Can you determine race from a fingerprint?

For years, forensic scientists have studied differences between latent fingerprints and have used this information to identify unique patterns. Now, a new study takes a closer look at the minutiae of fingerprints and has come to an astounding conclusion: latent prints can provide clues to a person’s race.

The study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology takes a new anthropological angle on a key identification method which may hold promise for law enforcement – and which has already attracted attention from several agencies, according to the researchers from North Carolina State University.

“By studying variation between groups, such as sexes and ancestry groups, on the basis of minutiae, this study provides information that is useful to latent fingerprint examiners,” said Nichole Fournier, lead author of the study, in an email to Forensic Magazine. “The results show that minutiae can tell us the probable ancestry of a person who leaves behind a latent fingerprint.”

The right index fingers of 243 individuals – split equally by gender, and between African-American and European-American backgrounds – were analyzed in the study. Level 1 details are pattern types and ridge counts.

But researchers focused on the Level 2 differences, which include bifurcations, where the ridge splits. These more-detailed factors were cross-referenced against the group’s identities. Gender did not result in significant differences in the prints – but race did, the scientists found.

“This is the first study to look at this issue at this level of detail, and the findings are extremely promising,” said Ann Ross, a North Carolina State professor of anthropology and the senior author of the study.

“But more work needs to be done,” Ross added. “We need to look at a much-larger sample size and evaluate individuals from more diverse ancestral backgrounds.”

The work, in part, answers the call of a scathing 2009 National Academy of Sciences report which called for further scientific research into forensic evidence collection and analysis, Fournier said. Fingerprints were one of the disciplines which were singled out in that report.

“Our study was in response to that call to action,” said Fournier.

Previous work by anthropologists had not been relevant to forensics because pattern type is not a trait used in fingerprint comparisons to identify latent prints at crime scenes, she added.

But now a more-complete picture of fingerprints could be coming into focus, Fournier said.

“This information is valuable evidence to corroborate the conclusion of a match based on a point-by-point comparison by a latent fingerprint examiner,” she said.

Other recent fingerprint advances have used mass spectrometry to hone in on trace amounts of material on the fingerprint, including narcotics, or hormones which could indicate gender. But they have not focused on the print pattern itself.

SOURCE: This article was first published by Forensic Magazine on 29 September 2015

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