Friday, February 03, 2012

Not As Easy As It Looks

Treat for you today, fellow Stiffs: Please put your hands together and welcome my buddy Jaden Terrell, author of Racing the Devil and president of the Middle Tennessee Sister in Crime chapter as well as executive director of the Killer Nashville conference. She's also my friend, and one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. Oh yes, a writes a pretty good book, as well. If you like PI novels, you'll love Jared McKean!

Here's Jaden, come to talk to us about fingerprints. Suitably so; you'll notice the one in the background on the book cover:

It’s week 4 of the FBI/TBI joint Citizen Academy, and my classmates and I troop down to basement of FBI headquarters. We huddle close together, eager but nervous, like wild horses catching an unfamiliar scent. The fluorescent lights hum as our instructors shepherd us to our groups, six to a table, each table sporting a centerpiece of bottles, brushes, tissues, and other common household paraphernalia. We look at each other and grin. We’ve seen this done a thousand times on TV, and it looks simple enough. Just brush on the fingerprint dust, apply the tape, and lift the perfect print.

We’ve spend the better part of an hour listening to a fingerprinting expert tell us about the history and techniques of fingerprinting. I’d taken pages and pages of notes on arches, tented arches, loops, and whorls. We learned about latent prints (invisible to the naked eye and made when someone touches an object and leaves behind secretions like oil and sweat), patent prints (visible to the naked eye and made when a dirty or bloody finger touches an object), and impressed prints (visible to the naked eye and made when a person touches a surface like blood, clay, or wet or viscous paint). We learned that criminals sometimes burn or sand their fingertips in the vain hope of obscuring the prints, but that sanded fingerprints still show their original patterns, and burned fingertips usually show at least some of the original pattern. We’ve heard about powders and brushes and the best ways to get a clear print.

Now it’s our turn to try it.

I slide into a chair as the instructor is handing out items from the plastic tray at the center of table. The woman to my right, an elegant woman in khaki slacks and a while silk blouse, has a picture frame. I get a shampoo bottle.  

Our instructor shows us the black fingerprint powder, the brush, the tape, the pristine white card. Our goal is a clean, crisp lift. He shows us how to dip the brush lightly in the powder and tap off the excess. Don’t press too hard, he says. Brush it on lightly. If you apply too much pressure it will smudge.

I focus on the middle of the bottle, the part you’d wrap your hand around if you were picking it up. I dip the brush. Tap off the excess. Brush as lightly as I can. Black smudges appear around the circumference of the bottle. Nothing identifiable, just some blurry oval shapes and a few black streaks. A few of the ovals show a hint of a pattern. The instructor says it’s not always effective to try the part people are most likely to grip. Those tend to get smeared by palm prints and other fingerprints. Too much traffic, in effect. He points to a place near the bottom of the bottle. “Try here.”

The woman on my right says, “Look, I have one!” I look at her picture frame. Sure enough, a perfect print with whatever pattern has emerged on the surface.

I brush on more black dust. No luck. I try a spot near the screw-on top. More smudges.

The woman on my right has torn off a piece of clear tape and laid it gently across her print. Lifts it off carefully and places it gently on her pristine white card. You can see every swoop and whorl. The rest of us exchange envious glances.

Finally, I find a well-defined oval with a visible pattern. Huzzah! By now my fingers are smudged with black. I snag a tissue from the plastic tray and scrub until my fingertips are a dingy gray. The others are finishing up, so I give up on the tissue and tear off a one-inch length of tape. I lay it gently over the print, then place it carefully on my clean white card. The woman next to me holds up her card and beams. Three crisp prints in a row, their patterns standing out against the white of the card. I steal a glance at her hands. Her fingertips are pink and clean, her French tips polished to a sheen.

I look down at my card. A cluster of blurry gray fingerprints mars the edges of the card, and there’s a smear of gray on each end of the tape. In the center of the tape is a perfect…smudge. 

* * *

I've never tried to lift fingerprints. This makes me want to. Or maybe not. 

Although I do have my own fingerprint story: a few months back, I needed to renew my green card. So I went to the ICE office and filled out the paperwork and had my picture took, and it was time for fingerprints. Rolling the fingers on an ink pad, rolling the fingers on a tiny plate of glass.

Now, I may be an alien, but I only have ten fingers, just like the rest of you. And it took an hour. Swear to God. And at the end of it, although the tech said she had what she needed and sent me home, I had to come back a month later and do it again, because the original prints weren't good enough. I'm a person without clear fingerprints. Oh, the crimes I could commit!

The really funny thing, though? The reason why... is because I type too much. Never thought that would be one of the side-effects of becoming a writer. But apparently all the typing is wearing down my prints. There's a story in that... 



Joyce Tremel said...

Back when I worked at the PD, the detective trained me to take fingerprints. It had gotten to the point where people had to be fingerprinted for just about every job: federal jobs, teachers, nurses, etc. and he was swamped.

We used the old-fashioned ink on a glass plate, ink the fingers on the glass, then roll onto the fingerprint card (thumbs out, fingers in!) It was tricky to get a good print.

I didn't particularly like to do it, but it was much better than having to pat down any female arrestees. I hated that.

Jenna said...

Thanks for visiting, babe! Good story. Great book!

Jaden Terrell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jaden Terrell said...

Sounds like criminals need to take up writing, LOL. Much less painful than sanding your fingerprints and apparently much more effective.

Of course, after hearing your story, I had to look at my fingertips. The grooves really do seem shallower in the places that hit the keys. How interesting.