Volume 1, Issue 5 (Originally Published 26 March 2012)
27 March 1905 - First British Murder Case to admit Fingerprint Evidence
107 years ago to the day, elderly shopkeepers Thomas and Ann Farrow were found dead in their South London home after having been brutally beaten and robbed. Their death would mark the beginning of a new frontier in criminal evidence and proof – forensic science and the solving of high-profile crimes based on fingerprint technology.
Upon finding an empty cash box and two makeshift black masks, Assistant Commissioner (Crime) of the London Metropolitan Police Melville Macnaghten noted a greasy smudge on the box’s inner tray. The smudge seemed to contain a partial print. Coincidentally, Macnaghten was a member of the Belper Committee, which had been established in 1900 by Lord Belper to research the use of fingerprinting as a method for identification. He decided to send the box off to Scotland Yard’s fingerprinting bureau for further analysis. By chance, police had also interviewed a local milkman who thought he recognised the Stratton brothers lurking around the Farrow house on the day of the murders. The authorities eventually caught both brothers and fingerprinted them – Alfred’s thumb was a perfect match for the greasy cash box print.
At trial, the Crown took a great risk in basing the prosecution solely on the fingerprint evidence when the milkman turned out to be an unreliable witness. The defence called in numerous witnesses of their own and even sought the expert testimony of a renowned anthropoetrist (a rivaling field in identification, involving measurement of the human body by physical anthropology), but could not disprove the fingerprint evidence. The defence further collapsed when it was revealed that the anthropometrist had written to the prosecution only days before, offering his favourable testimony if they paid him more than the defence. The Crown called in Scotland Yard’s fingerprinting expert to explain the uniqueness of the fingerprint in layman’s terms, which ultimately convinced the jury to find the Stratton brothers guilty of murder. They were sentenced to hanging on May 23rd 1905.
Since then, fingerprint evidence has become one of the most invaluable assets to a criminal trial, along with other forensic techniques such as DNA profiling