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Early Cases Resulting in the Acceptance of Fingerprints

  • 1893 Argentina, June 19: In the small town of Necochea, two small children of young Francisca Rojas were murdered. Mrs. Rojas told the local police that she suspected a man named Velasquez who worked at a nearby ranch. Velasquez had threatened to kill the children when Mrs. Rojas, a widow, refused to marry him. Mrs. Rojas further stated that when she came home from work, Velasquez had run from her hut and passed her without a word. In the bedroom, she found her children dead. Velasquez was arrested and denied the murders. The police chief had him beaten then bound and laid beside the corpses for a night. After a full week of brutal interrogation, he still denied the crime. It was learned that Francisca had a young lover who had said that he would marry her only if she did not have the children. The suspicions of the police focused on the mother. Police Inspector Alvarez was sent from La Plata to investigate the matter. He established that Velasquez and Mrs. Rojas’s lover had been elsewhere at the time of the murder. In searching the scene of the crime, he observed bloody fingerprints on the door of the hut. He cut out two pieces of the door bearing the prints and, along with the known fingerprints of Mrs. Rojas and Velasques, sent them to the La Plata Central Identification Bureau and Juan Vucetich. The latent prints were identified as those of the mother and, when faced with this evidence, she confessed.
  • 1914 Canada: The first conviction in Canada based on fingerprint evidence took place. Peter Caracatch and Gregory Parachique broke into the CPR station in Petawawa, Ontario. Their fingerprints, left at the point of entry, were subsequently used to convict the offenders.
  • 1902 France: Joseph Reibel was found murdered in an apartment in Paris. In the drawing room, a glass door of a cabinet had been broken and on a portion of the remaining glass, several latent fingerprints were discovered. The investigation of the traces was assigned to Alphonse Bertillon who compared the latent prints with his anthropometric cards on which finger impressions were also recorded. Bertillon’s report read in part, “As this search was conducted with the greatest care it led to the discovery of a record card concerning one Henri Leon Scheffer, age 26, measured last March 9 as he was charged with theft and swindle, and whose fingerprints match remarkably those discovered at the crime scene.” As a result of this report, Scheffer’s photograph was recognized by several eyewitnesses and the culprit was eventually arrested in Marseille. He was brought to Paris where he was convicted in 1903.
  • 1897 India: The manager of a tea garden in Bengal was found murdered in his bedroom. The room was in great disarray and the safe rifled. Two brown smudges of fingerprints were found on a Bengali almanac. Upon examination at the Central Office in Calcutta, Sir Edward Henry found the prints to be those of Kangali Charan whose thumbprint had been recorded because of a prior theft conviction. Charan was now indicted for murder and theft at the Court of Session at Jalpaiguiri. Confronted with the novel type of evidence consisting of fingerprints only, and in the face of the defendant’s not-guilty plea, the court seemed sufficiently convinced of the worth of fingerprints to find Charan guilty of the theft charge, yet not quite willing to accept the evidence to substantiate a capital charge. The accused, Charan, was acquitted of murder.
  • 1911 United States: Chicago police arrested a man named Thomas Jennings for murder. Jennings had murdered a man when he had been caught attacking the man’s daughter. The evidence against Jennings was slim except for fingerprint evidence. The prosecution wanted to ensure the fingerprint evidence would be admitted before the Illinois Supreme Court, which had not previously ruled on the issue. To strengthen its case, the prosecution called several recognized fingerprint experts as witnesses. Among the expert witnesses was Mary E. Holland of Holland Detective Agency. As a result, Jennings was convicted and sentenced to hang on December 22, 1911.

The aforementioned cases serve to illustrate, as with any new technology, that test cases must establish the viability of evidence. Today we realize, without question, that fingerprints are one of the most damaging types of evidence that can be presented due to the individuality that can be established. In other words, fingerprints can be individualized to one source to the exclusion of all others.

There are certainly documented instances of other methods of identification being developed and implemented for such purposes as criminal or civil identification long before the systematic method of identifying and using fingerprints become widely used. To better understand the methodology of fingerprint science, its specificity, and its importance, a short examination of early methods of identification should be explored. Although widely used for many hundreds of years, how effective were early forms of identification? Was there the ability to authenticate a method of identification? Was that method of identification subject to peer review? Could the results be replicated? We have collectively learned that an effective means of identification is only as good as the practitioners and the methodology associated with that form of identification.

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