A New Kind of Evidence

On this day in 1939, New Zealand Crown Prosecutor H J Macalister obtained the first conviction in that country based exclusively on the evidence of fingerprints found at the scene of a crime. Macalister successfully prosecuted Sandford Robert Young for breaking into an office and stealing a safe.

Fingerprinting as a method of identification had been investigated in the 1800s by several different people working independently of one another.[1]The possibility that it could be used to identify criminals was first asserted by Dr Henry Faulds in the October 1880 issue of Nature magazine, sparking a feud with another pioneer, William Herschel; twelve years later Francis Galton advanced the argument in his book Finger Prints. Despite their research, it took years for police forces to adopt the technique. 

By 1939, fingerprints had already been used as evidence in New Zealand, most notably in a murder case heard by the Auckland Supreme Court in 1920. In that case, however, other evidence was also presented, including the discovery of stolen articles near the home of the accused and forensic evidence tying bullets found in the victim to his gun. The accused had also been seen near the scene of the crime by a prison warden who knew him from a previous sentence.[2]

In the case prosecuted by Mr Macalister, the only evidence presented was the identification of fingerprints belonging to the accused on pieces of broken glass at the point of entry. The case was heard at the Supreme Court in Invercargill, where a jury found Mr Young guilty as charged.[3]

 Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013

[1]According to ‘History on Fingerprints‘, fingerprints as a means of identification were used much earlier in China and had briefly been considered in the West in the late 1600s. 
[2]Fingerprints help convict murderer‘, New Zealand History online 
[3]Conviction on finger print evidence‘, The Southland Times, February 23, 1939


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