FINGERPRINT EVIDENCE ALONE IS INSUFFICIENT TO SUPPORT A FINDING OF GUILT BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT IF THE FINGERPRINT WAS FOUND IN AN AREA GENERALLY ACCESSIBLE TO THE PUBLIC . . . OR IS IT?
In Commonwealth v. French (2015), an Appeals Court case briefed and argued by a friend and colleague of mine, the Defendant’s criminal conviction by a District Court judge of breaking and entering in the daytime with the intent to commit a felony, and larceny of property over $250, was upheld by the Massachusetts Appeals Court, over the dissent of Justice Agnes.
The facts involved a late-night break-in at a market in Springfield. The market’s owner returned to her store to find a window pane had been removed and placed on the ground outside the store. There was an empty milk crate nearby, which was presumed to have been used by the perpetrator to gain access to the market through the window.
When police arrived at the scene early the next morning, they dusted for fingerprints, and the defendant’s fingerprints were discovered on the window pane. A police detective testified at trial that the fingerprints were located “[a]round the sides — like if you lifted it and put it to the side like that.” The defendant did not challenge the way the fingerprint evidence was analyzed or secured, and he did not testify at trial that the fingerprints were not his.
In upholding the defendant’s conviction, the Appeals Court first stated the law that applied, which is that (1) the prosecution may submit a case to the factfinder based entirely and exclusively on circumstantial evidence; (2) inferences drawn from circumstantial evidence “need only be reasonable and possible,” not “necessary or inescapable;” and (3) the presence of a fingerprint at the scene of the crime is not by itself a sufficient basis for denying a motion for a required finding of not guilty and submitting a case to a factfinder. “The prosecution must couple the fingerprints with evidence which reasonably excludes the hypothesis that the fingerprints were impressed at a time other than when the crime was being committed.”
The Appeals Court found that there was no reasonable and innocent explanation for the defendant’s prints to be on the window pane, as the defendant had no connection with the market or its owner, and as his prints were exactly where you would expect them to be if they were left by the person who removed the window pane. Accordingly, the District Court convictions were upheld.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Agnes noted that the window pane had been sitting on the sidewalk unattended for several hours before the fingerprints were lifted from it, and that there was therefore a lack of “additional corroborative evidence that when taken together permitted the judge to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s fingerprint was impressed at the time the crime was committed.”
“Massachusetts law, and the law in a majority of jurisdictions, is that fingerprint evidence alone is not sufficient to support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt if the fingerprints are found in an area that is generally accessible to the public.” (Agnes, J. Dissenting).
It is hard not to agree with the dissent on this one. It seems that anyone walking by that market could have touched the window pane, which was resting against the building for several hours, and the defendant’s silence at trial should not have been used against him, as a criminal defendant is presumed innocent, and has an absolute right not to testify.
Attorney Kevin D. Quinlan
Criminal Defense – Divorce – Custody – Child Support
2 South Main Street, Suite 201
P.O. Box 248
Uxbridge, MA 01569