults would hit six percent. They had historically been one percent. People get very attached to their homes.”

            “Ya think?” Riley said.

            “So that even if the entire bottom tranch, say twenty percent, defaults, the two top tranches are one hundred percent safe. Except that housing had never seen the leaping increases that occurred in the first ten years of the new century. So historical data might not have been the best indicator, but no one wanted to think about that. People took out home equity loans or bought houses on spec based on the assumption that the value would keep shooting up. Construction workers and waitresses were trying to become real estate moguls. But every market eventually saturates, and defaulting on an investment is not as wrenching as suddenly being out on the street.

“So banks finally realized their mistake and a bunch of mortgage lenders went out of business or got bought by other banks and they all tightened up their lending practices. All our budding real estate moguls couldn’t sell their investments and couldn’t even pay for their own, as values dropped and all these balloon payments came due and those adjustable rates that sounded so good at first jumped up and tripled their monthly bill. The housing market crashed like a pelican diving for a fish, and the economy followed.”

“Interesting,” Jack said. “But why is Joanna Moorehouse dead?”

Lisa Black has spent over twenty years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into six languages; one reached the NYT Bestseller’s list and another has been optioned for film and a possible TV series. Visit her website, , and follow her on Twitter, @LisaBlackAuthor.

Truth May Be Stranger Than Fiction — guest, Lisa Black

Time to welcome back my guest, Lisa Black, forensic scientist by day and thriller writer by night. Not surprisingly, Lisa’s become fascinated with the case of the Black Dahlia, and she uses it to tell us about the differences between real-life investigation and creating a fictional case, below. Here’s the scoop on her newest book, Unpunished, published by Kensington Books this week!  

unpunished       It begins with the kind of bizarre death that makes headlines—literally. A copy editor at the Cleveland Herald is found hanging above the grinding wheels of the newspaper assembly line. Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner has her suspicions about this apparent suicide inside the tsunami of tensions that is the news industry today—and when the evidence suggests murder, Maggie has no choice but to place her trust in the one person she doesn’t trust at all….

Jack Renner is a killer with a conscience, a vigilante with his own code of honor. He has only one problem: Maggie knows his secret. She insists he enforce the law, not subvert it. But when more newspaper employees are slain, Jack may be the only person who can help Maggie unmask the killer–even if Jack is still checking names off his own private list.


By Lisa Black

Writing murder mysteries means I can make up everything I need to happen. Sometimes that involves juggling some logistics—actually it always means juggling some logistics—but if some plot twist is really giving me a problem, I can simply rewrite it. True crime, however, stubbornly refuses to dot every i or even consider crossing every t. Take the case of the Black Dahlia, which I have been researching for a presentation at the Sleuthfest mystery writer’s convention.

First there was the nightclub owner who ran a sort of free boarding house for young starlets. He employed them in his burlesque show where they hoped to be spotted by those elusive Hollywood agents. No red flags there, right? But according to him he had a house full of these girls, overseen by his long-time girlfriend, and the address book with his embossed name on the cover found in Beth’s luggage had been ‘liberated’ from his desk without his knowledge. Certainly none of these budding starlets ever complained of harsh treatment at his hands. But this was 1947. Women didn’t complain about much—it didn’t help, and only got them more of the same.

Then there was the control freak/charming-when-he-wants-to-be Dr. George Hodel. Though married (always temporarily; he tended to abandon wives like used razor blades) he had a habit of picking up young beauties to photograph them. As a surgeon he certainly had the means to rent a room for the killing and a car to transport the body, and for motive you need look no further than his fascination with the Marquis de Sade. Unfortunately we don’t even have an embossed address book in the way of hard proof that Hodel ever met Beth Short.

Then there’s the tall, skinny guy with a limp. Not kidding. A tall guy with a limp turns up in a number of places in Beth’s timeline and also in the narrative surrounding some other L.A. murders. But in the days before cell phone cameras made selfies ubiquitous, ‘tall, thin and with a limp’ was the most detailed description available to detectives. But this was only a year or two out from WWII, so there were probably quite a number of veterans with leg injuries. And with average daily caloric intake at near-record lows around this time, it wouldn’t be surprising if most people had figures we would envy in today’s TV-watching, corn-syrup-sweetened world. So that doesn’t really narrow it down.

