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NYPD Fingerprint Error Sparks Demand for Independent Probe of Crime Lab, Case Reviews

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By Graham Rayman
New York Daily News

(The New York Daily News) A revelation that the NYPD failed to disclose a serious error eight years ago by a leading detective in its high-profile fingerprint lab has led to calls for a top-to-bottom independent review of the unit and a move by prosecutors across New York City to assess any potential fallout. online news

In 2015, Det. Gerald Rex of the NYPD’s Latent Print Section verified a colleague’s match linking a man to a crime based on fingerprints collected as evidence in the case. But the man identified as a suspect was in a psychiatric institution when the crime occurred — making it impossible for him to have committed it. Authorities have not disclosed the suspect’s name.

The verification error remained secret until the NYPD notified local prosecutors and the state Forensic Science Commission earlier this year.

“It’s simply unconscionable that the NYPD dragged its feet for more than eight years before publicly disclosing these egregious errors,” said Jessica Goldthwaite, staff attorney with the DNA Unit at The Legal Aid Society.

The revelation has triggered a reviews of more than 50 cases by the DA’s offices, mainly in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

“This moment demands a thorough review of the Latent Print Unit by an outside independent authority to determine the full extent of both misidentifications and misleading testimony,” Goldthwaite said.

An NYPD spokesman countered that Rex’s work has been reviewed and that the department “has not found any discrepancies or need to take any additional action.”

Latent finger and palm prints are left by skin’s sweat and oil and are invisible to the naked eye.

Rex has testified in at least two federal criminal trials that he had never misidentified a latent print, court records show. Because the records of the errant 2015 case were sealed to public view, it is unclear exactly who within the DA’s offices or the NYPD was aware of the error, and when they learned of it.

Citing lab scandals elsewhere, Emily Prokesch of the New York State Defenders Association said the error and delay in disclosure suggest a nationwide problem in the handling of fingerprint evidence.

The Department of Forensic Science in Washington, D.C., lost accreditation in 2021 for covering up errors. Labs in Houston and Austin also had scandals that only emerged fully with outside review. There was also the Brandon Mayfield case, in which the FBI botched a latent print identification and wound up wrongfully arresting an Oregon professor as a suspect in the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

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“What those cases tell us is when there is a mistake like this, and an outside investigation happens, we often learn this is the tip of the iceberg,” said Prokesch, leader of the Defenders Association’s discovery and forensic support team.

In New York, Erie County, the city of Niagara, and New York City’s Medical Examiner’s lab have also had controversies.

“It’s part of a broader culture where there is a lack of transparency and oversight about what happens in the lab,” Prokesch said.

Rex, 49, joined the NYPD in 1996 and retired in 2019 as a detective second grade. He has testified he trained at least 12 other NYPD latent print examiners between 2017 and 2019, records show.

After his retirement in 2019, he founded his own consulting company, Rex Forensics. He did not reply to emails from The News.

The controversy over the misidentification spilled into public view during a Sept. 22 meeting of the Forensic Science Commission, which oversees crime labs across New York state.

Lt. Rosalyn Joseph and Dr. Scott O’Neill, both of the NYPD Crime Lab, testified they were still looking into why the 2015 error had not been previously disclosed.

“There was a 2015 misidentification by a Det. [Joseph] Martinez that was verified by Dets. Rex and [Edward] Sanabria,” O’Neill testified. “It was determined that the person could not have done [the crime].”

Joseph and O’Neill testified they did internal checks of 53 cases handled by the detectives since 2015 and found no other mistakes.

Joseph testified that the staffers reanalyzing those cases were aware of the original findings — even though blind verification of prints is often recommended to minimize errors.

Joseph said the department did not notify the National Accreditation Board, which sets standards for crime labs around the country, of the error before the latent print unit received the organization’s coveted accreditation in 2019.

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Goldthwaite, a commission member, put into the record testimony Rex gave in the 2017 bank robbery trial of Andre Calix in which he claimed never to have made a misidentification.

“Det. Rex has testified under oath that he has never made an error in a latent print identification, so I’ll read it to you,” she said.

According to the trial transcript, Rex stated he was lead instructor for NYPD latent print specialists and had examined “hundreds of thousands” of prints but never made a misidentification.

“No, I have not,” Rex testified.

Calix was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.

Other panel members cut off Goldthwaite as she started reading from the Calix transcript. But Goldthwaite stood her ground. “I can absolutely share it,” she said.

“There is a very serious problem here,” Goldthwaite added. She noted that Rex testified he had appeared in courts as a witness 27 times since 2017.

Not discussed at the Sept. 22 hearing was another trial at which Rex also testified as to the accuracy of his work, saying he’d never misidentified a latent print. That was the 2016 trial of Shameke Walker in Brooklyn Federal Court on armed robbery charges.

“I am the latent print instructor. The sole instructor, actually,” Rex testified in Walker’s case, a court transcript shows. “Anyone that is new that comes into the unit would have to pass through my course first.”

Walker was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

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Goldthwaite suggested at the Sept. 22 hearing that the NYPD bring in outside experts to check over the latent print lab’s work.

Joseph rejected that idea.

“No,” she said. “Because my examiners are capable of doing it.”

Panel member Dr. Jill Dooley also appeared to shoot down the idea. “They are not doing anything I think that is egregious,” she said.

“Maybe not, but we don’t know,” Goldthwaite countered.

Prokesch called the effort to hush up Goldthwaite “shocking but not surprising.”

“It goes to this knee jerk reaction of ‘Let’s not expose anything until we decide how to contain it,’” she said.

Sarah Chu, a forensics expert with the Perlmutter Center for Legal Justice at Cardozo Law School, said the controversy begs for independent review.

“A false positive is considered a nearly catastrophic event in the forensics community,” said Chu, director of policy and reform. “If you want to understand what led to the error, you have to go backward in time.”

Chu noted that federal funding for crime labs require they have a process for external independent investigations when there is a serious error.

“If the NYPD implements reform policies and procedures in the wake of this misidentification, blind control testing should be on the table,” she added.

Janine Kava, a spokeswoman for forensic panel, said Friday it had yet to decide whether to direct the NYPD to take further action but may take up the matter again at its Dec. 15 meeting.

Meanwhile, local district attorneys are conducting their own reviews. Spokesmen for the U.S. Attorney officers in Brooklyn and Manhattan declined comment.

Asked why it took eight years for the error to be disclosed, the NYPD spokesman declined to say.

“We continually review procedures associated with the analysis of latent prints to maintain the highest standards of review and oversight,” the spokesman said.

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