Clarence Hiller case is one of the first murder cases solved using fingerprint technology in the United States. Clarence Hiller was a railroad clerk who used to live with his wife and children at 1837 West 104th Street in Chicago.

What Happened to Clarence?

It was on 19th September 1910, at night just after 2 a.m. when Clarence Hiller woke to the screams of his wife and daughter in their home. After a spate of robberies, residents of this South Side neighborhood were already on edge. Hiller raced to confront the intruder. In the ensuing scuffle, the two men fell down the staircase. The burglars managed to break away and run down the stairs but were caught by Hiller.

A moment later three shots were fired in rapid succession and Hiller fell on the ground lifeless, while the murderer escaped through the open window. The wife rushed out of the house and notified neighbors who later called the police. The unknown assailant didn’t make it far and was caught by the detectives. 

The Suspect and Trials

Thomas Jennings, an African-American man who had been paroled six weeks earlier, was stopped a half-mile away wearing a torn and bloodied coat also carrying a revolver. Still, this was not proof that Jennings was the assailant. The police investigated the whole house of Hiller and they found a fingerprint from a freshly painted railing that Jennings used to hoist himself through a window at the Hiller house.

The police photographed the print and removed the railing, tagging it as evidence. They hoped that the fingerprint found would belong to one of the burglars. Fortunately, when the analysis of the fingerprint was carried out it matched with the Jennings.

At the trials of Thomas Jennings, the prosecuting attorney showed the judge and jury the fingerprint left on the railing, which they identified as Jennings’. However, the defense attorney of Jenning tried to discredit the new fingerprint technology.

To prove the technique unreliable, one of the lawyers challenged the prosecution to collect a fingerprint that proved the lawyer touched a particular piece of paper. But the idea backfired on the defense lawyer, as the prosecution was able to lift a clear print from the paper and positively identified it as belonging to the lawyer.

The court jury members unanimously found Jennings guilty of the murder of Clarence Hiller and sentenced him to hang.

Conviction of Thomas Jennings

Jennings was the first person in the United States who was convicted based on fingerprints. And since then fingerprint analysis became an integral part of criminal investigation, and is considered an important piece of evidence going to trial.

The beginning of the Jennings trial raised questions about the accuracy of the fingerprint evidence and the reliability of the technology used in the analysis.

Simon A. Cole, the author of Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification and professor of criminology, law, and society at the University of California, Irvine School of Social Ecology, says- “The Jennings case is the earliest case – earliest published case – in which you’ll find any discussion of fingerprint evidence. The uniqueness of fingerprints is really kind of beside the point of the accuracy of the identification. The best way to understand that is to think about eyewitness identification – nobody disputes that all human faces are in some sense unique, even those of identical twins. Still, nobody argues that eyewitness identification must be 100 percent accurate”.

The Daubert Standard

In a 1993 Supreme Court ruling in Daubert vs. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc., judges were required to apply what is known as the Daubert Standard to determine if a witness’s testimony could be considered scientific.

In the Daubert case, the court explained that the federal standard includes general acceptance but also looks at science and its application. Trial judges are the final arbiter or “gatekeepers” on the admissibility of evidence and approval of a witness as an expert within their courtrooms. In deciding if the science and the question expert should be permitted, the judge should consider:

  • What is the basic theory and has it been tested?
  • Are there standards controlling the technique?
  • Has the theory or technique been subjected to peer review and publication?
  • What is the known or potential error rate?
  • Is there general acceptance of the theory?
  • Has the expert adequately accounted for alternative explanations?
  • Has the expert unjustifiably extrapolated from an accepted premise to an unfounded conclusion?

The Daubert court also observed that concerns over shaky evidence could be handled through vigorous cross-examination, presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction on the burden of proof. In many states, scientific expert testimony is now subject to this Daubert standard.

Though earlier the fingerprints were questioned on their accuracy and reliability, now with further research and developments in technology, they are now admissible in court as one of the most reliable pieces of evidence.

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