False Fingerprint Evidence

13 Cases

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CA - Alameda - John Stoppelli 1948

CA - Los Angeles - James Preston 1924

CA - Orange - William DePalma 1967

IL - Cook - James Newsome 1979

MA - Suffolk - Stephen Cowans 1997

MN - St. Louis - Roger Sipe Caldwell 1977

OR - Washington - Brandon Mayfield 2004

PA - Dauphin - Gary W. Rank 1979

PA - Delaware - Rickie Jackson 1997

PA - Northampton - Robert Loomis 1918

TX - Smith - Kerry Max Cook 1977

UT - Davis - David Valken-Leduc 1996

Scotland - Asbury & McKie 1997




Date of Alleged Crime


Alameda County, CA John Stoppelli 1948
(Federal Case)  John Stoppelli was convicted of drug trafficking in an Oakland federal court.  Internal Revenue Agent W. Harold “Bucky” Greene determined that Stoppelli's fingerprint was on a package of heroin seized in an Oakland raid in which four men were arrested.  Greene found fourteen matching ridge characteristics.  The four men said he was not involved and, on the day of the raid, Stoppelli had registered with his probation officer in New York, 3,000 miles away.  An FBI lab later determined the print did not match Stoppelli.  Stoppelli then sought a new trial, but his request was denied, because the FBI analysis was not “new” evidence, just a reevaluation of  “old” evidence.  U.S. President Truman commuted Stoppelli's sentence after he had served 2 years.  (Justice: Denied)  [1/07]


Los Angeles County, CA James Preston Oct 18, 1924

James W. Preston was convicted of robbing a Los Angeles widow and shooting her when she tried to escape.  The victim, Mrs. Dick R. Parsons lived at 906 W. 50th St.  The perpetrator had entered through a first floor window, and on the dust of the screen, fingerprints were found.  Preston was arrested on a minor charge a few days after the crime.  His fingerprints were compared with those found on the screen, but did not match.  For some reason, however, the Los Angeles newspapers carried stories stating that Preston had been identified as Mrs. Parsons' assailant through the fingerprints.  The source of this misinformation could not be determined.

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Orange County, CA William DePalma Nov 28, 1967 (Buena Park)

(Federal Case)  William DePalma was convicted of on charges of being the sole gunman who robbed the Mercury Savings and Loan in Buena Park, CA.  Following the crime, Sergeant James David Bakken, an Identification Officer for the Buena Park Police, identified a partial fingerprint purportedly lifted from the bank counter as the fingerprint of DePalma.  A local warrant was issued, but it was subsequently dismissed and the case was tried in U.S. District Court.

At trial, Sergeant Bakken testified as a government witness.  An FBI latent print examiner also testified, but only in regard to whether the lifted fingerprint matched DePalma's fingerprint.  He gave no testimony on the source of the found fingerprint.  DePalma was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Some time later, presumably years, Sergeant Bakken was indicted in a completely separate matter for perjury and for manufacturing evidence.  Since DePalma had been persistent in his claims of innocence, authorities re-examined the partial fingerprint in his case.  They concluded that the partial fingerprint was not lifted from a bank counter, but from a photocopy of DePalma's fingerprint.  DePalma's conviction was vacated in Feb. 1974.  DePalma later sued the City of Buena Vista and in Aug. 1975 accepted “a sizeable settlement.”  (Source)  [12/07]


Cook County, IL James Newsome Oct 30, 1979
James Newsome was convicted of the murder of Edward “Mickey” Cohen, 72, during a robbery of Cohen's grocery store.  The store was located at 8911 S. Loomis St. in Chicago.  After two eyewitnesses had picked photographs of someone else out of a mug book, police put Newsome into a lineup.  He was then informed that he had been identified.  Newsome was tried and convicted of murder and armed robbery based on these witnesses and a third eyewitness.  In 1989, Newsome obtained a court order requiring the Chicago Police Department to run unidentified fingerprints from the murder scene through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System.  The check was run, and the officer in charge falsely reported that the search found no prints matching anyone else.  It was not until five years later that police admitted that prints were found to match those of Dennis Emerson, who by then was on death row for another murder.  Newsome was freed in 1994 and Gov. Edgar granted him a pardon based on innocence in 1995.  In 2003, Newsome was awarded $15 million for 15 years of wrongful incarceration.  (CWC)  [6/05]


