Introduction

The goal of physical evidence preservation, collection, and examination is individualization, that is, to associate each piece of evidence with its responsible source. By so doing the forensic scientist may be able to answer the questions as to who, what, when, where, how, and why with regard to a crime.

Firearms and latent print evidence are in the uncommon category of physical evidence whose source can be individualized. Thus, a bullet or cartridge case can be identified as having been fired in a particular weapon to the exclusion of all similar weapons, and a fingerprint can be identified as having been left by a particular individual. Determining that a particular weapon was responsible for firing a fatal shot, though circumstantial, is often sufficient to convict someone, but actually putting that individual at the crime scene through fingerprints is the most powerful result. Of course, it is not always possible to find identifiable fingerprints at crime scenes or to find identifiable characteristics on bullets or cartridge cases.

Unfortunately misconceptions regarding the significance of not finding this evidence can lead to erroneous conclusions as to the events of a particular crime. Explanations typically abound as to why certain evidence is not present, and firearms and latent print evidence are no exception. The word to the wise is "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

It is widely accepted as unlikely, for example, that identifiable fingerprints will be found on firearms. Identifiable fingerprints will be found probably less than 10 percent of the time. When a suspect's fingerprints are not found on a murder weapon, however, defense attorneys often present this fact as an indication of their client's innocence.

Likewise, the forensic scientist must take care not to inflate the significance of the physical evidence that is present. For instance, investigation might turn up a partial fingerprint that cannot be positively identified as belonging to a particular individual. To describe such a print as "consistent with" having been made by a suspect without explaining the other possibilities (namely that numerous other persons could be responsible) would be misleading.

It is the responsibility of firearms and latent print examiners to properly represent their evidence within the limits of good science. The ability to do so is directly tied to their education, training, and experience. While ignorance may be blissful, it can have disastrous effects when people's lives hang in the balance of an examiner's written report and testimony.

Both firearms evidence examination and fingerprint comparison have had a long and interesting history. The role of fingerprints in human identification can actually be traced back several thousand years. The development of the science of fingerprint comparison, however, began in the early 19th century, as did the scientific examination of firearms.

Firearms and Fingerprints will trace these early beginnings and the icons that laid the groundwork for the current science. Attention will be given to the highly specialized education, training, and experience required to become a practitioner in the modern forensic laboratory. An examination of the capabilities and limitations of firearms and latent print evidence will provide insight into how these particular fields figure into the overall goal of crime scene reconstruction. Finally this book will look at future possibilities as these fields continue to evolve, as well as examine the legal challenges that have arisen recently as to the admissibility of both fingerprint and firearms identifications in court proceedings.

The author of this book has 33 years of combined experience as a forensic scientist, professor, and consultant. The case examples that are utilized in this volume are all cases in which the author has been personally involved. Thus, the reader will have the opportunity to learn about firearms and fingerprints from the perspective of someone who has and continues to be directly involved in these disciplines.

The author has also taught at both the middle and high school levels and is familiar with the learning needs of students at those levels. This experience is especially pertinent, given that this volume is directed to those students. The vast popularity of this subject matter at the university undergraduate and graduate levels has been addressed by numerous texts specifically designed for that level. Only a limited number of similar texts, however, are currently available to middle and high school students. This multivolume set seeks to help fill that gap and, thereby, better prepare students for advanced studies at the college and university level.

Overview

This chapter introduces the reader to the wide variety of roles assumed by fingerprint and firearms examiners. These roles include crime laboratory duties, crime scene responsibilities, crime scene reconstruction, and providing court testimony. Developing the necessary qualifications that allow one to carry out these responsibilities will be presented. One of the goals of this chapter will be to give the reader an appreciation for the interrelationships of the various responsibilities and their overall dependency on having the proper combination of education and experience in order to be able to adequately carry them out.

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