Forensic Fingerprint Specialist, Simon Bunter, gave evidence in a Crown Court armed robbery trial recently. It was alleged the offender placed a palm print on the bar counter top when he jumped over it, one-handed. The prosecution relied on evidence from a police fingerprint officer who insisted the palm print had all the hallmarks of a fragile mark and, therefore, would not have survived the cleaning regime carried out by the landlady shortly before the offence. In other words, it had to be a ‘fresh’ mark. Before Keith Borer Consultants was instructed, the case had been reviewed by another independent expert, who came to a similar view that the print was consistent with jumping over the bar and the fact that the bar was accessible to the general public did not matter.
Almost immediately, Mr Bunter observed several ‘red flags’ with the palm print evidence, suggesting it was not as straightforward as the police and independent experts were suggesting. He noted that:
- The palm print displayed several features to indicate it could have been formed in a robust contaminant rather than fragile sweat
- It could easily have been placed whilst standing or sitting on the customer side of the bar
- Contrary to the allegation that the offender jumped over the bar by placing one hand on it, two eyewitnesses said the offender ran around the side and went through the bar hatch
- One eyewitness reported that the offender had touched the bar with his right hand whilst trying to jump over it: it was the defendant’s left palm print that had been recovered
- Eyewitness evidence described the offender as wearing “fingerless gloves”, something that the police expert was unaware of at the time of the initial fingerprint evidence, but later dismissed as being irrelevant
- Three eyewitnesses each described the offender as being of “slim build” whereas the defendant had a large athletic build
Mr Bunter provided evidence to the Court that, in his opinion, it would be unsafe to assume that cleaning the bar would have removed the palm print and that there were several indicators the print was not related to this offence.
Given the evidence presented, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
Mr Bunter commented, “This was a very interesting and complex case. There were several observations that individually may not have been particularly significant yet, when considered cumulatively, indicated the palm print could have survived the described cleaning regime. Such subtleties and nuances appeared to have been either missed or dismissed by another independent expert and a police fingerprint expert. I must admit, it came as a bit of a shock when the police expert said that it was ‘irrelevant’ that the offender was reported to have to been wearing gloves during the offence!”
It is assumed, often incorrectly, that experts with vast experience in comparison and identification of fingerprints can provide accurate evidence regarding ‘activity level’ issues such as how long a print might last and how it was deposited. A common misconception is the assumption that ‘the print must be fresh’, however, every case is different and should be considered in its own specific context. Keith Borer Consultants has examined several cases where existing fingerprints have been shown to have survived cleaning, painting and all types of weather for many years.