Of course there’s always the mob. As in any large city they had a presence, and with a girl like Beth looking for a way into the studios it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see her cozying up to a made man at a nightclub. Unfortunately, imagination is most of what we have. Like any well-brought up girl, Beth didn’t kiss and tell. She often made reference to ex-boyfriends, even jealous ex-boyfriends, but never named names.

Then there’s Arnold Smith, aka, Jack Anderson Wilson, who supposedly sent an informant to the cops to relay his tale. This informant, unnamed in the books, said that Arnold Smith said that a guy he knew named Al Morrison told Smith, in great detail, how he had killed Beth Short. Smith, incidentally, was described by the informant as tall, thin, and walking with a limp, and detectives figured this Al Morrison never existed and served the “I’m not asking for me, but for a friend of mine” purpose. Most significantly, he knows details of Beth’s anatomy that the police never leaked. Unfortunately the cops never got to speak to Wilson directly. He would only meet the informant by chance at a bar and though the informant, with cops around him, kept waiting, Smith didn’t show. Instead he continued a bad habit of smoking in bed and set his hotel room on fire, taking his secrets into the next life.

And since the crime occurred 60 years ago, witnesses cannot be re-questioned for more details, no phone records or hotel registries have survived, and the autopsy report was never made public so we can’t even be sure what is myth and what is fact in the swirl of cyberspace language regarding the life and death of Beth Short.

No wonder I write fiction.

PS If you want to know more about the Black Dahlia murder and the evidence that exists implicating these and other suspects, come to MWA’s Sleuthfest in Boca Raton this February!

Lisa and powderAbout Lisa: Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series. Find out more on her website, , and chat with her on Twitter, @LisaBlackAuthor.

A Day in the Life of an Expert Witness — guest Lisa Black

Welcome back to Law & Fiction: the Blog author and forensic scientist Lisa Black, whose experiences as an expert witness remind lawyers to be verrry considerate of our experts, and give both writers and readers an insider’s view of the criminal justice system. Her newest novel, THAT DARKNESS: a Gardiner and Renner novel , releases tomorrow, April 26.

that darkness coverI have testified in court as an expert witness approximately sixty times in my 20 years as a forensic scientist, and I can positively state that I would rather respond to the scene of a decomposed hoarder death in a house skittering with roaches and bedbugs then present myself in court for any reason whatsoever. At least I’d only be surrounded by trash and bad smells for an hour or two, whereas a court appearance can stretch into days.

There’s absolutely nothing fun or glamorous about it. You are jerked away from whatever it was you were doing (work, your day off, a vacation) and plopped into a cold, boring room in the cold, boring courthouse. If you’re lucky the room has a window and a minimum of chatty co-witnesses. You have to stay there for as long as the attorneys think they ‘might’ need you and will be freed only after at least one of them has done their best to make you look incompetent at best and conspiratorial at worst. The whole experience, quite frankly, sucks.

And it’s the most important thing we can do. All the crime scene work, swabbing up blood, wearing surgical masks to be able to breathe amid the stench, straining our eyes staring at fingerprint ridges for hours upon hours—all these things count for nothing if they don’t stand up in court.

But that’s the big picture, and usually I’m stuck in the pixels.

The waiting isn’t so bad when it isn’t your vacation you’ve been pulled away from, and you’ve prepared by bringing snacks, change for the pop machine and a book to read. I’ve taken my laptop along and gotten my writing done while waiting (though you may have to dodge those chatty fellow witnesses). If you have a smartphone, I highly recommend downloadable e-audiobooks from your library system (heaven!!). Our courthouse even has free wifi for surfing the web or answering email.

Also sometimes I have to go on Mondays, when our local courthouse does all the ‘housekeeping’ kind of stuff—pleas, motions, continuances—to collect a defendant’s palm prints or footprints, which the regular court bailiffs don’t do. This is the only kind of non-stressful court appearance I have since no one is going to ask me questions and I get to sit inside the courtroom for a change. There I can watch a sometimes interesting parade of people and hear the mini-synopsis of their predicament, such as the guy who got into an argument with someone, called 911, and as the officer arrived to explain that 911 was only for emergencies, called 911 three more times to complain about being told not to call 911.

