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Forensic Pattern Recognition Evidence
An Educational Module

Simon A. Cole
Professor, Department of Criminology, Law, and Society
Director, Newkirk Center for Science and Society
University of California, Irvine
Alyse Berthental
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Criminology, Law, and Society
University of California, Irvine
Jaclyn Seelagy
Scholar, PULSE (Program on Understanding Law, Science, and Evidence)
 University of California, Los Angeles School of Law
Pattern Evidence

This module (and associated instructors’ guide) uses latent print (fingerprint) identification as a case study of the broader category of forensic pattern recognition evidence (which includes, e.g., firearms and toolmark comparison, questioned document analysis, shoeprint and tire track comparison). The case of forensic pattern recognition evidence is meant, in turn, to be a case study of the broader issue of the interaction between science and law and policy. The case of fingerprinting identification poses challenging  questions for legal professionals and policy-makers. Although fingerprint identification is one of the most widely used and widely trusted forms of forensic evidence, scientists and scientific institutions have questioned the scientific basis for it, as well as for forensic pattern recognition more generally. As Professor Michael Saks commented in 1998, “Fingerprint evidence may present courts applying Daubert [the legal case governing the admissibility of scientific evidence in federal courts] with their most extreme dilemma.”

The module has been explicitly designed for non-scientists from a variety of different backgrounds including law and public policy. The module draws on scientific and legal literature, policy documents, and court exhibits and opinions. The module is designed around an active learning approach. Each of the five proposed classes asks students to solve a problem, and deliver a product, such as a judicial opinion or a policy recommendation. These exercises and the provided background material are designed to invite students to confront the challenging epistemological, legal, and policy issues raised by fingerprint evidence. In so doing, students will be asked to understand and apply a variety of scientific competencies, such as validation testing, probabilistic reasoning, the quantification of uncertainty, the “prosecutor’s fallacy,” likelihood ratios, Bayes' theorem, decision theory, the nature of scientific consensus, and the role of scientific learned societies. Student learning will then be measured by assessment questions.

The module consists of five classes. The module is designed so that one or more classes may be omitted in order to meet the needs of the specific learning environment. The first class introduces students to the concept of validation testing by asking them to articulate the empirical questions relevant to fingerprint analysis and the empirical evidence that would be necessary to support that claim. The second class introduces the problem of legal admissibility of expert evidence and the epistemological bases behind different approaches to that problem and invites students to apply that problem to fingerprint evidence. The third and fourth classes introduce the problem of reporting forensic results and two approaches to that problem (hypothesis testing and likelihood ratio/decision theory). The fifth class applies all of this accumulated knowledge to legal and policy reform.

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