Despite new tech, Ky. police say old fingerprinting methods work well


By Dariush Shafa
Messenger-Inquirer

OWENSBORO, Ky. — The image of a law enforcement officer with a brush-and-dust kit searching for fingerprints might seem like an anachronism in the age of computers and DNA matching. But for local law enforcement, fingerprint matching is still solving cases.

Thanks to a recently received grant, the Daviess County Sheriff's Department is updating and replenishing its supplies of fingerprinting kits for its road deputies and detectives.

A total of 30 kits worth $1,200 are on their way to the department in the coming weeks, paid for with a federal grant that also funded additional tasers for department deputies.

Five cases in the past several weeks -- two burglaries, two methamphetamine labs and a car break-in from 2002 -- have been solved thanks to prints that were lifted by deputies and detectives at the crime scene.

"If it's done correctly, it (fingerprinting) is just as big a help to law enforcement as DNA," said Capt. Bill Thompson, head of the Criminal Investigations Division at the sheriff's department. "It's helped us clear some cases."

Thompson actually pointed to a case in national news where fingerprints were a major turning point in a national investigation.

The Washington D.C., area sniper John Allen Muhammad, who was executed on Tuesday night, was eventually found, tried and convicted because of fingerprints found at a crime scene in Montgomery, Ala.

Thompson said that sharing of fingerprints on the state and federal level is another reason why fingerprint matching, though an aged investigative technique, has still proved extremely useful to law enforcement.

"Present technology allows us to expand our databases and reveals not just statewide (matches) but nationwide," Thompson said.

In 2002, Thompson said, Deputy Kent Taul took a fingerprint from a stolen vehicle. That fingerprint would go into the state database and sit there for seven years.

In the meantime, Taul would go off to serve his country as an Army instructor in South Carolina and then return to his duties as a deputy.

Just a couple months after Taul's return, the Kentucky state fingerprint database sent a red flag, notifying investigators that someone recently arrested was a match for that print taken all those years ago.

"Fingerprints follow you wherever you go," Thompson said.

Additionally, fingerprinting is not an exceptionally difficult skill to master, said Det. Mike Pearre, who has been to two separate crime scene instruction courses as a detective.

"It's not very difficult. It takes minimal training," Pearre said. "The hardest part is the on-the-job training, knowing how much dust to put on (or the types of surfaces that a print can be lifted off of). It's actually one of the simplest tools with the greatest benefits that law enforcement has."

Lt. Col. Jeff Jones, chief deputy for the department, said the only real drawback to fingerprints is one that all forms of forensic science suffer from -- time lag. Unlike television crime shows, results aren't instant.

"It's still a time-consuming process in which the print has to be submitted, analyzed," Jones said, adding that it's worth it when the total costs are considered. "If we're able to solve one case (with each kit), they've more than paid for themselves."

Marvin Hayden, Crime Scene Unit supervisor at OPD, said the individuality of fingerprints is one reason they're so trusted as evidence.

"They're very important from the standpoint that everybody has a unique fingerprint," Hayden said. "Fingerprint evidence is just like any evidence. It's just another feather on the plate that might tip the scales in favor of a conviction. You want as much evidence as you can get to take to trial."

Copyright 2009 Messenger-Inquirer

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