Justice: Denied -- The Magazine for the Wrongly Convicted




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It's About Time!

Fred Woodworth's Questioning Of Fingerprint Evidence Is Long Overdue
By Hans Sherrer

John Stoppelli's tale of woe is told in Never Plead Guilty, the 1955 biography of the late San Francisco defense lawyer, Jake Ehrlich.(1)

In the late forties four men were arrested and twelve envelopes of heroin seized during a raid on an Oakland, California hotel room. A "ring" fingerprint was found on one of the envelopes. After searching through the Bureau of Internal Revenue's (now IRS) national fingerprint database of known criminals, an agency "expert" decided it matched the print of John Stoppelli, a New York hoodlum.

That identification conflicted, however, with the failure of the four arrested men to implicate Mr. Stoppelli, and his claim that on the day of the raid he had registered with his probation officer in New York City, 3,000 miles from Oakland. He was nevertheless indicted for drug trafficking.

Although the only evidence linking him to the drugs was the fingerprint "expert's" testimony implying the odds were six billion to one the "ring" fingerprint found on the envelope wasn't his, the jury found him guilty on the first ballot. At his sentencing, Jake Ehrlich argued for leniency, citing the evidence of John Stoppelli's innocence, and by stating: "I say he [the fingerprint expert] made a mistake. I say he is not the expert we were lewd to believe." The judge was unmoved and sentenced Mr. Stoppelli to six years in federal prison.

John Stoppelli lost all of his appeals, even though he had obtained affidavits from the four men arrested when the envelopes were seized that he had nothing to do with the drugs, and the Supreme Court refused to review his case.

As a last resort, Jake Ehrlich called in a favor and the FBI laboratory compared the lone fingerprint on the envelope with John Stoppelli's. It reported that although they had similarities, they didn't match. His claim of innocence vindicated, Mr. Stoppelli sought a new trial. His request was denied on the ground the FBI report wasn't "new" evidence, but was a reevaluation of the "old" fingerprint evidence. Stymied by the court's refusal to throw out his wrongful conviction, John Stoppelli sought, and was granted a commutation of his sentence by President Truman after he has served two years of his sentence.

Fred Woodworth explains in the following articles some of the reasons why a more detailed examination of John Stoppelli's fingerprint and that on the envelope exonerated him after an erroneous evaluation caused his wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

In 1949, about the same time as the Stoppelli case, Sam Epstein wrote The Riddle of the Stone Elephant. In one passage, a fingerprint analyst needed to have two fingerprints enlarged to a height of two feet in order to determine they didn't match. Mr. Woodworth read that book as a child in 1956.

As an adult Mr. Woodworth became involved in the printing industry. Recalling the mention in Mr. Epstein's book that fingerprints appearing to be the same could actually be different, he was inspired to apply his intimate knowledge of reproducing images with ink to explain the mechanics of fingerprinting.

The articles that follow are the result of Mr. Woodworth's investigation. They are ground breaking in their revelation that fingerprint interpretation is more akin to an intuitive black art than based on scientific certainty. A fingerprint evaluation is influenced by such personal factors as the interpreter's prejudices, foibles, knowledge and mood, as well as any outside pressures that may impel him or her to arrive at a predetermined result. Consequently, it is a misplaced belief that fingerprint analysts have a near Godlike infallibility. However, because there is a widespread attitude of deference in out society toward anything labeled as scientific, prosecutors and police are able to wield an incorrect evaluation of evidence by an "expert" as a weapon of persecution against an innocent person, such as happened to John Stoppelli.

Since Mr. Woodworth first published his extraordinary conclusion in 1997, at least two magazines have published articles expressing similar views. The author of one of those articles, Simon Cole, recently had his book on the subject, Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Investigation, published by Harvard University Press.

Untold numbers of innocent people have been wrongly convicted along with John Stoppelli, by an incorrect fingerprint evaluation. Like other investigative processes involving physical evidence, such as DNA testing, fingerprint analysis is a subjective method of excluding, not including criminal suspects. We can be thankful that Fred Woodworth is helping to open the door for this overrated form of evidence to be viewed with a critical eye by judges and juries before they falsely condemn someone as a criminal.

1 Never Plead Guilty: The Story of Jake Ehrlich, John Wesley Noble and Bernard Averbuch, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, N.Y., 1955, pp. 295-298

The Opening Salvo - Beginning of Introduction By Fred Woodworth

A Printer Looks at Fingerprints By Fred Woodworth

Justice Denied

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