In 1910, Clarence Hiller confronted an intruder in his home, tackling him as both men fell down the stairs. Hiller was then shot, and the suspect ran away.
Paroled 6 weeks prior, Thomas Jennings was convicted of the crime. He was stopped by police when they saw he was wearing a bloody coat. But that wasn’t what got him convicted.
While investigating the scene of the break-in, police noticed that the intruder had grabbed a freshly-painted railing while boosting himself into the Hiller family’s window. They cut off the piece of the railing as evidence and presented it in court, comparing it to Jennings’ fingerprint.
Criminal justice scholars have proved that the way we use fingerprint evidence is not always in the best interests of justice, nor are fingerprints always accurately interpreted. In fact, our fingerprints even change over the course of our lifetimes, so an old fingerprint may rule out an actual criminal caught decades later.
But in 1910, this type of evidence was a first for a criminal case and the jury needed to be convinced that each person’s fingerprints are unique. Unfortunately for Jennings, that proof came from his defense attorney.
W.G Anderson rightly questioned the use of such poorly-understood evidence to convict a person, but it was his own fingerprint that would convince the jury of his client’s guilt.
Anderson challenged the forensic experts to lift his fingerprint from a piece of paper. They did. But his big plan was to solicit fingerprints from the general public to show just how shoddy the science of fingerprinting was. Alas, we do all have unique fingerprints and while there are often problems in our interpretations, this little experiment did nothing but convince the jury that fingerprint evidence was solid.
Of all the fingerprints collected, none looked like Anderson’s. The jury voted unanimously to convict Jennings, who was sentenced to hang.
In their coverage, The Decatur Herald noted that “the murderer of Hiller wrote his signature when he rested his hand upon the freshly painted railing at the Hiller home.” – WTF fun fact
Source: “The First Criminal Trial That Used Fingerprints as Evidence” — Smithsonian Magazine