A look at the first criminal trial which used fingerprints as evidence

Mildred Europa Taylor December 02, 2020
Thomas Jennings' case would become the first in the U.S. in which a "fingerprint system of identification was relied upon for a conviction." Photo: Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Thomas Jennings had gotten out of jail not too long ago when he invaded the home of Clarence Hiller on the night of September 19, 1910. Hiller was the chief clerk in the freight department of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. As Jennings entered the Chicago home of Hiller with what police said was his intention to rob the place, the wife and children of Hiller awoke, screaming.

Hiller ended up confronting Jennings and a fight ensued. Shots were fired and Hiller died. Jennings fled the scene but left behind an important piece of evidence that eventually led to his murder conviction — a fingerprint. His case would become the first in the U.S. in which a “fingerprint system of identification was relied upon for a conviction.”

Fingerprinting was then new technology in the U.S. Though scholars had written about individual fingerprints, it was only in 1856 that fingerprinting was first used as a mark of identification by Sir William Hershel, a magistrate in India. In 1892, a British anthropologist, Sir Francis Galton, wrote about how fingerprints can be used to establish identity. That same year, in Argentina, a police officer identified the first criminal using fingerprints.

It took about 17 years for the U.S. to start using the technique in its police investigations. In 1909 when it was first demonstrated in Chicago by Edward Evans, an identification expert in the Police Department’s Bureau of Identification, almost everyone was fascinated by it.

“Mr. Evans … takes Mr. Crook by the finger and presses the digit upon a card. The result is an impression showing all the curves in the epidermis at the end of the finger — the little whorls that never change throughout life. … The card is filed away with the ‘mug,’ as the police call the crook’s picture,” the Tribune wrote as Evans demonstrated the technique.

Chicagoans knew that they could one day have a crime story where a fingerprint operator would be needed but little did they know that “one day” would soon come.

After Jennings had reportedly broken into the home of Hiller and fled, he was arrested about a half a mile away. He had a loaded revolver on him and was wearing ripped and bloodied clothing but this was not proof that he was the murderer until investigators found prints from the fingers of a left hand on a newly-painted porch railing at Hiller’s home.

“Capt. (Michael) Evans took the section of porch railing to his office and there developed the finger prints,” the Tribune reported, adding that Evans found “thirty-three similar points of identification” between those prints and Jennings’ prints. At Jennings’ trial, the state presented the fingerprint evidence to the judge and jury despite the protests by Jennings’ attorney, William Anderson, who claimed that “fingerprinting was a flawed system.”

In the end, the jury unanimously found Jennings guilty of the murder of Hiller and sentenced him to death. But some individuals, especially those who were against fingerprint evidence, raised concerns about the fairness of the verdict. Others also wondered if race played a part. Jennings appealed the verdict, but the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the conviction on December 21, 1911.

“The Jennings case really is the earliest case – earliest published case – in which you’ll find any discussion of fingerprint evidence,” Simon A. Cole, author of Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification was quoted by Smithsonian Magazine. “So, in that sense, it really is a precedent for the whole country.”

To date, fingerprinting is a major part of criminal investigations, though fingerprints are collected and stored electronically now. Before the U.S. first learned the technique of fingerprinting, its Bureau of Investigations headed by Evans adopted the Bertillon system, which “recorded height and measurements of the cranium and face, the forearm, middle and little fingers, and the feet,” according to the Tribune.

In 1904, Evans asked his son, Emmett, also a police investigator, to visit the World’s Fair in St. Louis to learn the technique of fingerprinting from experts from Scotland Yard. He came back convinced about the method. By the following year, the collection of fingerprints had been authorized in Chicago, making the Chicago Police Department the first law enforcement agency in the United States to take prints.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: December 2, 2020


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