Jenning’s Criminal History

People W. Jennings: a classic murder and burglary case typical to dockets in courts across the nation. On the early morning of Monday, September 19th, 1910 at around 2 am, Clarence B. Hiller, his wife, and four children were sound asleep in their two-story home in Chicago Illinois, when Mr. Hiller groggily woke up to re-light the family gas light. As he approached the head of the stairs, he came across an intruder where both men fought, falling head-first down the stairs, and Mr. Hiller was shot twice and died within minutes. Thomas Jennings (the suspect) was out of luck that night, coming across four officers waiting to go home who questioned him and took him into the station, unaware of the murder that had just taken place.

The Pickens neighbors ran to the Hiller home, awakened by the screams of Mrs. Hiller and her children, along with nearby officer Floyd Beardsley who had also heard the screams and was trying to find where they came from. One of the daughters, Clarice, let the men in. Three undischarged revolver cartridges and two leaden slugs along with sand and gravel particles were found near Florence’s bed (where Jennings had tried to molest her). It is important to note that on the same night just before the shooting, an intruder had also entered the McNabb house a few houses down where he tried to molest Mrs. McNabb, which her daughter was of witness to; and even earlier on that night around midnight, Clarence Halsted reported an intruder also tried to enter his home about a mile from the Hiller home; but the intruder managed to escape before a fight could ensue.

Unluckily again for Mr. Jennings, the Hiller home was recently painted two days before the murder, including the back porch through which he had entered a kitchen window; an imprint of four fingers of his left hand was discovered on the porch railing, and this piece was taken into evidence. Jennings having previously violated parole, had fingerprints already on file; thus it was an easy match to confirm. The main legal issues that Jennings’s defense attorney brought up were first, allowing the testimony of Halsted, Mrs. McNabb, and Jessie McNabb because they argued evidence of one offense cannot be admitted in support of another offense, as well as the uncertainty of the identification of the defendant in the testimonies; second, whether this new fingerprint identification technique was accurate and if it would even be legally admissible in the Illinois court if it was since it had never been used before in the United States; and finally, the defense tried to point out that the expert testimony on the fingerprints was not admissible.

The courts responses to the defense’s issues raised was the following: first and foremost, it was true that evidence for one offense cannot be used to support another; but like many rules, there were exceptions to this. Whatever testimony directly shows the defendant guilty of the crime charged is admissible, even if it may show him guilty of another and distinct offense. Admissibility is determined by the connection that the facts have with the offense charged. Secondly, although it was the middle of the night and very dark at the time the forced entries occurred in the multiple homes, it was frequently held in cases that a witness may “testify to a person’s identity from his voice or from observing his stature, complexion, or other marks”. Thus, in this case, the testimony identifying Jennings was admissible, and the weight of each was to be determined by the jury. Third, the accuracy of the fingerprints and the enlargements was not questioned; nothing had been decided on this prior, so Justice Carter decided that because fingerprint evidence was being used successfully and reliably in other parts of the world, it would be ignorant to not take that into account here. Not to mention four expert witnesses testified to more or less the same thing about the fingerprints from very accredited institutions, and all informed the jury of their knowledge they otherwise would not have known. Roughly a year later, Jennings was sentenced to death by hanging. People v Jennings was a monumental case where the first ever fingerprints were used as evidence in the United States, and paved the way for future forensic evidence. This method has definitely endured the test of time in our legal system and is still used in the same way in comparison to when it was first introduced in this country, despite its controversies. With such information-rich evidence, fingerprint evidence was finally legitimized through this case for use in the U.S

Now, On January 7th, 2002, defendant Carlos Ivan Llera-Plaza and his two codefendants Wilfredo Martinez Acosta and Victor Rodriguez were indicted on various drug and murder charges. Llera-Plaza participated in a hot drug distribution ring the government referred to as RCDO, or ‘the Rodriguez-Cacerez Drug Organization,’ transporting cocaine from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia for sale to the infamous RCDO and further selling by the group on the streets; Llera-Plaza also carried out a series of murders to further the goals of the RCDO. Throughout the period being charged for in the indictment, the RCDO was making roughly $100,000 per week selling over five kilos of crack cocaine and powder cocaine. The supply of cocaine for the RCDO came from various locations outside of Philadelphia, where Llera-Plaza had traveled to and was deemed the supplier.

With extensive pre-trial hearings, the most important and relevant evidence here that Carlos Ivan Lllera-Plaza and his two codefendants moved to suppress was the testimony of four Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) fingerprint analysts linking them to the crimes. Their defense argued that this form of expert evidence failed to meet the Daubert and Kumho standards of admissibility and expert testimony in respect to Federal Rule of Evidence 702, as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court. In response to this, the United States moved the court to admit fingerprint evidence at trial, and take judicial notice of the uniqueness and permanence of fingerprints. Both sides agreed to resolve these motions on the basis of a similar previous case, United States v. Mitchell. After reviewing the transcripts of that hearing and taking note of the arguments from the parties in Llera-Plaza, presiding Judge Louis H. Pollack took judicial notice of the uniqueness and permanence of fingerprints but found that the FBI’s method of allocating fingerprints to individuals did not meet Daubert’s testing, peer review, and standards criteria, and that information as to the rate of error was not known. In addition, the court decided that expert witnesses could not testify as to their opinion that a print belonged to a specific individual. With that being said, the court did not prevent the government from using the fingerprint evidence entirely, but rather specified that the testimony by the qualified experts through skill and experience may describe how the rolled and latent fingerprints at issue in this case were obtained, show and identify to the jury minute details with magnification of the prints if necessary, and point out similarities and differences between the prints.

In essence, Judge Pollak ruled that because fingerprint analysis had not been subjected to rigorous testing, an expert could testify to the similarities between prints but could not conclusively tell a jury that one print matched another; it was not a legitimate form of scientific evidence. This decision delighted defense attorneys but sent an earthquake throughout the forensic/criminal justice community, which had been relying on fingerprint evidence as sound evidence for roughly one hundred years. The United States attorney’s office in Philadelphia moved for a reconsideration of the ruling, stating that it would undermine the prosecution’s effectiveness in this and in other cases and that the ruling was flawed. The defense, on the other hand, stated that this reconsideration would not be necessary due to the fact that the additional evidence the government wanted to introduce was nothing new to the case that was not already known, and it would be an erroneous decision.

Six weeks later, after three days of testimony, an evidentiary hearing, and research on England’s fingerprinting laws, Judge Pollack wrote a new opinion where he concluded that if these methods are sufficiently reliable in England (and other parts of the world) under careful scrutiny, they should be found equally reliable in federal courts of the United States. ”In short, I have changed my mind”. Some might argue that Judge Pollack was out of his mind for daring to challenge a standard that had stood the test of time and had been accepted so easily but we know better now. Are fingerprints really a good source of evidence? Are they reliable, and is it true that no two are alike? Judge Pollack’s initial ruling may just have been the better one, but the backlash he received might just have been enough to place him back in line with the many judges that have ruled in favor of fingerprint evidence. The admissibility of People v Jennings was back in business.

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