The role of Fingerprints in Cold Cases is a guest blog post written by Richard Mark Case. He is a registered UK “Fingerprint Expert” and has gracefully agreed to a guest post for DCC. This blog post contains his own personal views and may not reflect those held by the National Policing Improvement Agency or The Fingerprint Society. You can follow Richard @TrickyCase and The Fingerprint Society @fpsociety on Twitter.
“Fingerprints” can be a very misleading title, as the role of an expert is to analyse and compare any area of friction ridge skin. Friction ridge skin is the harder skin that covers the inner hands and soles of the feet. If you look carefully at these areas you will notice that the skin is covered in elevated lines (ridges) that are interrupted by natural pauses and deviations (characteristics), which form the basis of identification.
Fingerprints has been established as a police tool for personal identification for well over a century and is recognised internationally as the most reliable and efficient way to identify prisoners. This is because DNA cannot yet distinguish between identical siblings and the process of obtaining a DNA profile takes much longer. The majority of law enforcement agencies use static or mobile technology to obtain fingerprints from persons and search databases of millions of people to establish identity within a couple of minutes.
As you can imagine a Crime Scene Investigator will find hundreds of fingerprints, palm prints and even footprints from a major crime scene, especially if the scene is indoors. Therefore, the key is to find the prints that are more likely to be those of the offender(s) and those that are likely to prove guilt. The ones that would take priority are those that are found on a weapon or areas of specific interest to the crime. Also if a visible print is left in a victim’s blood, then this would add significant weight to a prosecution case. Unfortunately, most crime scene prints are invisible are require specialist development techniques (e.g. powders and chemicals) to render them visible.
The first homicide that was solved using fingerprints in the UK was in the year 1905 in Deptford, London. The case involved the robbery of cash from a shop and the murder of the shopkeepers, Mr. And Mrs. Farrow. A sergeant from the recently formed Fingerprint Branch in Scotland Yard, Charles Stockley Collins, was summoned to the scene; where he found a thumb print on a cash box. That print did not belong to the shopkeepers or the police officers who were present at the scene. A manual search of the fingerprint files in Scotland Yard showed that the print belonged to an Alfred Stratton, who was later convicted and hanged for the murders, together with his brother Albert.
In a matter of pure coincidence… a couple of years ago whilst researching my family history, I found that Stockley Collins, who later went on to head the Fingerprint Branch, is my first cousin (4 times removed). I am very proud to have found a link to a man who was very influential in the early years of the profession in the UK.
As in the Stratton case, it is often the first task to try to identify crime scene prints with persons who have had legitimate access to the crime scene; although it must be borne in mind that the vast majority of murders are carried out by persons known by the victim. Therefore, it is very important to assess any “eliminated” marks in terms of their relevance to the case.
In the years before you could load prints into a computerised system, it was often a very laborious and time consuming task to check every fingerprint form / card in the local collections for a match. Especially as criminals are very rarely kind enough to leave more than a few scraps of prints for you to work with… but in the most serious of cases this would need to be done if there were no obvious suspects.
It was not beyond the realms of possibility that the culprit would have ever been “fingerprinted” by the police prior to the offence being committed; where the crime was committed impulsively. We have all heard on TV news reports, neighbours saying when a person is arrested for murder, “I would never have imagined it, he (or she) is such a quiet person”. In these cases, if print is found that has been attributed to the offender and cannot be readily matched, the decision can be made to take the fingerprints of an entire town in order to find the person responsible.
The most famous case in the UK to use this technique was in the town of Blackburn in 1948. The murder of a 3 year-old girl, June Anne Devaney, was found murdered in the ground of the local hospital where she was a patient. The police mass fingerprinted the entire male population of Blackburn (over 46,000 sets) before the culprit, Peter Griffiths was caught. Griffiths was convicted and hanged for the offence.
In relation to investigating cold cases, there are a number of options open:
- Compare the marks in the case against any new suspects that have come to notice.
- Search unidentified marks against computerised systems that were not available when the enquiry was live.
- Subject any retained exhibits to new techniques that could potentially yield new marks.
The main drawback is that the original crime scenes would not be available to conduct any new fingerprint development techniques in those locations.
Science will often hold the only key in unlocking cold cases as the memory of victims, witnesses and investigators have begun to fade. Therefore it is crucial that any exhibits recovered are properly retrieved and stored so that one day they can reveal the evidence they have held for so long, waiting for scientists to uncover their truth.
I applaud this website and its visitors for allowing like minded people to collaborate and discuss issues around cold cases and inject some interest back into the investigations, so that justice can one day be achieved for the victims that have somehow been forgotten.
My only cautionary note though, is that it is very difficult for experts like myself to be able to comment on cases that are still potentially live and could one day form part of a prosecution; as we don’t have access to the original case files or exhibits; so it is unwise to second guess, contradict or disagree with decisions that have been made by those who are directly involved in the case; as it could have a negative impact on any future court case. What I am prepared to offer you is my knowledge on fingerprint matters and its potential to be used in unsolved cases.
Good luck to all participants in Defrosting Cold Cases and its associated #cclivechat discussions on Twitter, and I wish you success in your pursuit for justice.