Fingerprints on Human Skin: The Libby Miller Case
What are the chances of recovering fingerprints from human skin, either dead or alive? Absolutely none if the victim’s body is not processed. Granted, live victims must be treated differently and the window of opportunity is only about one-hour, but it is possible if a good faith effort is made.
Over the years, I have heard many excuses from crime scene detectives trying to justify the reasons for not processing a body. Statements like, you can’t get prints from human skin; the victim has been dead too long; it rained after the murder; it was too cold or too hot, are just some of the excuses.
The fact is, environmental conditions like temperature and humidity do play a part, and they can affect the results. Been dead too long! What is too long? Depending on the environmental conditions, bodies can be processed for many hours after death. This is dependent on the stage of decomposition the body is in, but it is possible. Personally, I have processed bodies up to 50 hours post mortem. Although I have not read it anywhere, I have heard stories of up to 104 hours. Again, each circumstance, each scene, each body is different.
The story you are about to read was my very first attempt at processing a deceased human body with a forensic light source. I was later told by the Institute of Police Technology and Management, (IPTM), that this was the first case in the world that they knew of where fingerprints had been identified after having been recovered from human skin with a forensic light source.
Figure 1: Aerial view showing the location where the body was found. The body was beneath the overpass in the center of the photograph.
On November 30, 1993, patrol officers were dispatched to the railroad overpass on Interstate 295, on the northwest side of Jacksonville, Florida (Figure 1). The engineer of a passing train noticed a trespasser under the overpass and requested authorities remove them from railroad property. When the patrol officer arrived, he found the nude body of a white female, approximately thirty years of age dead from multiple stab wounds. The patrol officer soon requested homicide and crime scene detectives respond to the scene. The area where the body was discovered was inaccessible to the public, which made the scene very easy to secure. The body was at the top of an embankment, under the overpass, lying on a concrete ledge, approximately six feet wide and 45 feet above the railroad tracks. The embankment was at a 45-degree angle (Figure 2).
Another crime scene detective and I arrived at the scene prior to the homicide detectives. Two crime scene detectives were already on the scene and were photographing the victim and overall area. The female victim, Libby Miller, was completely nude and lying face up. The victim’s throat had been cut and there were numerous stab wounds over the entire body. Some of the stab wounds appeared to have been done post mortem (after death). The upper left abdominal area of the victim had been eviscerated. The upper and outer area of the female genitalia had been cut off and removed, most likely a “trophy” taken by the suspect. There was blood spatter on the concrete wall, to the left of the victim’s head. This was in direct line with the slashed throat, evidence that the victim had been killed at this location. The victim’s clothes could not be found. It was determined the victim had been dead for 24 to 36 hours before discovery.
Figure 2: The victim’s body was on the ledge under the overpass.
The immediate area surrounding the victim was concrete. The overpass was constructed from concrete beams and the ground under the body was concrete. There was graffiti spray painted on the wall to the left of the body, and the dirt on the concrete beams above the body appeared to have been disturbed by someone’s hands. The graffiti spray painted on the wall suggested to homicide detectives a possible gang connection. The dust prints on the concrete beams over the body were a long shot, but other than the body there was no physical evidence connected to the crime. Homicide detectives requested that the underside of the overpass be processed with the alternate light source* for fingerprints. Homicide detectives decided that once the body had been photographed, the medical examiner would be called to remove the body.
*Note: The Crime Scene Unit of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office received an alternate light source in March of 1993. While I had trained with this equipment on my own as much as possible between March and November, I was still learning. This would be my first experience processing a body.
On the way back to the Sheriff’s Office to pick up the alternate light source, I kept thinking about the condition of the body. Homicide detectives only wanted the body photographed and now the medical examiner’s office was responding to the scene for the removal of the victim’s body. The victim would be gone from the scene before I could return, and I knew that once the body was removed from the scene, any evidence on the body might be altered or destroyed. I called the homicide sergeant and requested the body not be moved until I could process it with the alternate light source for evidence. The homicide sergeant advised the medical examiner what we wanted to do to the body and he agreed to leave the body undisturbed until I could return.**
Note: Per Florida State Statute, the victim’s body belongs to the medical examiner, even though the body is in the crime scene. Any procedure(s) performed on the body other then the taking of photographs can only be performed with the permission of the medical examiner.
Once at the Sheriff’s Office, I went to the crime lab and talked with a latent fingerprint examiner who was much more experienced with the use of the alternate light source. I explained the situation and what I had observed and asked if he would accompany me to the scene and assist with processing. The latent print examiner was happy to help and accompanied me back to the crime scene.
Figure 3: Two latent bloody fingerprints were discovered on the victim’s left chest (upper right in the photograph) using an alternate light source. Blood castoff patterns are also visible in the center of the chest.
Once back at the crime scene, the alternate light source was set up and a generator was used to provide the necessary power. Starting at the head, the latent print examiner and I began processing the victim’s body starting with the white light and working through the various frequencies. There was a large loss of blood from the head and neck area and there was bloody transfer areas all over the body. At the abdominal area, we observed what looked like a bloody impression on the skin (Figure 3). A magnifying glass was used and on closer examination, ridge detail was observed. We had the best results with the white light and at 450nm. (Blood does not luminesce; it absorbs the light around 450nm and turns a dark color). Continued examination of this area also revealed a second bloody fingerprint.
