Golden Gate University Law Review


Simon A. Cole

Article Title

The Prevalence and Potential Causes of Wrongful Conviction By Fingerprint Evidence


As the number of post-conviction DNA exonerations mounted and the Innocence Project undertook to treat these exonerations as a data set indicating the principal causes of wrongful conviction, the absence of fingerprint cases in that data set could have been interpreted as soft evidence that latent print evidence was unlikely to contribute to wrongful convictions. That situation changed in 2004 when Stephan Cowans became the first - and thus far the only - person to be exonerated by DNA evidence for a wrongful conviction in which fingerprint evidence was a contributing factor. Cowans's wrongful conviction in Boston in 1997 for the attempted murder of a police officer was based almost solely on eyewitness identification and latent print evidence. The Cowans case not only provided dramatic additional support for the already established proposition that wrongful conviction by fingerprint was possible, it also demonstrated why the exposure of such cases, when they do occur, is exceedingly unlikely. These points have already been made in a comprehensive 2005 study of exposed cases of latent print misattributions. In this article, I discuss some additional things that we have learned about the prevalence and potential causes of wrongful conviction by fingerprint in the short time since the publication of that study.

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