In the early 1930’s, L.E. Johnson was charged with breaking and entering a theater in Cabell County and stealing a $1,000 in goods and equipment. How could Johnson be placed at the scene of the crime? By the presence of a small fingerprint. The state presented an expert who testified that the marks and swirls of a fingerprint left at the scene were consistent with Johnson’s own fingerprint. But was that enough? Could the expert’s testimony be received in a criminal trial as proof of Johnson’s guilt?
It seems like an odd question to ask–especially in a generation, like ours, that is so saturated with CSI-inspired television that scientific tests and experiments are considered commonplace. But in the 1930’s fingerprint identification was still new. It was up to the courts to determine if this was cutting edge science or quackery.
In his opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court, Justice Woods pointed out that fingerprints had been used as a means of identification as far back as the Egyptian pharoahs. Furthermore, the scientific basis for identifying fingerprints was by then established and well accepted. Could mistakes be made? Yes, they could, but “[m]istakes may also occur in effecting identification by personal appearance, casual meeting, by handwriting, or by one’s voice heard in the dark or over the telephone.” It was up to the jury to weigh all the evidence for itself, including the fingerprint evidence, and to arrive at a fair verdict.
In this world of ever-changing, ever-improving technology, these same kinds of issues still arise. New scientific tests and theories are being developed at breakneck speed. But are they all admissible? Under our system, it is the courts that must stand as gatekeepers. It’s their job to determine if scientific evidence is reasonably grounded and properly applied before greenlighting it to go to the jury.
There will always be new discoveries clamoring for a place in our courtrooms. Nearly 85 years ago it was fingerprints. What could it possibly be tomorrow?
State v. Johnson, 111 W.Va. 653, 164 S.E. 31 (1932)