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Fingerprint Problems in Maryland:
The Bryon Rose Case

On January 18, 2006, thirteen days after Warren Fleming was shot to death in an attempted carjacking near his store in the Security Square Mall in Towson, Maryland, the police arrested Bryon Keith Rose, a 23-year-old Baltimore man. According to fingerprint examiners, partial fingerprints lifted from the victim’s car and the stolen vehicle used by the assailant were Rose’s.

At a pretrial hearing in May, Rose’s attorneys argued that fingerprint identification did not meet scientific standards and therefore was not reliable evidence. The defense cited the FBI’s misidentification of Brandon Mayfield’s fingerprints in the 2004 Madrid train bombing case. They also pointed to the Stephan Cowans case, a man whose latent fingerprints were misidentified by the police fingerprint unit in Boston. Fingerprint scholars and practitioners for the prosecution argued that fingerprint evidence has been accepted by the courts and relied upon by the police for nearly 100 years. The defense countered that up until recently the science behind fingerprint evidence has gone unchallenged, and as a result its proponents have not been forced to establish its credibility through scientific study.

On October 22, 2007, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Susan M. Souder ruled in favor of the Rose defense. Prosecutors would be barred from introducing the fingerprint evidence at Rose’s murder trial. In her opinion Judge Souder wrote: “The state is correct that fingerprint evidence has been used in criminal cases for almost a century. While that fact is worthy of consideration, it does not prove reliability. For many centuries, perhaps for millennia, humans thought the earth was flat.” In explaining her decision, the judge noted that the process of fingerprint identification is highly subjective and lacking in scientific study and methodology. She also noted the lack of proficiency testing among fingerprint identification examiners. Judge Souder’s opinion sent shock waves through the fingerprint and law enforcement communities. If decisions like this one become a trend, it will change the face of law enforcement. 

A Second Baltimore Fingerprint Challenge:
The Kevin Banks Murder Case

On March 31, 2007, twenty-four-year-old Jamar Mackie was shot and killed in a robbery committed by two men. After the shooting, the gunman and his accomplice were chased by a pit bull. The robber with the gun touched the dusty trunk lid of a parked car when he jumped on the vehicle to avoid the dog. The police identified the car trunk latents as belonging to twenty-two-year-old Kevin Banks of West Baltimore.

On October 30, Banks’ attorney asked Baltimore County Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh to exclude the fingerprint evidence as unreliable. The attorney cited another Baltimore judge, Susan M. Souder, as precedent for the exclusion. Judge Cavanaugh denied the motion. “In this case,” he said, “a jury is going to be the trier of the facts.” Judge Cavanaugh said he had read Judge Souder’s fingerprint opinion but “respectfully” disagreed with her decision and rationale.

On November 21, 2007, after Banks entered a so-called Alford Plea ( A stupid arrangement in Maryland where a defendant can acknowledge that the government has enough evidence to convict but doesn’t admit guilt.) the judge sentenced him to thirty years in prison.

The Shirley McKie Case:
The Lockerbie Connection

In June 2007, the Scottish Criminal Review Commission (SCCRC) announced that it was referring the Lockerbie conviction of Libyan Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi to the High Court on the grounds there may have been a miscarriage of justice. Sixty-four percent of cases referred to the High Court by the SCCRC have resulted in appeal hearings. Al-Megrahi had been found guilty in 2001 of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. The crash killed 270 people. Al-Megrahi is serving a life sentence in a prison near Glasgow. Al-Megrahi’s lawyers have accused U.S. and British investigators of evidence tampering. The key evidence against Al-Megrahi involved a latent fingerprint recovered from a piece of the bomb. Supporters of Shirley McKie, including two American fingerprint experts, believe that Lockerbie investigators were worried that this evidence would be discredited by the misidentifications in the McKie case. For that reason they were pressured not to testify for the defense in the McKie perjury trial.

As the Lockerbie developments unfolded, members of the Scottish Parliament announced an inquiry into the Shirley McKie case to determine if fingerprint misidentifications in that case could have been covered up in order not to taint the crucial fingerprint evidence at the Lockerbie trial.

