Fingerprint Evidence Closes Cases

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Did you know that not one fingerprint is alike? Even identical twins do not share the exact same fingerprints. Would you believe that fingerprint evidence is even more reliable than DNA? “Obtaining full matching fingerprints is said to be a conclusive match, whereas getting full matching DNA profiles is said to have a match probability of ‘one in a billion’,” says DNA expert Graham Williams. “This means that DNA evidence, even at its strongest, still has room for doubt, whereas full matching fingerprints do not”.

Crime scene investigators and latent print examiners are called to crime scenes and/or to analyze fingerprint, foot soles and palm prints to help solve a range of crimes, from homicides to thefts. Often prints are latent, meaning they cannot be seen with the naked eye; instead they are collected with powders, sprays, lasers and other tools. Fingerprint examiners will either compare the distinctive ridge patterns to the prints of existing suspects or attempt to match the prints to those existing in a local or state database. If regional databases do not turn up a match, the next step is to search the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS).

The IAFIS was launched in 1999 and contains fingerprints, mug shots, criminal history files and information on distinguishing marks (such as tattoos) for over 70 million criminals or suspects. When fingerprints are submitted electronically to the IAFIS, the system is able to respond within 27 minutes on average! In 2010 alone, the IAFIS handled over 61 million fingerprint submissions.

Each year the FBI honors a forensics expert and/or law enforcement agent with the “Hit of the Year” award for their exemplary work in helping solve cases by using the IAFIS to match fingerprint evidence. This year’s winners were the Omaha Police Department’s Laura Casey (Senior Crime Laboratory Technician) and Detective Douglas Herout (Homicide Cold Case Squad). Their efforts ultimately led to solving a case more than three decades old.

In 1978, 61-year old Carroll Bonnett was stabbed to death in his apartment. When police officers responded to the scene they were able to collect both latent prints and palm prints from Bonnett’s bathroom. They also recovered a note presumably left by the suspect that said, “I am leaving this crime with one clue. Find it yourself. Die Pig.” The suspect had also stolen Bonnett’s vehicle and when it was recovered, investigators were able to recover additional fingerprints. At the time, however, all of the fingerprint repositories that the Omaha PD had access to did not generate a match.

Fast forward to 2008: The Omaha PD’s Cold Case squad contacted its crime lab to see if they could match the 30-year old fingerprints with the FBI’s IAFIS database. Senior Crime Lab Technician Casey was able to make a positive identification and named Jerry Watson as a prime suspect. As investigators looked through all the evidence, they located a “Thrifty Nickel” advertisement that had the name “Jerry W.” written on one of the pages; Detective Herout realized this must be the clue the suspect was referring to in his note.

Exactly 33 years ago to the day that Bonnett’s body was found by police (October 17, 2011), Jerry Watson was found guilty of first-degree murder.