The two bloody fingerprints were photographed using a 35mm Nikon FM-2 camera with a 50mm lens and Ilford XP-2, 400 speed Black and White film (Figures 4 & 5). The camera was fully manual with manual focus. The tripods we carried in our vans could not be used because they could not straddle the body. There was no way to get the camera, mounted on the tripod, directly over the fingerprints, and down close, which is a requirement for examination quality photography. So the camera had to be hand held with the photographer straddling the body, bent over and holding the camera just inches above the fingerprint, while trying to obtain a meter reading as the other person held the light guide of the ALS. The latent print examiner and I took turns photographing because of the awkward, back breaking positions. We were only able to take three or four photographs before our back and leg muscles started to cramp and keeping the camera steady, and in focus, was nearly impossible. We took some sixty or seventy photographs of the two fingerprints to ensure at least one of each turned out.
Figure 4: The above photograph shows one of the latent bloody fingerprints developed with a light source and photographed on human skin. This type of impression will be very faint and require close-up photography.
Since the body belonged to the medical examiner, we requested permission to use Amido Black on the bloody fingerprint impressions in an effort to enhance the ridge detail. The medical examiner agreed, and the Amido Black was applied to the area of the fingerprints. This was the first time Amido Black had been used on human skin in Jacksonville. Instead of enhancing the two fingerprints, the ridge detail was destroyed, washed away by the liquid chemical. However, the Amido Black did develop a third bloody fingerprint that we had not seen with the ALS. This third print was also photographed using the same methods as mentioned above. The destruction of the first two fingerprints with the Amido Black made us realize how extremely fragile bloody fingerprints are on human skin, but also resilient since the third print was developed.
The photographs were developed and the crime lab began running them through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). Three weeks of running the prints through AFIS led to many possibilities with no matches. Finally around December 21, 1993, another candidate was identified. Comparisons of the inked fingerprints from the candidate’s arrest record were compared to the photographed fingerprints from the body. Two latent fingerprint examiners looked at the fingerprints and concurred on the match and the suspect was finally identified. Homicide detectives were given the name and the suspect was in custody within 24 hours. The same day homicide detectives arrested the suspect, we served a search warrant on his residence. The murder weapon was discovered under a mattress in a bedroom (Figure 6).
Figure 5: The above photograph shows a second latent bloody fingerprint photographed on human skin with the aid of an alternate light source.
The suspect lived on approximately five acres on the west side of Jacksonville. While searching around a shed, deep on the back of the property, we discovered piles of women’s clothing and accessories, as well as pornographic magazines. The victim, a known prostitute, had been the fifth prostitute found murdered within an eleven-month period, all within several miles of each another. The suspect, Patrick Allen Herald (Figure 7), confessed to three of the five murders, which classified him as a serial killer. Several law enforcement agencies with unsolved cases from Florida to Indiana traveled to Jacksonville to interview Herald because it was learned that he often drove between Jacksonville and Indianapolis. I never heard whether or not he was ever linked to any unsolved homicides.
The public defenders representing Patrick Herald, subpoenaed me to a deposition. During questioning, I testified how the fingerprints of their client were developed and recovered from the skin of the victim. Not long after, a plea deal was reached and he was sentenced to life for the murder of Libby Miller. Since the evidence connecting him to the other two murders was very weak, the State Attorney’s Office decided to drop those charges. Patrick Allen Herald is now serving a life sentence at the South Bay Correctional Facility.
Even though we were successful in obtaining useful photographs, hand-holding a camera for this procedure is never recommended unless there are no other alternatives. The option of handholding the camera is always a last resort. After this case, our unit purchased tripods that would allow us to photograph fingerprints on human bodies. The larger quadrapods, that are now available, can also be used to photograph evidence on bodies.
Figure 7: Patrick Allen Herald. Photo courtesy of the Florida Department of Corrections.
In addition, the following played a very important role to the successful outcome of this case:
- The time of year, November, was important because the weather was cool both day and night. The victim had been dead 24 to 36 hours and there was no insect activity, decomposition or skin slippage. Basically, the victim was in a state of refrigeration.
- The area where the homicide took place was approximately 45 feet above the ground. The body lay on concrete, under an overpass, keeping the body out of direct sunlight.
- There was cooperation between the homicide detectives, crime scene detectives, latent print examiner, and the medical examiner’s office. Once death occurs, the body belongs to the medical examiner even though it is in your crime scene. Before anything can be done to a body other than photographing; permission must be obtained from the medical examiner, if the law applies in your jurisdiction. A good working relationship between law enforcement and the medical examiner or coroner is essential to a successful investigation.
- Any number of things could have altered the outcome of this investigation and could have permitted a serial killer to continue killing. Pay attention to your gut instinct, the voice inside you. Always be aware of new technology and do not be afraid of trying the unknown. When you get to the crime scene, pay attention to the circumstances. Each and every scene is different in some way from the last one, but each scene is teaching you if you are willing to pay attention.
Michael F. LaForte is a forensic consultant for Knox & Associates, LLC, a Jacksonville, Florida based forensic consulting company that specializes in firearms, ballistics, and crime scene reconstruction. He was a police officer/detective with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for over 29 years having worked in patrol, and crime scene investigations. In addition to being a major case crime scene detective, he spent the last three years as the training coordinator for the agency’s crime scene unit. He has also provided crime scene training in Peru, and around the United States. He has testified as an expert witness in crime scene reconstruction in state courts in Florida. He has authored three books on crime scene processing and crime scene photography.