Suffolk County, MA Stephen Cowans May 30, 1997 (Jamaica Plain)
Stephen Cowans was convicted of charges related to firing a bullet into Sgt. Detective Gregory Gallagher's buttocks using the officer's own gun.  The conviction was based on fingerprint evidence, but it was later determined that the fingerprint that allegedly matched Cowans, came from a hostage of the real shooter.  The officer and another witness identified Cowans as the assailant, but the hostage witnesses who spent the most time with the assailant disagreed.  The Boston Police Department technician who processed and matched the fingerprint had been suspended for ten days in 1992 after he was caught drunk without his pants along the Charles River.  DNA tests exonerated Cowans and he was released in 2004.  In 2006, Cowans was awarded $3.2 million.  (IP) (IB) (Boston Globe)  [10/05]


St. Louis County, MN Roger Sipe Caldwell June 27, 1977
Roger Sipe Caldwell was convicted of murdering Elisabeth Congdon, an elderly Duluth heiress, and her nurse, Velma Pietila.  Caldwell had married Marjorie Congdon LeRoy, the adopted daughter of the victim, in 1976.  Marjorie received $22,000 per year from trust funds established by the Congdon family, and stood to inherit and estimated $8,200,000 when her mother died. Caldwell was convicted because his fingerprints allegedly matched prints left behind by the perpetrator.  A year later when his alleged co-conspirator, Marjorie, went to trial, three expert witnesses for the defense testified that Caldwell's prints did not match.  Marjorie was acquitted.  Caldwell's conviction was later reversed on appeal.  Rather than face another trial, Caldwell entered a time-served plea and was released.  (State v. Caldwell) (More Than Zero)  [10/07]


Washington County, OR Brandon Mayfield Mar 11, 2004

(Federal Case)  On March 11, 2004, a number of bombs were detonated on trains in Madrid, Spain, which killed 191 people and injured about 2000 others, including American citizens.  A bag containing detonation caps was found outside a train station through which all the bombed trains had left or had passed through.  On March 17, digital images of fingerprints found on the bag were transmitted to the FBI and run through their AFIS database of fingerprints.  When latent print #17 was run, the database produced 20 possible matches.  FBI Senior Print Examiner Terry Green then manually compared the potential matches and found a 100% match with the fourth ranked print on the AFIS list.  The FBI has long claimed that fingerprint identification is infallible. A top FBI fingerprint official had testified to a “zero error rate.”

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Dauphin County, PA Gary W. Rank Mar 22, 1979 (Gratz)
Gary W. Rank was tried for the murder of 78-year-old Helen Elizabeth Horn.  Horn was found strangled and beaten to death in her Gratz, PA home.  Rank was acquitted after NYU professor Salvatore Nicosia demonstrated how plastic fingerprint impressions taken of Rank were transferred to Horn's property.  Rank filed a civil suit against Sgt. Joseph Van Nort and Trooper John J. Holtz for planting the fingerprints, as the two had investigated the crime.  State policeman Cpl. John Balshy, a fingerprint expert, was also named with them.  A civil jury found the suit defendants guilty of planting fingerprints and they were ordered to pay Rank a five figure sum.  The planting apparently was performed with Sirchie fingerprint pads.  (Main Source:  Joseph Wambaugh and the Jay Smith Case, Chapter 23) (Rank v. Balshy)  [11/10]


Delaware County, PA Rickie Jackson Sept 1997 (Upper Darby)

Richard C. Jackson was convicted of the murder of 38-year-old Alvin Davis, his friend and former gay lover.  Jackson was a hairdresser who resided in West Philadelphia.  Davis was stabbed to death and his body was found nine days later in his second floor apartment at 422 Long Lane in Upper Darby.

