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Fingerprints and Forensics

Updated on October 1, 2011

Fingerprint evidence first began featuring in trials at the beginning of the 20th century. At last, law enforcement had a seemingly foolproof way of identifying criminals. Europe was quick to embrace the revolutionary technique – in September 1902, Harry Jackson, a London burglar who stole some billiard balls, became the first person in the world to be convicted on the basis of fingerprint testimony alone – but across the Atlantic it was a different story. Here the courts were far more suspicious of the new technology. In 1906 the NYPD did use fingerprints to identify a hotel burglar, but the evidence played no part at his trial. So while Europe surged ahead, America was left languishing in the forensic doldrums. But all that would change on one violent night in the mid-West.

A typical fingerprint
A typical fingerprint

Shocking Murder

On September 19, 1910, Clarence B. Hiller, chief clerk with the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific railway, was asleep at his home on West 104th Street, Chicago. With him in the house were his wife and four children. Shortly after 2 A.M., Mrs. Hiller was disturbed by a noise. She noticed that a gas-lamp at the top of the stairs was out and awoke her husband. He stumbled out groggily to investigate.

At the top of the staircase Hiller encountered a stranger. The two men began to grapple. In the ensuing struggle both tumbled down the stairs. Moments later Mrs. Hiller heard two shots, then her husband's faint call for help. This was followed by the slamming of the front door. At the foot of the stairs, Mrs. Hiller found the lifeless body of her husband, lying in a pool of blood. He had been killed almost instantly by one shot to the neck and another that had transfixed his heart.

The Investigation Begins

A neighbor, John C. Pickens, alarmed by the shooting and the woman's screams, came at the double. Coincidentally, his son, Oliver, was talking to a policeman, Floyd Beardsley, just a short distance away at the time. Both had heard the shots and arrived in seconds.

Beardsley quickly assessed the situation. He heard how the killer, holding a lighted match at waist level so that his face remained in shadow, had first entered the bedroom of daughter, Clarice Hiller, 15. From there he had crept into the bedroom of her 13-year-old sister, Florence and attempted to molest her. Too terrified to cry out, Florence froze and the intruder backed away. The next thing she heard was her father on the landing. Moments later the fatal struggle began.

Press coverage of the trial
Press coverage of the trial

An examination of the crime scene revealed particles of sand and gravel near the foot of Florence's bed. There were also three unused cartridges near the body. These were the early days of crime-scene processing and it was decided to leave a more thorough search until daylight. Even before it began, however, a suspect had already been in custody for several hours, arrested on wholly unrelated charges.

At approximately 2.40 A.M., on Vincennes Road, about three-quarters of a mile east of the murder scene, four off-duty officers were waiting for a streetcar when they noticed a man skulking along, glancing furtively behind him. When challenged and told to empty his pockets, the stranger, who was sweating profusely, handed over a loaded .38 revolver. He gave his name as Thomas Jennings. There were fresh bloodstains on his clothing and he had injured his left arm; both the result, he said, of having fallen from a streetcar earlier that night.

Recently Paroled

Skeptical of Jennings's story, the officers took him to the station, which, by now, was buzzing with news of the Hiller murder. Immediately the wounded man became a prime suspect, especially when it was learned that just a few weeks earlier he had been freed from Joliet State Penitentiary after serving time for burglary.

Records showed that on August 16, just two weeks after being released, Jennings had purchased the .38 revolver under an assumed name and in violation of his parole. The five remaining cartridges in the chamber were found to be identical to the shell cases lying next to Clarence Hiller's body. Jennings claimed not to have fired the gun since owning it, but the smell of fresh smoke and burned powder in two chambers of the cylinder suggested otherwise. (This was later corroborated by a gunsmith.) A physician named Dr. Clement, who examined Jennings's injuries, doubted they had occurred in a fall from a streetcar. The circumstantial evidence against Jennings began to mount up, when sand – very similar to that recovered from the crime scene – was found in his shoes.

Detectives learned that earlier that night someone had also broken into a neighbor's residence and attempted to sexually assault the lady of the house. Mrs. McNabb had angrily pushed the intruder's hand away and he had fled. Mrs. McNabb's daughter, who shared her mother's bed and had witnessed the incident, would later identify the intruder as Jennings. Another householder nearby also told of chasing off an intruder that night, ripping the burglar's coat in the process. He too picked out Jennings from a lineup.

Incredible Discovery

But much the most crucial discovery came next morning at the murder scene. The killer had broken into the house though a kitchen window and just beneath this was a porch surrounded by some railings. By chance, Clarence Hiller had painted these very railings just hours before his death, and detectives noticed that, etched into the fresh paint, were what looked like four fingerprints. A closer look with a magnifying glass confirmed that it was indeed the impression of a left hand. That morning, officers from Chicago's Police Department Bureau of Identification (PDBI) sawed off these railings at the base and removed them for analysis.

Unlike many law enforcement agencies at the time, the Chicago PD really believed in the power of fingerprints as an identification tool. In this instance, PDBI technicians made photographic enlargements of the prints that were then submitted to four experts for comparison with Jennings's prints. The quartet of specialists—Michael P. Evans, his son William M. Evans, Edward Foster, and Mary Holland, America's first female fingerprint expert—all swore that Jennings's hand, and his alone, had left the prints on the railings. They had found 14 points of similarity. It looked like a slam dunk, but would the courts permit this testimony?

Sentenced to Death

As mentioned earlier, at this time no one in America had ever been convicted of any crime on the basis of fingerprint testimony and Jennings's defense team was determined to keep it that way. They argued vehemently that this new-fangled evidence should be excluded. But the court disagreed and on November 10, 1910, largely due to the fingerprint testimony, Jennings was convicted and later sentenced to death.

Immediately, defense lawyers filed an appeal on grounds that fingerprinting was unworthy of the term "scientific" and that Illinois laws did not recognize such evidence.

Landmark Decision

Across the nation all legal eyes were on the Illinois Supreme Court, awaiting their decision. It came on December 21, 1911. In a historic ruling the court first sanctioned the admissibility of fingerprint evidence, then upheld the right of experienced technicians to testify as experts. Jennings's conviction and sentence were affirmed, and he was hanged on February 16, 1912.

This landmark case opened the forensic floodgates in American courtrooms, clearing the way for the U.S. to take its place at the forefront of the fight against crime.

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