Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification

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9780674004559: Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification

"No two fingerprints are alike," or so it goes. For nearly a hundred years fingerprints have represented definitive proof of individual identity in our society. We trust them to tell us who committed a crime, whether a criminal record exists, and how to resolve questions of disputed identity.

But in Suspect Identities, Simon Cole reveals that the history of criminal identification is far murkier than we have been led to believe. Cole traces the modern system of fingerprint identification to the nineteenth-century bureaucratic state, and its desire to track and control increasingly mobile, diverse populations whose race or ethnicity made them suspect in the eyes of authorities. In an intriguing history that traverses the globe, taking us to India, Argentina, France, England, and the United States, Cole excavates the forgotten history of criminal identification--from photography to exotic anthropometric systems based on measuring body parts, from fingerprinting to DNA typing. He reveals how fingerprinting ultimately won the trust of the public and the law only after a long battle against rival identification systems.

As we rush headlong into the era of genetic identification, and as fingerprint errors are being exposed, this history uncovers the fascinating interplay of our elusive individuality, police and state power, and the quest for scientific certainty. Suspect Identities offers a necessary corrective to blind faith in the infallibility of technology, and a compelling look at its role in defining each of us.

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About the Author:

Simon A. Cole is Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law and Society at University of California, Irvine.

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.

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