August 12, 2008

Fingerprints Can Yield Even More Telltale Clues

WASHINGTON - Scientists have found ways to tease even more clues out of fingerprints' telltale marks - one in a string of developments that gives modern forensics even better ways to solve mysteries like the anthrax attacks or JonBenet Ramsey's murder.

For example, if a person handled cocaine, explosives or other materials, there could be enough left in a fingerprint to identify them, says chemist R. Graham Cooks of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Progress in forensics comes from new techniques, like those involved in the anthrax investigation, and existing techniques, like those used in the Ramsey case, said Max M. Houck, director of West Virginia University's Forensic Science Initiative.

Improvements in genetic research allowed police to trace the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks to a specific flask of spores, the FBI said this week.

And while the killing of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey attracted national fascination in 1996, it was only this year that prosecutors announced that a new series of tests pointed to an unidentified attacker, clearing family members of suspicion.

The testing technique in the Ramsey case was not new, Mr. Houck said. But prosecutors learned it could be relevant to their case in a 2007 West Virginia University course.

Mr. Cooks explained that materials such as cocaine and military explosives tend to be hard to get off the fingers. If someone who has handled them later handles something hard such as a file or plastic binder, that will transfer the chemicals, he said.

The chemicals are located at the points of the fingerprint's ridges, so what is then on the hard surface is the fingerprint in chemical. So police can not only identify the person from the print, but also connect the person and the drug or chemical, he said.

Purdue researcher Demian R. Ifa, a co-author, said the technology also can uncover fingerprints buried beneath others.

"Because the distribution of compounds found in each fingerprint can be unique, we also can use this technology to pull one fingerprint out from beneath layers of other fingerprints," Mr. Ifa said.

Originally published by Associated Press.

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