An Analysis of Fingerprint Identification

Published 16 Aug 2016

There was a time when recidivism was a serious social problem. The public was outraged and demanded that a strict policy be adopted against repeat offenders while leniency should be given to first-time offenders. (Katherine Schwinghammer, 2005, p.7) Linking of the accused to the crime scene and proving that he is a repeat offender is not an easy task. With the sophisticated tools available by which a person could escape being identified and the mobility of repeat offenders, they can easily transfer to another town and commit crimes without being identified as a repeat offender. There has to be a more efficient means by which the accused can be identified, link him conclusively to the crime scene and determine if he is a repeat-offender.

In view of the uniqueness of the human fingerprint, its permanence and the fact that it cannot be lost or stolen or transferred to any other person, it has been considered as an efficient tool in criminal investigation. This term paper traces the evolution and development of fingerprint identification including the previous methods of identification before it was utilized by law enforcement authorities. Also, its essential features, the fingerprint patterns, and the challenges to fingerprint identification will likewise be discussed

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Previous Methods of Identification

One of the first methods used for identifying suspects of crime was photography. Photographs of the faces of the suspects were taken and filed in what law enforcement officers called the “rouges’ gallery.”In view of the increasing number of photographs taken, it became impractical for law enforcement officers to collect these photographs and other methods have to be used. By 1870, law enforcement officers in Britain began recording tattoos, scars and other distinctive marks. But this also proved impractical considering the difficulty of making this data available to other law enforcement officers. In France, police officials experimented on certain body measurements as a means of identifying suspect in crime. This system which was devised by Alphonse Bertillon was accepted for three decades until the case of Will West. Will West was convicted with the use of measurements Bertillon’s system but it was later on found out that there was another prisoner, William West who at the time had almost identical measurements as Will West. This placed Bertillon’s system in serious question.

Early History of Fingerprint Identification

Historically, fingerprints have fascinated professors and scholars even before the 17th Century. It was however only in 1856 that the use of fingerprints for personal identification has been discovered serendipitously by Sir William Herschel. Herschel entered into an agreement with a local businessman. In the process he required him, aside from signing his signature to the contract to impress his handprint on it. He thought that this provided him with additional guaranty that the other party will not repudiate his signature. Later on, he began requiring everyone he enters into contract with to impress their hands on it. Subsequently, he realized that every fingerprint on his contract was different. He conceived of the idea that this could later on be used for identification purposes. Dr Henry Faulds picked up from Herschel. Thinking that fingerprint may later on be used for identification of an accused, he devised a means for classifying them. Because of the lack of support from the scientific community, he abandoned his project. His contribution was he was among those who proposed that every fingerprint is not just different but every fingerprint is unique. At this early stage, Faulds already foresaw the possibility a using the ten-print fingerprint sets as means of identifying criminals. This is very much similar to that used by Bertillion in France wherein certain anthropometric measurements were used to identify criminals.

The first recorded case where fingerprint was used for purposes of criminal identification happened in India. In this case, a fingerprint was found at the crime scene involving murder and burglary. When this fingerprint was compared to that of the servant, by Indian police and were convinced that there was a match. It is noteworthy that in this case no expert witness was presented in court and that no evidence was presented to prove that there could not be some other fingerprint similar to that found at the crime scene. According to Katherine Schwinghammer (2005), “Police used the method of comparison outlined-but never actually practiced-by Galton: they matched ridge characteristics between the bloody print and the inked print from their records. Having matching eighteen such characteristics, the police concluded the print belonged to the servant suspected of the crime.”

Identification of Fingerprints in the US

In the United States, fingerprint identification was first used in the case of People v. Jennings. This was also the first case where the admissibility of Fingerprint Identification was tested. Jennings’ fingerprints were found on a freshly painted railing at the victim’s house in addition to other incriminating evidence against him. Four fingerprint witnesses were testified declaring that they all have extensive knowledge of fingerprints and have been trained and exposed to fingerprints for many years. They also testified to the fact that they had found fourteen “points of identity” on the print left by the suspect at the crime scene and that of Jennings. When Jennings objected to the admissibility of fingerprint witness testimony, the court ruled that the evidence is admissible since this method of identification has been accepted and commonly used in England since 1891 where cases have been solved without any error.

It must be noted herein that this case was the first to take judicial notice of the uniqueness of fingerprints. This was done by the court despite the absence of any formal analysis instead, the court merely accepted the long line of cases of its British predecessors.

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