Orlando Sentinel

Are innocent imprisoned? Fingerprint errors found
A massive review starts after a Seminole sheriff's expert bungled 2 cases.
Rene Stutzman
Sentinel Staff Writer

May 4, 2007

SANFORD -- State officials are reviewing hundreds of criminal cases because a fingerprint expert at the Seminole County Sheriff's Office botched at least two cases, including one involving a homicide.

Prosecutors are scrambling to figure out whether innocent people may have been sent to prison.

They dropped a burglary case Monday because the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded that the expert, Donna Birks, was wrong to say a fingerprint found on a stolen wallet belonged to the defendant.

The print was smudged and could not be adequately identified, according to a follow-up analysis by FDLE.

In the other case, FDLE said Birks misidentified a print found on a shell casing at the scene of a 2006 Altamonte Springs homicide. There have been no arrests in that case.

Birks, an 11-year department employee, has been suspended with pay.

Sheriff's Lt. Dennis Lemma said Thursday that the agency's fingerprint section, which has one part-time and three full-time employees, is under investigation. A second employee, Tara Williamson, who "verified" at least one of Birks' bad calls, is no longer handling fingerprints, he said.

FDLE confirmed that it had begun a review of Birks' work but would not provide details.

Lemma said the Sheriff's Office initially decided to send 272 cases -- those in which Birks' print analysis was the sole piece of physical evidence against a suspect -- to FDLE. That agency has finished work on about 35 of them, he said.

But the Sheriff's Office has now decided to go deeper, Lemma said, and plans to send FDLE every case in which Birks made a print identification. He did not know how many that is.

Exactly what went wrong is unclear. Lemma said there is no evidence that Birks maliciously misidentified people, but he could not offer more information.

The internal investigation began with a complaint from a co-worker, Lemma said. He did not know that person's name, but the individual on March 26 told supervisors that Birks had made a positive identification from a print that was impossible to read.
Prosecutors have begun their own review, trying to determine just how many of their criminal cases Birks had worked.

"There could be the possibility of someone being imprisoned wrongly," said Chris White, head of the State Attorney's Office in Seminole.

He said Birks had made print identifications in about 75 cases in which the defendant wound up in prison. His office has sent letters to defense lawyers in those cases, letting them know there may be a problem. But Birks also had done fingerprint analysis in about 800 other criminal cases, he said.

"We're spending a whole lot of time and energy over something you'd hope would never have to be done," White said.

Lemma said the Sheriff's Office has found no evidence so far that any innocent person has gone to prison.

Since the early 1900s, fingerprints have been considered a gold standard of evidence, proof positive that an offender was at the scene of a crime, and they often are the key piece of evidence that sends someone to prison.

But in most cases, there is other evidence, such as an eyewitness, a confession or a DNA sample.

It was unclear Thursday evening how many cases hinged solely on Birks' identifications.

Misidentifications are "very, very rare," said Jimmy Chilcutt, a Texas fingerprint expert who has handled cases for 18 years.

When there is a mistake, it's usually because the print was fouled at the scene, and the analyst mistook a piece of dirt as a ridge, he said.

Sometimes, he said, print experts make errors because they're tired, overworked or under pressure to make a positive identification.

Birks, though, did not appear to be the kind of person who would stretch evidence to win a conviction, said Mira Berry, a longtime Sanford defense attorney. Berry is the lawyer who represented the suspected burglar whose case was dropped because of Birks' misidentification.

Berry said Birks would sometimes help defendants by confirming through fingerprints that prior crimes used to calculate their sentence had been committed by someone else.

In recent days, the Public Defender's Office in Sanford has seen a steady flow of letters from prosecutors warning about the problem.

"Having been in law enforcement, things like this are troublesome," said Judy Kinney, a former FBI and FDLE agent who heads the office. "Kind of wonder how it slipped through the cracks, don't you?"

Rene Stutzman can be reached at 407-324-7294 or rstutzman@orlandosentinel.com.

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