Fingerprint Removal Surgery:
Dr. Jose L. Covarrubias

In September 2005 federal drug agents arrested forty-seven-year-old Marc George in Nogales, Arizona at the Mexican Border. An alleged marijuana courier, he was charged with money laundering in connection with a drug ring operating out of Tucson that distributed tons of marijuana into central Pennsylvania. George had been recuperating from surgery in a Mexican hotel just before his arrest. A plastic surgeon who lived in Nogales named Dr. Jose L. Covarrubias had replaced the skin on Marc George’s fingertips with skin from the bottom of his feet. When arrested, George was still limping.

Federal agents arrested Dr. Covarrubias in May 2007. He was extradited to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where he was indicted as an accomplice to marijuana dealing, and harboring and concealing a fugitive. On November 1, 2007 Dr. Covarrubias pleaded guilty in federal court to the harboring charge and promised to cooperate in the investigation of the interstate drug operation. Although a U.S. citizen, Dr. Covarrubias holds a Mexican medical license. The forty-nine-year-old doctor faced a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Fingerprint Removal:
A Trend?

In June 2007, federal agents at the airport in Baton Rouge, Louisiana questioned a nervous and evasive woman named Yissel Sosa Nunel from the Dominican Republic. When they fingerprinted her the officers found surgery scars on her prints running down the middle of each fingertip. Nunel told the agents that she had paid a plastic surgeon $2,000 to cut and overlap her prints to create new ridge configurations.

In October 2007 border patrol agents arrested twenty-five-year-old Mateo Cruz-Cruz in Douglas, Arizona. He had been caught scaling the fence. In March 2004 Cruz-Cruz had been deported back to Mexico after being convicted of sexually assaulting a minor in Iowa. At the police station agents discovered Cruz-Cruz’s fingertips were blackened and burned. He had used corrosive acid in an attempt to obliterate his fingerprints.

History of Fingerprint Removal:
John Dillinger and Others

In 1934 FBI agents and a Chicago police sergeant cornered and shot to death a notorious kidnapper named “Pretty Jack” Klutas. When the dead man was about to be fingerprinted to confirm his identity so his name could be scratched off the wanted list, the fingerprint technician was startled to find he didn’t have any ridges on the tips of his fingers. The news that a criminal had somehow removed his fingerprints alarmed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover who immediately arranged to have skin specialists from Northwestern University study the dead man’s fingers.

Two days later, the specialists reported that Klutas must have hired a physician to scrape off his finger ridges. But the new skin forming over the wounds showed faint signs of ridge lines. This discovery sent waves of relief through the fingerprint community and reaffirmed the reliability of this relatively new method of criminal identification.

Still worried that someone might figure a way to get rid of their fingerprints, Mr. Hoover asked a group of surgeons and dermatologists to meet and discuss the possibility. The doctors and a handful of FBI agents met in Los Angeles in the summer of 1934. This group was led by Dr. Howard L. Updegraff, a man who had experimented extensively with fingerprint alterations. Dr. Updegraff reported that the only way to permanently obliterate fingerprints involved grafting skin over them from another part of the body.

Shortly after the fingerprint meeting in Los Angeles, two members of “Ma” Kate Barker’s clan of bank robbers and killers decided to remove their fingerprints. Alvin “Creepy” Carpis and Ma’s son Freddy hired mob physician Joseph P. Moran to do the job. Moran, a convicted abortionist, hacked away at their prints until the screaming gangsters could not bear the pain. The wounds took two months to heal and when they did, the men noticed in disgust the formation of new lines where the old ridges had been. Shortly after that, Dr. Moran was taken on a midnight ride in a row boat and was never seen again.

