Footwear, the Missed Evidence

Dwayne S. Hilderbrand, CLPE
Lead Latent Print Examiner
Scottsdale Police Crime Lab

This article originally appeared in Minutiae, The Lightning Powder Co. Newsletter, Nov-Dec 1995, p. 2-5, 11.

“The scope of a complete examination consists of two main functions: first,
the recovery process, which includes the discovery and preservation of the
prints, and second, the identification process, which involves evaluations,
comparisons, and findings related to the recovered impression.”

(Grieve 1988).


“Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even
unconsciously, will serve as silent witness against him. Not only his
fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothing,
the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the
blood or semen he deposits or collects.. All of these and more bear mute
witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused
by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses
are, it is factual evidence, physical evidence cannot be wrong, it cannot
perjure itself; it cannot be wholly absent, only its interpretation can err.
Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its

(Paul L. Kirk 1974).

On September 19, 1991, two German tourists were hiking in the mountains on the border between Austria and Italy when they spotted a body buried in the ice. The two tourists, suspecting foul play, contacted the authorities. As it was not clear at the time exactly where the body was found, police authorities from Austria and Italy responded. Following the normal procedures for the recovery of the body, they attempted to free it from the ice using jack hammers. Unfortunately, the jack hammers were damaging the body, pickaxes and ski poles were then used.

Once the body had been removed from its icy grave it was examined and determined to be that of a fit mat, between 25-35 years old, and about 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighing somewhere around 110 pounds. The body was fully clothed and his “well-worn shoes were made of leather and stuffed with grass to keep his feet warm.”

The body was identified as that of the first completely intact 5,000-year-old Ice age man.

Shoes are a Fascinating Item of Clothing

In almost every criminal investigation it is necessary to determine and prove that a particular person or persons may or may not have been present at the scene of a crime. For this reason, the collection, preservation and analysis of physical evidence has become more frequent in the law enforcement community.

Around 1910, a criminologist by the name of Edmond Locard arrived at a theory that every time something comes into contact with another it either takes or leaves a portion of itself or another. This theory is called the Edmond Locard Theory, which simply states “Every contact leaves its trace.” This theory is continually used today in crime scene investigations and the analysis of physical evidence.

Since criminals must enter and exit crime scene areas it should therefore, be reasonably assumed that they may leave traces of their footwear. Criminals have become smarter and wiser by beginning to frequently wear protection over their hands to avoid leaving fingerprints, and masks over their faces to avoid eyewitness identification. However, they are rarely aware of, or make little attempt to conceal footwear. During an every day routine it is normal to see an individual wearing gloves, but it’s not normal to see individuals wearing protection over their shoes.

Unfortunately, when a crime scene is improperly secured or is disorganized, the search of the scene often results in this type of impression evidence being overlooked or destroyed. When this type of physical evidence is properly collected and preserved by the crime scene investigator, followed up by a detailed examination by a footwear expert, it can become an important part in proving or disproving a suspect was at the crime scene.

Why are Footwear Impressions Overlooked?

Footwear impressions are overlooked for two important reasons,

  1. The lack of training and education in the proper searching, collection and preservation of the evidence and;
  2. The evidence is undervalued or not understood.

The failure to properly collect this type of evidence revolves around the
above-mentioned two reasons but he lack of success in finding this evidence
is often due to:

  1. Not believing that the impressions can be found at the scene after people have walked over the scene
  2. Incomplete searches of the crime scene;
  3. Weather conditions;
  4. The impression has been intentionally destroyed.

In many cases, footwear evidence can lead to positive identifications of which particular known shoe made the print. Footwear evidence can provide investigators with certain information that can assist them in locating a suspect. Most footwear evidence, when collected and preserved properly can provide the type, make, description, approximate size, the number of suspects, the path through and away from the crime scene, the involvement of the evidence, and the events that occurred during the crime.

Protection of the Scene

The first officer at the crime scene should assess and attempt to determine the entire area of the crime scene, including paths of entry and exit and any areas that may include evidence that a suspect was present. Once this has been done the area of the crime scene should be completely secured and evidence marked for later documentation and collection. Unfortunately, footwear evidence is easily eradicated by weather or by people and vehicles approaching the scene from the same direction of entry or escape the suspect might have taken. Isolation of the area is crucial, to avoid analyzing recently made footwear impressions that are not related to the crime scene.