What drives me to distraction, however, is my increasing appearances in court for sentencing hearings. When a person is convicted after a trial or plea, their fingerprints (not palms) are rolled in open court as an official record that this, indeed, is the person who was convicted in this particular court case. When they are convicted again, before they are sentenced, the prosecutor wants to establish that they have prior convictions so that the sentence can reflect that. So I have to compare the in-court prints from that conviction not yet sentenced to the in-court prints from one or two or five prior convictions. This is a minor thing, an easy comparison since the prints are usually decent and if, say, the right thumbs are smeared, you have nine other fingers to choose from. However I still have to do the comparison, hand it off to another examiner to re-do and therefore verify the comparison,  write the report, give it to my verifier to check and initial, then give to my supervisor to check and initial, make a copy for me, contact the court liaison to tell him he can pick up the report, then go to court and wait a half-hour or hour or two, then put up with the defense attorney complaining about my report (not long enough, too long, I made a typo in the birth date) as if he or his client is really suggesting that they are not the person incarcerated on these previous charges—because if they weren’t, surely they would just say so.


Yes, I whine. But this does represent an outlay of taxpayer-paid time, and not just my time—my co-workers, the attorneys, the judge, the jury—and all to prove something that is already documented and that no one is questioning.

Attorneys have told me that this practice, which only began about four years ago, is due to some court decision, but I don’t believe it. I think it’s something they do ‘just in case’ it may prove to be a point of appeal. They’re trying to protect their body of work, but meanwhile more and more cases are dropped or plead down to nothing because the court’s schedule can’t handle them all. Sometimes crossing every t and dotting every i means that other t’s and i’s suffer.

Another new practice of the extreme stating of the obvious is asking ballistic experts to take bullets apart and then testify to the fact that they are bullets, with a slug and gunpowder, etc., to be used in a firearm. This is apparently requested when the use of a firearm is part of the charge or sentencing considerations, and in addition to verifying that the firearm itself is functional. After all there are several reasons why a firearm might not be able to fire as well as very realistic looking air guns—but nothing else quite looks like a bullet. And if the defendant wants to make the case that his bullets were not functional, he can, again, say so. Then order the testing. But to do it reflexively in every case adds up to a colossal waste of time and resources.

So, yeah, I don’t really enjoy going to court!

(A reminder to writers: local practices vary, and the new procedures Lisa has encountered in Florida are not required everywhere, so talk to a local expert before using them in your scenes!)

Lisa and powderThat Darkness is now available wherever books are sold!

It seemed like a typical week for crime scene specialist Maggie Gardiner–a gang boss shot in an alley, a lost girl draped over an ancient grave, a human trafficker dumped in the river–nothing all that out of the ordinary for the Cleveland police department as spring turns toward summer along the Erie banks. The methods are usual, the victims unsurprising–but when she notices a pattern, a tenuous similarity among the cases, she begins to realize that her days will never be typical again. How much of her life, her career, her friends, will she be willing to risk to do what’s right?

Jack Renner is a killer who does not kill for any of the conventional reasons…no mania, no personal demons. He simply wants to make the world a safer place. He doesn’t think of himself as a dangerous person–but he can’t let anyone stop him. Not even someone as well-meaning as Maggie Gardiner.

Maggie has the self-sufficiency of a born bit-of-a-loner. She works with a bevy of clever experts surrounded by armed police officers.        She is both street smart and book smart, having seen the worst the city has to offer.

But Maggie Gardiner is not safe. And, until she can draw Jack Renner into the light, neither is anyone else.

Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter series, says: “Lisa Black always delivers authentic characters in riveting stories. That Darkness takes things to a spellbinding new level with a taut and haunting story that will stay with you long after you finish reading it.”

Publisher’s Weekly says: “The intriguing forensic details help drive the plot to its satisfying conclusion.”

“Black is one of the best writers of the world of forensics, and her latest introduces Maggie Gardiner, who works for the Cleveland Police Department. Her relentless pursuit of answers in a dark world of violence is both inspiring and riveting. Readers who enjoy insight into a world from an expert in the field should look no further than Black. Although Cornwell is better known, Black deserves more attention for her skillful writing – and hopefully this will be her breakout book.”– RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars (Top Pick)

Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages; one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List, and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.

And yep, that’s her looking like a happy chimney sweep! 

