When I think of fingerprint evidence, I vision the old, wise detective walking around a crime scene with his large magnifying lens looking for the one clue to solve the crime. Sherlock Holmes comes to mind. Surprisingly, my experience has been that fingerprints are rarely used in the evidence collection phase of a modern criminal case. There are some good reasons why ole Sherlock has been retired.
Since the late 1980s, DNA testing has been at the forefront of modern forensic practice. It has greatly assisted in solving crimes and has exonerated wrongly convicted people. DNA evidence is not the magic bullet for prosecutors in every case. However, when it is properly admitted at trial, it can be devastating for the defense. Juries believe in this highly reliable scientific evidence.
DNA is also easily collectible in most circumstances. Each day, we all leave behind pieces of our DNA as we go to work, travel, and go about our daily routines. Our DNA, the blueprint of our biological makeup, can be collected by obtaining hair fibers, saliva, blood, and other bodily fluids. It is the most compelling evidence in a criminal prosecution when it is available.
Contrary to popular belief, you cannot obtain useable fingerprint evidence every time a person touches an object. Forensic investigators still dust for prints in places where a suspect may have placed his or her hand. However, the quality of the prints can vary greatly depending on the surface that was touched.
For instance, if a person touched some items that were made of cloth or some other soft material, it would be very difficult to obtain any fingerprints at all. Good fingerprint data is usually obtained from hard, consistent surfaces like glass, metal and counter tops. Even then, the officer may only be able to get a partial print. Many of these are unusable.
You may also have a surface with some great fingerprints. However, if numerous people have touched the surface, you will find overlapping prints. This can also be unusable. In property theft cases, you may even find that the victim actually has more prints on their property than a suspect.
Sherlock Holmes would be proud to know that fingerprint evidence still has its place in the business of solving crimes. In fact, there was a recent case in Gwinnett County where fingerprints were actually more important than DNA.
In Gwinnett Superior Court, Ronald Smith was charged with murder. Instead of taking responsibility for the crime (although he confessed at one point), he blamed his twin brother, Donald for the shooting. Since both men shared the exact same DNA makeup, this type of evidence was not particularly useful to the District Attorney. However, police were able to obtain usable fingerprint evidence during the investigation. The fingerprints matched Ronald Smith’s prints. Although identical twins share identical DNA, the one thing they don’t have is identical fingerprints. Ronald Smith was convicted by a jury for murder.
While fingerprint evidence has certainly lost some clout in the world of modern crime scene investigation, good detectives will use all forms of legal methods to collect evidence. You never know when that little used, and often very small piece of evidence, becomes the “smoking gun” in a criminal case.
Swindle is a local attorney at law.