Fingerprinting the Dead

by Daryl W. Clemens

Plastic Tape

Plastic Tape

Obtaining fingerprints for identification is a long established law enforcement practice. When the practice started, is was most common to use printers ink applied to the fingers which were then pressed onto paper cards. Later specialized inks were employed to improve the quality of the prints obtained. While ink is still used today, many agencies are now using computer “live-scan” methods to record reference prints.

Fingerprint Brush

Fingerprint Brush

One of the challenges in obtaining reference prints has always been how to obtain them from the deceased. Ink has often been used with success, but it can be difficult, especially with rigor stiffened or mummified fingers. Live-scan is not a practical option, at least not until someone develops a portable scanner.

Apply Powder

Apply Powder

One method that has been used is to obtain prints using black fingerprint powder (normally used to locate latent fingerprints at crime scenes). The method is simple, reliable and works on stiff and mummified fingers.

Lift the Prints

Lift the Prints

Materials needed are a small jar of black fingerprint powder, clear or white plastic tape (“Scotch” brand is pictured here, but any similar flexible tape will work), a small “camel hair” brush, and either white fingerprint cards or clear acetate cards depending on whether you choose clear or white tape.

Place Print on Card

Place Print on Card

Close-up of Print

Close-up of Print

Apply the powder to the fingers, and brush off any excess. It is easiest to next cut 10 small sections of tape, rather than wrestling with tape still on the roll. Press the tape firmly against the finger, starting in the center and working outward. Remove the tape and place it on a fingerprint car d. Clear tape can be applied to the front of standard cards, or white tape can be applied to the back of clear acetate sheets. Important note: Prints obtained using clear tape applied to the front of standard cards will not be in the same orientation as standard inked prints and will need to be reversed before classification or entry into automated systems.

Severely wrinkled fingers can be powdered fairly easily, but may need to be cast with Mikrosil instead of lifted with tape.

Ernie Hamm also suggests that white contact paper can also be used in place of white tape, and that it can be cut in pieces large enough to record palm prints as well. Thanks Ernie!















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