CSI for Real: Lisa Black on Fingerprint Facts & Fictions

Today we welcome Lisa Black back to the blog. A latent print examiner and crime scene investigator in Florida, she’s also a suspense writer extraordinaire. I still remember that sleepless night, home alone, when I stayed up too late finishing one of her books and the smoke alarm kept going off…

We see Abby or Nick or someone in the background on Bones do it every week: scan a fingerprint picked up at a crime scene into some omnipresent Batcomputer and search it against everyone who has ever been printed in the entire United States, including job applicants and military.

This is a myth. It has always been a myth.

Databases are local. My database includes everyone arrested in the city of Cape Coral, Florida, since about 1998 and people arrested by the surrounding county agency since about 2008. No job applicants, certainly no military. Not even our own personnel. (Kind of embarrassing if the prints you collect at scenes come back to your own clumsy cops…it’s better to not even go there.)

Latent means hidden, referring to a print that can’t really be seen until it’s processed with something—powder, superglue, fluorescent light. But we use the term to mean unidentified prints, prints lifted at crime scenes and off pieces of evidence. These unknowns are compared to knowns—prints rolled (these days, usually with a scanner instead of ink) when a person is arrested. These are called 10-prints, though they also include the palms. My database has over two hundred thousand sets of 10-prints. A separate database is full of the unknowns, and I’m constantly searching items from one category against the other. I spend about 85% of an average day doing this, which is exactly as glamorous and thrilling as it sounds.

Lisa and powderI identify about 11% of all the latent prints I get that are suitable for comparison, which is about 40-50% of all latent prints received. This is a pretty good rate as I believe the national average is more like 6%. Of course not every identification means that the case is closed—sometimes prints belong to the victim, other family members, house guests, or customers. [Note from Leslie: That’s Lisa, covered with black print powder. At least I got that part write — er, right — in the WIP!] 

Side note: We do not do ‘elimination prints’, except on homicides. We enter the prints, and if they match someone who has no good excuse to be in the home, great. We don’t fingerprint every family member to eliminate them as having left the print—it is not an efficient use of resources to put in that kind of time and effort just to find out that the print on the window was made by the daughter.    [Note from Leslie: “except on homicides,” she says. Whew. I just wrote this scene….]

Another side note—just because I don’t have access to local job applicants and our own personnel doesn’t mean other examiners at other agencies don’t. Apparently it depends on the personal preferences of the higher-ups.

Any prints I can’t identify eventually go to the state, but it isn’t a digital process and it certainly isn’t instantaneous. Because the state software is slightly different from mine, I have to make a copy of the print cards for our files, repackage the originals, seal, submit to our Property Department, wait for them to assign a number and then fill out a (mercifully online) form to submit them to the state lab. Then some poor sucker at the state lab, who probably feels that they have enough of their own work to do, has to scan them, evaluate them and search them—all the work that I have already done, they do over. This is one of those ‘get to it when I have time’ projects, and the state lab limits me to five submissions per week, so right now I’m sending prints from 14 months ago. Okay, it’s clunky—but it works. We’ve made a number of ‘hits’ this way. Some we had already made by the time we get the state paperwork back, because the person had been arrested by us in the meantime, but some are a happy little surprise.

If this sounds dismally haphazard, remember that despite our best efforts to reach the shining ideals of TV shows with its spotless rooms, obedient children, and omnipotent computer databases, most of life is still haphazard. The perpetrator may not have been arrested. He may have been arrested but in a different state or a different county. He may work as a roofer or bricklayer and have worn-down ridges. He may have left a palm print at the scene and the person who rolled his palms cut off the interdigital section (something the county used to have a bad habit of doing). The latent print might be smeared right where his 10-print is clear, and his 10-print is smeared right where the latent is clear. He may have come up in the search results, but an examiner, clicking through search after search, got a little too cavalier and said ‘nah’ a little too quickly. (We have all done this, which is why a second examiner double checks everything.) And he may have had half a brain cell and actually pulled on a pair of freakin’ gloves.

