Virginia Coalition of Police
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Fingerprint Botch Felt in Maryland

BALTIMORE - For more than 100 years, police have relied on fingerprints to help identify criminals.

But in a groundbreaking ruling, a Baltimore County judge has disallowed prosecutors from using fingerprint evidence against a man facing the death penalty in a 2006 carjacking and murder at Security Square Mall.

“Fingerprints — along with DNA — are the gold standard for evidence,” said Scott Shellenberger, the Baltimore County state’s attorney, who said he was “shocked” by the judge’s ruling. “The judge took 100 years of history and rejected it.”

In her Friday ruling, Judge Susan Souder wrote that just because fingerprints have been used by police for years does not make them reliable.

“The long history of use of fingerprint identification does not by itself support the decision to admit it,” Souder wrote. “Courts began admitting fingerprint evidence early last century with relatively little scrutiny. Relying on precedent, later courts simply followed.”

Caught off-guard by the ruling, prosecutors asked — and received — a postponement Tuesday in the death penalty case against Bryan Rose, 23, of Baltimore, who is charged with first-degree murder and attempted armed carjacking in the January 2006 killing of Warren Fleming, 31, outside the mall. The trial is rescheduled for April 7.

In her ruling, Souder cited problems with fingerprint evidence in a joint investigation conducted by Spanish and U.S. authorities.

After the March 11, 2004 terrorist bombing of commuter trains in Madrid, Spanish National Police recovered fingerprints from a plastic bag containing explosive detonators, but the FBI used the prints to misidentify a suspect in the case, Souder wrote.

That case is not alone, wrote Souder, lamenting the lack of the certainty with fingerprint evidence — which is not 100 percent reliable — especially in a death penalty case.

“For many centuries ... humans thought that the earth was flat,” the judge wrote, comparing fingerprint evidence to an old, discredited idea. “... But science has proved that the earth is not flat.”

Souder’s decision was immediately hailed by Rose’s defense attorneys, but Shellenberger and his prosecutors worried other judges might soon follow suit and eliminate the crucial form of evidence for police and prosecutors to use.

“How far does this go?” he asked. “In Baltimore County and the state of Maryland?”