Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

All about Fingerprints and Other Impressions


Almost a century before fingerprints were developed as a mode of identification, Michael Baden points out in Dead Reckoning that Johann Caspar Lavater started a practice that came to be called "earology." Lavater felt that individualization lay in the design of the ear, so he set about recording as many earprints as he could to make comparisons. While other methods of identification eclipsed that one, it didn't lose out completely.

In America, a deputy sheriff named Alfred Iannarelli devised a classification system and wrote a book called Earology, which tried to turn ear identification into a science. However, peers remained skeptical, as did the courts.

Now the National Training Center for Scientific Support for Crime Investigation in the U.K. is compiling a computer database of several thousand earprints, similar to fingerprints databases. The members want a research tool to help them prove that no two earprints are the same. They've even included samples from identical twins that show some differences. It's the cartilage formation and the contours, they say, that give the ear its distinctive shape. In fact, this is the first law enforcement organization to prosecute someone based on an earprint.

In Washington State in 1999, according to notes from the court case, an earprint was key evidence in the murder case against David Wayne Kunze. Five years earlier, an intruder had entered the home of James McCann and bludgeoned him to death. That same person also attacked McCann's son, fracturing his skull. A fingerprint technician processed the home and he's the one who discovered a partial latent earprint in McCann's bedroom. (Often such impressions will be ignored, since they haven't been tested as admissible in court.) He lifted the print and preserved it.

However, in July 2002, the Court of Appeals re-examined this case. The resulting judgment noted that two experts on earprints had made the critical comparisons and had found that the prints from the scene were consistent in detail with those prints provided by the appellant. They were also aware that he lived near the home where the woman was murdered and had been convicted of several burglaries in the area. However, the appellant claimed that he had been with his girlfriend on the night in question, but she had been sleep and was unable to support his alibi. No experts had been called by the defense to refute the testimony of the earprint experts.

Subsequently, it emerged that many forensic scientists believed that earprint evidence was not sufficiently established as to be made the sole support for conviction. Several scientists submitted reports for the court and gave oral testimony to the effect that this evidence was ":unsafe.": It was also clear that the experts used by the prosecution were relying on a discipline in its infancy. The attorneys for the appellant believed that the jury should not have heard it and that the judge should not have ruled it as admissible. In fact, evidence in support of the idea that all ears are unique is limited. It was also noted that two other convictions, one in Holland and one in the U.S, had been overturned on appeal.

The case in the U.S. that was noted in this judgment was the following:

Then the investigators learned that David Kunze's former wife had upset him by announcing that she was to marry James McCann. They asked the lab technicians to compare the earprint from the scene with photos of the left side of Kunze's head. Based on what appeared to be significant similarities, they decided to get exemplar impressions—actual earprints from Kunze.

The technique they used was to place hand lotion on Kunze's ear and press glass against it. They took seven impressions of different degrees of pressure and then transferred them to a transparent overlay. After a thorough examination, they declared that Kunze was a "likely source" for the earprint at the scene.

Based mostly on this evidence, Kunze was convicted, but on appeal, the earprint evidence was excluded because the identification method was not scientific. A second trial resulted in a mistrial, and in 2001, the D.A. decided that he had insufficient evidence to run a third trial, so the case was dropped.

Nevertheless, earprint specialists believe that earprints will eventually have their day in court. It's a matter of proving the theory that nature doesn't repeat itself, and earprints, like fingerprints, show a unique design.

And then there are footprints. Barefoot prints, that is.

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