However—all that said, the myth is becoming reality. Slowly and haphazardly, but becoming. As I’ve said I’ve been receiving prints from the county, a different software system, for the past 5 or so years. (I can’t search their database, which goes back decades, but their recent arrests are in mine.) The software I’m on now has the ability to remotely search the same software-based databases at other police departments, some in neighboring counties, some in other states, and vice versa (with their permission, of course). Unfortunately that caused such bugs in the system that we shut it down completely for over a year and only recently opened it back up again. Then, after an update, I noticed a checkbox in my search engine that said ‘federal databases.’ You mean I could actually search the FBI?  I filled out the paperwork, got the signatures of the higher-ups, sent it in. Eventually it came back but in the meantime our chief had retired so new paperwork had to be completed. Almost a year later (another of those ‘when I have time’ projects) I picked up the ball and tried again. Nothing. I have to go through the state, a very nice man from the state eventually tells me. The prints have to be sent there first. Our software doesn’t mesh with this, but if the software company can figure out a patch then the state has no problem with it. I call the software company. They are stunned to find out that the state will allow this. No one had actually asked them before.

So since the beginning of summer, the software company is working on a patch or conversion system or whatever it is, which they assure me is not difficult, and then they will work on interfacing with the state, and eventually, perhaps even by Christmas, after twenty years of seeing it on TV every day, I may actually be able to do a little bit of that omnipresent Batcomputer stuff.


close to the bone 1About Lisa’s newest, Close to the Bone:

Close to the Bone hits forensic scientist Theresa MacLean where it hurts, bringing death and destruction to the one place where she should feel the most safe—the medical examiner’s office in Cleveland, Ohio, where she has worked for the past fifteen years of her life. Theresa returns in the wee hours after working a routine crime scene, only to find the body of one of her deskmen slowly cooling with the word “Confess” written in his blood. His partner is missing and presumed guilty, but Theresa isn’t so sure. The body count begins to rise but for once these victims aren’t strangers—they are Theresa’s friends and colleagues, and everyone in the building, herself included, has a place on the hit list.

L Black author photoAbout Lisa: Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department in Florida. Her books have been translated into six languages and one reached the NYT mass market bestseller’s list.

Real-life CSI: Lisa Black on fingerprints

Today, thriller writer and real-life crime scene investigator Lisa Black talks fingerprint analysis — and why we still need it in a DNA world.  Lisa’s new book, Blunt Impact, comes out April 1 — details below.  

Fingerprints have been used to express individuality since we lived in caves, really, but more definitely since the 7th century. The fingerprint ridges were discovered to be unique in 1788, and the patterns divided into the three categories in 1823. But their official, consistent use in human identification began in 1858. The first use in a criminal case was in 1892 in Argentina and they were first used in a criminal trial in England in 1902. Fingerprints were first used in a murder case in the US in 1908. So this is a science that’s been officially accepted in US criminal court cases consistently for one hundred and three years. It’s been consistently used as a means of identification for the past hundred and fifty
years and has been subjected to computerized searching twenty-four/seven/365
for the past thirty years.

I made 39 fingerprint identifications in 2010. And that’s just me personally, at one small and relatively low crime city in the US.  So if you multiply that by 11 years, then I have identified someone by their fingerprints in roughly 429 criminal cases.  I have never once had someone come back to me and say, you’re wrong, this isn’t my print.

Of course not every one of these prints equals guilt. Fingerprints can match for completely innocent reasons, as when the person lives or visits there.  And this is one of the things that reinforces to us that the computerized system works exactly as we think it does–when out of the 200,000 sets of ten prints in my system the computer just happens to come up with the person who lives in the house. Oh, and incidentally, despite what you see on TV the computer does not decide when something is a match. The computer will just bring up the most closely similar patterns it has in its system. Then I look over the possibilities but to do the comparison I will use the original latent print and the original 10 print card. Computers do not match people; only people match people.

These days we see a lot of comparing and contrasting between fingerprinting and DNA analysis. The problem with wanting the same kind of statistical analysis that you get with DNA results with your fingerprint results is that you’re comparing apples and oranges. DNA is much easier to read and statistically analyze than fingerprints because it’s
narrowed down to a few simple checkboxes. This allele is a 1,3 or it’s a 1,2. So you can add up all the people who have 1,3 and determine they’re 20% of your particular regional population. Then you can add up all the 1,2 and determine that they’re 10%, then you multiply all those percentages together to get some magic number like 1 in 42 trillion people. But with fingerprints you’re talking about a point of minutia, say a ridge ending. At present we have no way to fit this into a neat table that says 20% of people have a ridge ending right here in which the ridge flows 34 degrees from the point of origin and the next ridge ending is two ridges over and a millimeter south and it also flows 92 degrees
until it bifurcates—there is no such chart, no handy percentage that can be multiplied and therefore no magic number of 1 in so many bazillion. I’m sure that somewhere in the future will be developed some freakishly intricate logarithm, but for the moment trying to stuff fingerprints into the same neat little package that DNA comes in is not possible.

