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Forensic Science

Fingerprints

Although fingerprints have been used by crime investigators for more than a century, they remain one of the most sought after pieces of evidence. All human beings are born with a characteristic set of ridges on our fingertips. The ridges, which are rich in sweat pores, form a pattern that remains fixed for life. Even if the skin is removed, the same pattern will be evident when the skin regenerates. Some of the typical patterns found in fingerprints are arches, loops, and whorls.

Oils from sweat glands collect on these ridges. When we touch something, a small amount of the oils and other materials on our fingers are left on the surface of the object we touched. The pattern left by these substances, which collect along the ridges on our fingers, make up the fingerprints that police look for at the scene of a crime. It is the unique pattern made by these ridges that motivate police to record people's fingerprints. To take someone's fingerprints, the ends of the person's fingers are first covered with ink. The fingers are then rolled, one at a time, on a smooth surface to make an imprint that can be preserved. Fingerprints collected as evidence can be compared with fingerprints on file or taken from a suspect.

Everyone entering military service, the merchant marine, and many other organizations are fingerprinted. The prints are there to serve as an aid in identification should that person be killed or seriously injured. The FBI maintains a fingerprint library with patterns taken from more than 10% of the entire United States population. Each year the FBI responds to thousands of requests to compare samples collected as evidence with those on file at their library. The process of comparison has been improved in terms of speed and effectiveness in recent years by the development of automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS) that allows police departments with computer access to search the collection.

Many fingerprints found at crime scenes are not visible. These latent fingerprints, which are often incomplete, are obtained in various ways. The oldest and most frequently used method is to use a powder such as ninhydrin to dust the surface. The powder sticks to the oily substances on the print making the pattern visible. The print can then be photographed and lifted off the surface by using a tape to which the powder adheres. To search for fingerprints on porous materials such as paper, forensic technicians use fumes of iodine or cyanoacry-late. These fumes readily collect on the oils in the print pattern and can be photographed. Since 1978, argon lasers have also been used to view latent fingerprints. When illuminated by light from an argon laser, a latent print is often quite visible. Visibility under laser light can be enhanced by first dusting the print with a fluorescent fingerprint powder.

Fingerprints are not the only incriminating patterns that a criminal may leave behind. Lip prints are frequently found on glasses. Footprints and the soil left on the print may match those found in a search of an accused person's premises. Tire tracks, bite marks, toe prints, and prints left by bare feet may also provide useful evidence. In cases where the identity of a victim is difficult because of tissue decomposition or death caused by explosions or extremely forceful collisions, a victim's teeth may be used for comparison with the dental records of missing people.


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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ferroelectric materials to Form and matterForensic Science - History, Fingerprints, Genetic Fingerprints, Evidence And Tools Used In Forensic Science