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Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification

3.5 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674010024
ISBN-10: 0674010027
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Cole's comprehensive first book investigates the tangled intersections of scientific identification and law enforcement, entering similar territory as Colin Beavan's Fingerprints (see review above), but with more rigorous detail and attention to historical ambiguities. Cole, with a Ph.D. in science and technology studies, describes how the anonymity of the growing cities introduced "identification as a problem without a solution" (prefigured by the 16th-century Martin Guerre case in which the suspect's identity remained in question after the conflicting testimonies of 150 of his townsmen), even as the need was developing to identify and isolate career criminals. Bertillonage, the foremost anthropometry (bodily measurement) system, was believed to be a breakthrough and persisted into the 1930s. Cole details decades of conflict and competition between Bertillon's advocates and those of the radical and haphazardly developing science of fingerprinting (which was initially envisioned for civil verification, e.g., for payrolls). Although successful prosecutions heralded the embrace of fingerprinting by the 1920s, controversy involving partial or single prints kept validity at bay. Furthermore, the lack of a single, central fingerprint database "made fingerprinting a somewhat empty promise," as did the incompatibility of competing fingerprinting systems. Political overtones surface as Cole tracks America's war on crime, beginning when J. Edgar Hoover unsuccessfully sought universal fingerprinting. Late chapters like "Fraud, Fabrication, and False Positives" address recent developments including the controversial certification process for fingerprint examiners, defense attorney attacks on examiner credibility or corruption, and what Cole portrays as the premature reliance on DNA typing and other new forms of biometric identification. Drier but more in-depth and exacting than Beavan's, this well-wrought history will be admired by scholars and serious lay readers. Photos and illus. (May 16)Forecast: For a smaller, more dedicated audience than Fingerprints, but the author has been garnering attention as an expert in the field: he's recently been interviewed by the Economist, Lingua Franca, the AP and the New York Times.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Most of us still think of fingerprint analysis as a kind of gold standard of criminal forensics, expressly developed as an indisputable means of catching the bad guy. Cole points out that these assumptions aren't necessarily warranted. Fingerprinting was initially utilized in British-ruled India and with Chinese immigrants in the United States simply to sort out people. Only later was it used for criminal identification and even later still as forensic evidence. For many years, it was secondary to the Bertillon system of anthropometric measurement as a method of identifying criminals. Finally, after a half-century as that forensic gold standard, it was called into question by issues of print forgery, incompetent examiners, and the methodology of latent print identification, allowing DNA typing to assume the role of a possible new forensic standard. A fascinating bit of social history but rough going for the lay reader in its technical discussions, this work by first-time author Cole is recommended for larger public and academic libraries. Jim Burns, Ottumwa P.L., IA
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 382 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 30, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674010027
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674010024
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,004,391 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
The book gives a historical overview of fingerprinting and why anthropometry was more inefficient for the police in the beginning of the 20th century. It furthermore is somewhat critical on the conclusions that are drawn in this field, and the limitations that exist. Also it discusses possibilities that suspects are not found in the database of fingerprints whereas the fingerprints are actually in it.
We see that more discussion on the use of fingerprints as evidence is available on the Internet, in literature and in court. It is always good to remain critical and in this way the book helps in the discussion. In my opinion more scientific research is needed in this field, which can help to have a good overview of limitations and acceptable use. The large finger print databases that exist certainly help to do more research
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Format: Hardcover
I looked forward to this book with much anticipation...perhaps too much, as I ended up being almost thoroughly disappointed.
First, let me say that Cole's research is by no means on the "cutting edge." Anyone who has done an extensive amount of reading or thinking on the subject of fingerprints should come to the simple conclusion that we do not currently have any way to back up the claim that no two prints are alike. Sure, in the off chance that we find two matching prints one day, the theory will be laid to rest - but without physical proof, theoretical proof cannot be created (in other words, there is no true mathematical or theoretical way to prove or disprove the theory of fingerprints). Some would say that the basis of a scientific theory is that it can be theoretically proven or disproven - hence, fingerprinting is not scientific. All I have to say to that is .... Duh. People have debated that point for dozens of years now.
One could give Cole a little credit for bringing up some lesser known but interesting points - eg, the origin of fingerprinting in Western society as a method to further segregate and identify social undesirables (an offshoot of methods based on race, class, mental health, etc.) But, still, this is not really anything new to those that have read the literature.
Additionally, he tends to make broad claims about what certain evidence means without bothering to back up his statements. More than any other of the techniques employed in the book, I found this the most frustrating of all...especially when he had just made a rather interesting and provocative statement, but which I was then unable to follow up on (either through a reference or a thorough logical argument on his part).
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By A Customer on January 22, 2002
Format: Hardcover
As is not often enough the case with academic writing, Simon Cole's book is at the very cutting edge of his discipline. Not two weeks ago, a court in Pennsylvania, after hearing testimony from Dr. Cole, held that fingerprint examiners would not be allowed to testify that a fingerprint from the crime scene "matches" that of the defendant. Calling fingerprint identification techniques subjective and scientifically unreliable, Judge Pollack raised the bar for fingerprint examiners. Simon Cole's fascinating book begins by discussing the history of criminal identification techniques, exploring both the scientific and sociological mores that influenced the development of these techniques. The book then analyzes, in detail, the science of fingerprint examination and identifies the many flaws and inconsistencies in its current application around the world. Suspect Identities puts the recent developments in our criminal justice system into perspective and provides the only source for this information. No other book on this topic provides such a clear, comprehensive and accurate accounting of both the history and the current state of fingerprint identification techniques.
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By A Customer on July 29, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Cole makes some good points along the way. It is unfortunate that fingerprint examiners in law enforcement rested on their laurels and let their work be divorced from the biological research that provides a very sound scientific basis for for fingerprint identification. It's also shameful that a *very few* erroneous or dishonest identifications have occurred as in the Shirley McKie case. HOWEVER, there are facts he doesn't mention. Thousands of "partial" latent prints have been searched against millions of records and never found to be identical to more than one person. There's an enormous amount of minute detail in a fingerprint that is completely randomly determined in utero. Identical twins' prints are probably the most scrutinized of all because of the test they pose for the uniqueness of fingerprints; they are ALWAYS different, even though their DNA is identical. By all means, if you are accused of a crime and there is fingerprint evidence, make sure there was no error or wrongdoing by the examiner. That's your right. But Simon Cole is not telling you all the facts. I find it especially galling that he implies fingerprinting is racist; in the culture of 100 years ago in which fingerprinting arose, virtually all institutions were tainted by racism. Like many sciences, it is only as good in practice as the people doing it.
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