But your real question is, and what is a much more reasonable question, is how does a fingerprint examiner decide that this latent print matches this person’s finger? That, of course, is a whole ‘nother stretch of road. I know lawyers who still think the FBI uses 8 points to make a match or that England uses 12, 16, or even 36. There is no number.
Supposedly examiners used to use 8 as a comfort zone. Some other countries (not
England, by the way, they eliminated the point number standard in 2001) still use numbers. I’m happy for them if that makes their lives easier, but it doesn’t mean anything. The numbers are just numbers, there is no scientific significance to any of them. A 16 point match is not better than a 12 point match is not better than an 8 point match. This is difficult to really accept because we’re Americans—more is always better. But you can think of it as being pregnant. You’re not more pregnant at 6 months than you are at 3. You might be more noticeable, but you’re not more pregnant. You either are or you aren’t.

And this actually makes my life a lot more difficult than it makes yours, because then I’m left with telling a jury that it’s a match because I say it is, which isn’t a comfortable experience for either of us. Actually Brandon Mayfield is a perfect example of why this number requirement is useless. The FBI reported a 15 point match in that case—and it
was still wrong. Seeing 15 points because you want them to be there is no more helpful than seeing 2 crystal-clear ones. Wishful thinking and overeager examiners will always get you in trouble, and I don’t believe there’s any way to prevent that. Those kind of errors—and of course the flat-out concocting of evidence—are always going to occur. Any system is vulnerable to an inside job.

But there will always be a simple way to reverse those problems, which is exactly
what occurred in the Mayfield case and the Asbury/McKie case, and others—you take it
to another agency and have them look at it and they say, crap, no, that’s not a match! That’s what we mean when we say the methodology works even when the people don’t. That’s the beauty and perfection of fingerprints. They’re right there in black and white. You can pull out that card fifty years from now and it’s still going to look exactly the same, and then the methodology will correct the mistake.

As for the idea of DNA ‘replacing’ fingerprints, as was mentioned in the recent 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals, that’s never going to happen. I’m all for more DNA testing because we’re collecting more DNA samples for more crimes, such as collecting drops of
blood when a burglar cuts himself on a broken window or swabbing a steering wheel for touch DNA in a hit and run. As with any other technology it continues to get easier and cheaper to do more. But fingerprints will still be even easier and cheaper than that. If the fingerprints match, the DNA is going to match. If the DNA matches, the fingerprints are going to match unless it’s identical twins. The point is that you don’t get a choice of which gets left at a crime scene, so it’s best to have samples of both from your suspect. I can’t see any of you saying well, we don’t need fingerprints, we’ve got DNA or vice versa because everything is a different story once opposing counsel gets a hold of it. Anything can be challenged or thrown out, and especially in these days of the CSI effect so you’re always going to want every piece of evidence you can get. (For more on the CSI effect, see Doug Lyle’s guest post.)

So in conclusion, you can’t argue with success. Fingerprint science has withstood every challenge thrown at it through the ages and I’m confident that future technology and testing will only make it more bulletproof.

Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs,
fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral (Florida) Police Department. Her books have been translated into six languages. Evidence of Murder reached the NYT mass market bestseller’s list. Find out more about Lisa and her books at her website.

Lisa’s new book, Blunt Impact will be available April 1, featuring forensic scientist Theresa MacLean and a series of murders surrounding a skyscraper under construction in downtown Cleveland. The first to die is young, sexy concrete worker Samantha, thrown from the 23rd floor. The only witness is her 11 year old
daughter Anna, nicknamed Ghost. Ghost will stop at nothing to find her mother’s killer, and Theresa will stop at nothing to keep Ghost safe.

Also, Kindle owners can find a bargain in her new book The Prague Project,
written under the name Beth Cheylan. A death in West Virginia sends FBI agent Ellie Gardner and NYPD Counterterrorism lieutenant Michael Stewart on a chase across Europe as they track stolen nukes and lost Nazi gold, hoping to avert the death of millions of people.