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Northampton County, PA Robert Loomis May 3, 1918 (Easton)
Robert Loomis was convicted of murdering Bertha Myers during a burglary.  Two fingerprint experts testified for the prosecution that a latent print found on a jewelry box belonged to Loomis.  Loomis won a new trial because the trial judge had prejudiced the jury against Loomis, and he won a third trial for the same reason.  At Loomis's third trial, the prosecution admitted that Loomis was not the source of the latent print and declined to offer it into evidence. The record does not show what led the government to this conclusion.  Loomis was acquitted and released in 1921.  (More Than Zero) (Phila Inquirer)


Smith County, TX

Kerry Max Cook

June 10, 1977 (Tyler)

Kerry Max Cook was sentenced to death for the murder of Linda Jo Edwards, a 21-year-old secretary.  Edwards was a college student who was having an affair with her married professor.  Cook was arrested in a club where he worked as a bartender.  The club was chiefly known as a gay bar, and police theorized that Cook was a degenerate homosexual who hated women.

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Davis County, UT David Valken-Leduc Oct 29, 1996 (Woods Cross)

David Jonathan Valken-Leduc was convicted in 2004 of the murder of Matthew John Whicker, a Motel 6 night clerk.  Whicker, 30, was shot multiple times and died in the motel lobby.  In 1996, police arrested Todd Jeremy Rettenberger in regard to the shooting.  Although Rettenberger knew Valken-Leduc, for five years he never mentioned Valken-Leduc's involvement in the crime.  In 2001, Scott Spjut, a Certified Latent Print Examiner, identified a bloody fingerprint found at the scene as belonging to Valken-Leduc.  Rettenberger then implicated Valken-Leduc in the crime.  In 2003, Spjut was shot and killed by a rifle he was inspecting at a crime lab.  The bloody fingerprint was then re-examined and found to belong to Whicker rather than to Valken-Leduc.

Rettenberger, who has twice pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Whicker's death, agreed to testify against Valken-Leduc in exchange for his immediate release from jail after spending 63 months there.  At trial Rettenberger testified that he drove Valken-Leduc, then 17, and another man, Elliot Rashad Harper, to the Motel 6 with plans to rob it.  Rettenberger stood outside and watched Valken-Leduc and Harper confront Whicker inside.  Something then went wrong, resulting in a scuffle and then gunshots.  He named Valken-Leduc as the triggerman.  Valken-Leduc testified that he had once had a loose friendship with Rettenberger, but that he cut contact after Rettenberger let a mutual friend take the blame for something Rettenberger had done.

Following Valken-Leduc's conviction, his defense attorney said that Rettenberger's contradictory confessions should have been introduced to the jury “to impeach his credibility.” He also objected to the prosecution making inconsistent allegations in its trials of Rettenberger and Valken-Leduc, saying he believes such discrepancies in the trials of co-defendants are unconstitutional.

Harper, who also maintained his innocence, was subsequently tried, but his trial resulted in a hung jury.  In 2008, he pleaded to lesser charges and was released from custody.  Valken-Leduc said he told his mother before she died that he takes some responsibility: “I chose to be acquainted with Todd Rettenberger. That's a mistake I made and I have to live with it.”

On June 16, 2009, Valken-Leduc's conviction was vacated and he was released from custody after entering an Alford plea in which he did not have to admit guilt.  He will be on probation for three years.  (DMN) (SE) (DMN 2009)  [6/09]


Scotland Asbury & McKie Jan 8, 1997 (Kilmarnock)

David Asbury was convicted of murdering 51-year-old Marion Ross and stealing a biscuit tin from her containing £1800.  The victim's ribs were crushed and she was stabbed in the eye with scissors.  The scissors were left embedded in her throat.  There were no signs of forced entry, but police discovered that some builders, including Asbury, had had access to her home the previous year.  During a search of Asbury's apartment, Detective Shirley McKie found a biscuit tin in his bedroom containing £1800.  Asbury maintained the tin and the money were his.  However the Scottish Fingerprint Service, a division of the Scottish Criminal Records Office (SCRO), found Ross's fingerprint on it.  Since the tin provided a possible motive of theft for the murder, police believed the tin had belonged to the victim.  At Asbury's trial for murder, expert witnesses from the SCRO testified that a fingerprint found on the tin was that of Ross.

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