Sep 23, 2021 - World

Heritage imprint: How Argentina revolutionized forensics

police car

A police car parked outside San Martin Park in Mendoza, Argentina. Photo: Alexis Lloret/Getty Images

Argentina gave the world an important tool to solve crimes: A system that would allow investigators to use fingerprints to crack a case.

Why it matters: Argentine police official Juan Vucetich, expanding on British research, created the first fingerprint identification system in 1892, and in doing so introduced the role of biometric data in crime-solving. More than a hundred years later, fingerprints remain a powerful addition to the forensic toolbox.

  • The first known use of fingerprints as a means of identification was in ancient China, primarily in place of a signature for legal documents and transactions, per the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).
  • Vucetich was the first to record the fingerprints of arrested suspects and later devised the prints into a classification system.

Details: In the small town of Necochea, Argentina, police officers stumbled upon the bodies of two children, both under the age of 7. They had been stabbed to death, and their mother insisted the culprit was a rejected suitor.

  • The suspect maintained his innocence — even while subjected to torture and other aggressive investigative tactics, per the NIJ.
  • When a bloody fingerprint was found on the door of the crime scene, officers sought Vucetich's assistance, and he presented the officers with his fingerprint classification system.
  • After comparing the print with that of the witness and the suspect, the true murderer was revealed: the mother.
  • This murder case is considered the first homicide solved by fingerprint evidence, demonstrating the value of Vucetich's system. Before long, the practice spread rapidly throughout the world.

Flashback: Before Vucetich developed his fingerprint identification system, the only available identification method was Bertillonage, which involved recording highly detailed body measurements and what has come to be known as the mug shot.

Fast forward: Fingerprints are still some of the most commonly collected evidence at a crime scene, according to an NIJ report.

  • Cases with biological evidence, such as fingerprints or DNA, are more likely to end in arrest than cases without, per the report.
  • In 2018, a single fingerprint led San Diego police to identify and arrest a man for the murder of a woman more than 30 years earlier. The case had gone cold.

What they're saying: "Study, research, and experimentation have led to and supported fingerprints as a means of individualization and a forensic tool of incalculable value," an NIJ report read.

  • Even in the era of DNA evidence, detective John Tefft told the New York Times, "fingerprints are still remarkable."

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