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Fingerprints Don’t Lie?

As the sun set on 2011, a flurry of paperwork obscured the murky gun theft from the Sanchez home on Mountain View Road, Boonville. The house was broken into and a variety of sporting arms taken in December of 2010. The Sanchezes were away. The brother-in-law keeping an eye on their place found that the sliding glass back door had been shattered with a rock and four guns were missing from the gun cabinet. Fingerprints were found at the scene of the burglary, but the crime lab is so backed up that it takes many months for a low priority crime like burglary to get fingerprint evidence processed. It was mid-August when the prints finally came back identified as belonging to a young graduate of a Boonville group home, Xavier Francis, who has an impressive history of juvenile crime in the San Francisco Bay Area.

When Deputy Craig Walker first approached Francis at Boonville's Redwood Drive In to ask Francis if he knew anything about the theft, Francis and a chorus of foul-mouthed friends, some of whom are assumed to have been in on the theft, unleashed a torrent of abuse on the deputy. Francis finally told Walker he had nothing to say, except that he’d never been to the Sanchez place in his life which, even apart from what the fingerprint evidence seems to say, is untrue. He had been at the home at least once for a party.

The suspect has steadily seemed unconcerned, so unconcerned he hasn't bothered attending hearings in his own case. In November, Public Defender Andrew Higgins filed a motion to suppress the evidence, but when Francis didn’t show up, the DA reminded the court that the defendant had been ordered to be present. No arrest warrant was issued by Judge Ann Moorman, however, and the hearing was reset for December 15th on the off chance the defendant would find that date more convenient.

Francis didn't show at that one either.

This time the matter was in front of Judge David Nelson. Judge Nelson. Although Nelson had several juvenile cases waiting to be heard, he indulged Francis's one-person defense team. The judge asked Higgins to telephone his client to see if he couldn’t be persuaded to drop by Nelson's courtroom for a few minutes. As we waited for Francis to appear, DA David Eyster, who is handling the Francis matter himself and has been to Boonville with his chief investigator Tim Kiely to look at the scene of the crime, expressed nostalgia for the days when no-shows and tardy defendants would not have been tolerated.

Francis, however, had graciously deigned to appear; he was an hour late but there he was, apparently unaware that he just might be packed off to state prison if he's convicted. And he's probably going to be convicted because he's got the DA himself on his case.

The matter went forward, as some people wondered why all the effort for a relatively minor burglary, minor only if you're not the victim and minor only if you don't know that the stolen guns are now almost for a certainty in the hands of very bad people.

Public Defender Higgins, has been busy — very busy — researching the legitimacy of fingerprints as evidence. Whole forests have been clearcut to print scores of studies by hundreds of tenured scholars cranking out thousands of pages to contradict those telltale whorls and swirls.

Higgins cited an enormous expanse of this material with titles like “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.” Higgins says this study and others like it demonstrate that fingerprint evidence has always been arbitrary, totally dependent on the expertise of the examiners. Of course the same could be said of everything from ape shit to applesauce.

When the young lawyer referred the court to page 937 of the aforementioned tome, he wasn't joking. In his brief, Higgins writes, “In short, this lengthy study found that there were insufficient studies in many forensic sciences disciplines, and that the interpretation of latent fingerprint analysis depended on the expertise of the examiners. So regardless of the tests utilized, latent fingerprint analysis should not be permitted.”

More studies were cited, quoted and certified as valid by the boyish looking public defender. It became apparent that scores of studies, hundreds of lawyers, thousands of clerks, millions of dollars, and a billion superfluous substantive clauses [a nine-word phrase posing as a noun, for instance], have been devoted to the conjurer's art of fingerprint analysis.

How did this little kite, this paper contraption, fly in court?

Judge Nelson seemed to be biting his knuckle to keep from grinning in the young lawyer’s face. At length, the judge said, “I’ve read your motion, counsel. But since Kelly 35 years ago, no court in this country has gone beyond Kelly. Are you asking me to go out there?”

“The technology has never been tested, your honor,” Higgins replied.

“The scientific community,” the judge continued, “agrees that the technology used doesn’t change the basic fact of the fingerprints — just to provide a picture for the courts — which you kind of admit to in your brief.”

DA Eyster couldn't help saying, “We can go all the way back to 1946 when it was established that the fingerprint was the strongest evidence of identity available. We have extrapolations from many articles suggesting the potential for error but the courts do not require a test because it is accepted as valid in the scientific community, and even the public understands and accepts it as a strong way of proving identity.”

Nelson concluded, “I’m going to deny the motion. I do find your authorities relevant for use in the trial, however.”

Maybe Higgins can convince a jury with the studies that failed to convince the judge.

Then we enjoyed a fast round of court calendar ping-pong.

Trial was set for November 29th.

A motion was filed to compel discovery.

Trial was set for December 15th.

A motion to dismiss was filed.

Trial was set for December 19th.

A motion to sanction prosecution was filed.

Trial was set for January 9th.

For reals, as the delinquents say.

Mr. Francis was ordered to be present.

It appears some of the evidence went missing but was recovered. The pictures of the crime scene, a snapshot of a foot print and, even, the photo of the incriminating fingerprints — these were all lost when investigator Troy Furman admitted he accidentally deleted the photographs while trying to up-load them to the Sheriff’s new computer system: “I caused the pictures to be placed on a compact disc and forwarded to the MCSO evidence, with Exhibit 1. Attached.”

They never made it.

On December 17th Deputy Craig Walker took photographs of the Sanchez residence, put them on a CD and submitted them to evidence.

They never made it.

Then the recorded interviews went missing. According to Deputy Keith Squires, he taped the interviews only to discover that his tape recorder had malfunctioned.

On December 20th Deputy Craig Walker spoke with Deputy Squires, who had been on medical leave. Deputy Walker said he re-checked the recordings and found the interview with former Anderson Valley football star Michael Blackburn, a friend of Francis's, intact. Walker put the interview on a CD and placed it in evidence.

On the same day, December 20, 2011, the defense learned that the DA was planning to call a witness named James Robert Wallace, an ex-con who just happens to be the Sanchez's brother-in-law and the guy caretaking the Sanchez place when the delinquents broke in. Higgins will probably try to pin the whole show on Wallace although Wallace has been clean for years.

Down to it, all there is is a fingerprint, and how good the print is will depend on which expert the jury believes.

Stay tuned, the action starts next Monday, January the 9th.

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