I was approached in early May by @pagankennedy to answer a few questions on fingerprints to assist in an article she was authoring for the New York Times Magazine.
I was pleased to co-operate once I had the permission from my bosses at the National Policing Improvement Agency.
The article was published today (8th June 2012) and can be read at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/magazine/who-made-those-fingerprints.html.
The article itself is not as critical of fingerprinting as a lot of what makes the press in these DNA idolising times, though I am surprised Detective Tufft believes DNA evidence trumps Fingerprints.
Fingerprints are still recovered at more crime scenes than DNA as it is cheaper to process; it is still the only way to distinguish between identical siblings and is by far more difficult to transfer or contaminate than DNA… so if an offenders DNA was found on a cigarette butt outside a murder scene, but their fingerprints were found in the victims blood on the murder weapon… then as an investigator, I know what evidence I would class as more crucial!
As I fully expected, a lot of what I contributed was edited out (which is certainly no criticism of the journalist), but I am happy to share with you the full text I submitted:
What are the basic steps used today to capture a fingerprint at the crime scene? The first task for a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI) at a scene is to find the fingerprints; and although sometimes they can be visible to the human eye if they are left in substances such as dirt, clay, ink or blood; very often they are invisible as they are deposited as a layer of sweat from the ridges on the hand.
These can be ‘visualized’ by applying specialist powders or chemicals. It is then necessary for the CSI to record the fingerprint impressions that they find. This is commonly done by either photographing the prints in-situ, or using specialist gels and tapes to ‘lift’ the prints and attach them to a plastic sheet.
The CSI is then required to transmit these prints to their Latent Print Unit (Fingerprint Office) for comparison, or a computerized search. This is often facilitated by hand delivery, though more and more agencies are starting to use digital technology to capture and directly transmit crime scene prints, which generates more speedy matches and arrests.
Do forensics analysts still use the old-style language (loops, whorls) to talk about prints? Or has that all been done away with, in the era of computerized scanners? Although computerization has assisted the Latent Print Examiner (Fingerprint Expert) in finding possible matches, most fingerprint systems still rely on a human to make the final decision on whether a match has been found; and there are still many occasions whereby an expert will be required to examine a large number of prints.
On these occasions the expert will often use pattern types (arches, loops and whorls etc.) to include or exclude candidates from a more detailed comparison.
So yes, these terms that have been used in the profession for over 100 years are still used worldwide on a daily basis.
Your ancestor Charles Stockley Collins was the first person to introduce fingerprint evidence in the British court. Could you say a little about that case and/or the technical innovations that allowed him to use this kind of evidence? Fingerprints were used as a secondary means to identify habitual criminals in Great Britain since 1894, but the development of a classification system at the turn of the 20th century by Edward Henry (latterly Sir Edward Henry), with a significant contribution from his Indian assistants Aziz ul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose enabled them to be the most effective and efficient way to identify persons (which is still is) and paved the way to the creation of a Fingerprint Bureau at Scotland Yard.
This Bureau was initially staffed by Henry, Inspector Charles Steadman, Sergeant Charles Stockley Collins and Constable Frederick Hunt.
It wasn’t too long before they started to pay more attention to fingerprints found at crime scenes and there are two cases that are remembered in the history books.
The first ever fingerprint evidence presented in a British court was in 1902 in the case of a burglary of a home in Denmark Hill, London where ivory billiard balls were stolen. Fingerprints were found on a newly painted window sill. These scene prints matched fingerprints in Scotland Yard’s files in the name of Harry Jackson. Mr Jackson was convicted of the offence on the strength of that fingerprint evidence.
The next notable case was that of the first fingerprint evidence in a British murder trial. Two shopkeepers, Mr and Mrs Farrow were brutally killed during a robbery at the shop where they lived and worked. Fingerprints were located on a cashbox from which money had been stolen and were matched to an Alfred Stratton. Alfred was arrested for the murders together with his brother Albert, both of whom were convicted and sentenced to death. The fingerprint evidence in both these cases was presented by Charles Stockley Collins whose confident and expert testimony assured that fingerprints would be accepted as a reliable form of forensic evidence in British courts.
I was astounded to uncover recently that I have a family connection to Stockley Collins, who is my first cousin, four times removed. This had no conscious bearing on my career choice; but it has given me added respect and pride for some of the people who have been able to pioneer and develop the use of fingerprints to aid crime solving.
Please feel free to add your personal comments here and / or on the NY Times website.