People v. Jennings:
A Significant Case In
American Fingerprint History
(This original article was submitted by the author. The author is a forensic science graduate student. Our thanks to him for his contribution to our publication and the science.)
by MARK A. ACREE, MSFS
University of Alabama at Birmingham
In order to understand the modern day importance of fingerprint evidence in the United States legal system, one must be familiar with important early legal cases. One such case is People v. Jennings (1911). On the night of September 19, 1910, Clarence B. Hiller, his wife, and four children were fast asleep when Mrs. Hiller had awoken and noticed the gas light that they always kept on at night was not on. She alerted Mr. Hiller to this fact and he went to investigate the situation. At the head of the stairway he encountered an intruder and a struggle ensued. Both fell to the foot of the stairway and Mr. Hiller was shot twice. He died moments later. Mrs. Hiller screamed and the intruder fled. At the scene of the crime, three undischarged cartridges and two lead slugs were found. Particles of sand were found in one of the children's rooms. The point of entry was determined to be through a window in the kitchen. The railing near this window had recently been painted and it was here that the imprint of four fingers of someone's left hand was found imbedded in the fresh paint.
At about 2:38 a.m. Thomas Jennings was spotted by police and was questioned as to what he was doing out so late. The officers noticed he was injured and when asked about this, he gave conflicting statements. They searched him and discovered he was carrying a loaded revolver. He was immediately arrested and taken to a doctor. Later, the police found out that Jennings had just been released on parole in August 1910 after serving a sentence for burglary. His fingerprint card was on file and was compared to the prints lifted at the Hiller household. Four fingerprint experts at Jennings' trial declared the fingerprints from the crime scene were a conclusive match to Jennings own prints. Based on this evidence, Jennings was convicted of murder on February 1, 1911. It is of historical note that three of these four expert witnesses that testified at this trial were trained by Scotland Yard experts at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. It was shortly after this event that fingerprint science spread to all the major American cities across the nation.
After his trial, Jennings appealed his case to the Supreme Court of Illinois. This appeal was based primarily on the admissibility of fingerprint evidence. The Court recognized that �standard authorities on scientific subjects discuss the use of fingerprints as a system of identification, concluding that experience has shown it to be reliable�. Furthermore, �these authorities state that this system of identification is of very ancient origin, having been used in Egypt when the impression of the monarch's thumb was used as his sign manual, that it has been used in the courts of India for many years and more recently in the courts of several European countries; that in recent years its use has become very general by the police departments of the large cities of this country and Europe; that the great success of the system in England, where it has been used since 1891 in thousands of cases without error, caused the sending of an investigating commission from the United States, on whose favorable report a bureau was established by the United States government in the war and other departments�. The Court further stated that �there is a scientific basis for the system of fingerprint identification, and that the courts are justified in admitting this class of evidence; that this method of identification is in such general and common use that the courts cannot refuse to take judicial cognizance of it�. The Supreme Court of Illinois affirmed the lower court decision for the murder conviction.
People v. Jennings is significant to both the American legal system and the science of fingerprint identification because it firmly establishes the acceptance of fingerprint evidence as a means of legally identifying individuals, and that fingerprint impressions have been relied on in ancient cultures as well as European courts of law. In other words, the Illinois Supreme Court ruling helped to �legitimize� fingerprint identification for legal usage in this country. The importance of People v. Jennings is further highlighted by the fact that this case is frequently cited in numerous American criminal cases throughout history.
People v. Jennings, 252 Ill. 534, 96 N.E. 1077 (1911).
This article was printed in �THE PRINT�
Volume 14(4) July/August 1998, pp 1-2
and has been obtained from the online library provided by the
Southern California Association of Fingerprint Officers