In May 1934, John Dillinger, the infamous bank robber, hired a lawyer to put him in touch with two surgeons willing to perform plastic surgery on his face. The doctors performed the operation at Dillinger’s cabin hideout. The gangster flew into a rage when the bandages came off.  He didn’t look any different. Enraged, Dillinger threatened to shoot the physicians then changed his mind when one of them suggested that he have his fingerprints burned off with acid. Dillinger liked the idea and following the painful dipping of his fingers into acid, it appeared that the process had worked. A few months later Dillinger was shot to death by FBI agents in Chicago. The medical examiner’s check of the body revealed that the bank robber’s fingertips were scarred. His old ridge patterns, however, were still visible. Even acid could remove fingerprints permanently.

Six years later, a hardened criminal named Robert J. Philipps got out of Alcatraz after serving a long stretch for bank robbery and burglary. After committing a series of crimes including a major warehouse heist in North Carolina, the police arrested him in Miami for robbery. The authorities in Florida released him shortly thereafter for lack of evidence. In May 1941, Philipps visited a Union City, New Jersey physician named Dr. Leopold Brandenburg and asked to have his fingerprints removed. Dr. Brandenburg, an ex-con himself, advised Philipps that scraping or cutting off the skin wouldn’t do the job. The doctor had a more ambitious operation in mind—replacing the fingertip skin with skin grafted from the side of Philipps’ chest. Philipps agreed to the procedure, and the following day, at Dr. Brandenburg’s home, the long, painful operation got underway. Using a knife, the doctor peeled the skin from Philipps’ right fingers then taped his hand to skin that had been pulled away from his chest. Three weeks later, when the chest skin had grown onto his fingers, the hand was separated from his chest. The technique worked, on the tips of Philipps’ fingers were patches of smooth, pink skin. The doctor repeated the process on his patient’s left hand. Philipps endured six weeks of boredom and pain but when it was over he was delighted with the results.

In October 1941 Philipps, while driving through Austin, Texas, was pulled over by a patrolman. When he couldn’t produce a driver’s license or any other form of identification, the officer took him into custody. At the police station the fingerprint technician took the arrestee’s prints. The impressions didn’t show any ridge design. The fingerprint man did find, however, discernable ridges on the sides of the fingertips and just below the top joint of each finger.

When arrested, Philipps had told the police his name was Roscoe Pitts and his odd-looking fingerprint card went into the FBI’s files under that name. Meanwhile, the police in North Carolina had identified Philipps in the warehouse job and had learned through one of his girlfriends that after the crime he had gone to New Jersey to have his fingerprints removed. Acting on this information, it didn’t take investigators very long to identify Doctor Brandenburg. The police questioned the physician who identified a photograph of Roscoe Pitts as Robert Philipps.

Back in Washington, D.C., the FBI fingerprint people compared the fingerprint cards of Roscoe Pitts and Robert Philipps and found enough detail it Pitt’s obliterated prints to match them to Philipps’ impressions. The match-up confirmed Dr. Brandenburg’s identification of Roscoe Pitts as Robert Philipps. Once identified, the police in Austin sent Philipps back to North Carolina where he was tried and convicted of  the warehouse burglary. Although he had been caught and eventually identified, Philipps had successfully had his fingerprints removed. Had he not been identified by other means, no one would have known to compare the prints of Roscoe Pitts with those of Robert Philipps.

False Identifications:
Fingerprint Error Rates

In his October 24, 2007 article, “Breaking up the Forensics Monopoly: Eight Ways to Fix a Broken System,” Roger Koppl, director of Farleigh Dickinson University’s Institute for Forensic Science Administration, notes that the last comprehensive study of crime lab proficiency was conducted in 1995 and published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. According to that study, conducted by the Forensic Sciences Foundation and Collaborative Testing Services, latent fingerprint identification had a false positive error rate of two percent. Applying that error rate to the 238,135 crime lab latent fingerprint examinations conducted in 2002, Koppl estimates there could be 4,800 wrongful convictions a year based upon latent fingerprint misidentifications. The author notes that a 2005 study of fingerprint analysis suggests a false positive error rate that could exceed four percent. If this is true, up to ten thousand defendants a year are being sent to prison on the strength of bad fingerprint evidence. (This does not mean, however, that all of those defendants are actually innocent.) (See www.hawaiireporter.com for the entire article.) 

This page was last updated on: Tuesday, January 15, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com