By MSNBC analyst & former FBI profiler
updated 8/17/2005 8:20:46 PM ET 2005-08-18T00:20:46

Imagine being arrested in France in the late 1800’s.  The police would measure the width of your head, the distance between your eyes, the size of your foot, and enter all of this information into an early data base – the first attempt by man to uniquely identify another human being other than by photograph.  This was the first “scientific” method of criminal identification called the Bertillon system in honor of its developer in 1879, French criminologist and chief of identification for the Paris police Alphonse Bertillon.  The “Bertillon System” was based upon the classification of skeletal and other body measurements and characteristics and was officially adopted in France in 1888 and soon after in other countries. 

Fingerprinting was added later as a supplementary measure and has largely replaced the Bertillon system.

A signature that's uniquely yours
The first believed use of fingerprinting was by the ancient Assyrians and the Chinese as a use for signing legal documents. In 1823 a Czech physiologist named Johannes Evengelista Purkinje introduced the first known system for classifying fingerprints, although it was met with little fanfare and little use at the time. 

Fingerprints weren’t recognized until the late 19th century when a British scientist named Sir Francis Galton studied and wrote about this potential method of identification. Galton’s system of classification included all ten fingers and is now the basis of modern fingerprinting.  You see, fingerprints are really one of a kind and completely unique from each other, even it you are an identical twin.  This means that the 6 ½ billion people currently on the earth have a combined total of 65 billion different fingerprints.  Some criminals have tried to eradicate their fingerprints by dipping them in acid, only to have the print return or to simply provide a new fingerprint that is still unique to them. 

If you were ever fingerprinted for a security clearance, a gun permit, a liquor license or due to an arrest in the 20th century, it was done in the old fashion way, a relic of the J. Edgar Hoover days.

As an FBI Agent, I had to roll ink on a flat glass plate, then roll each fingertip of the arrestee in the ink, then roll each finger on a standard FBI fingerprint card, then complete the identifying information on the card, and then mail it to the FBI’s Identification Division (now the Criminal Justice Information Services Division— CJIS) where some two to three weeks later it would arrive and be checked against the existing data base of hundreds of thousands of fingerprint cards.  If it was determined that the fingerprints on the new card matched those of a known fugitive, the hunt would be on, but the fugitive, if not in jail, would have a two-week head start on the authorities.

Enter the Modern Age
In 1999 the FBI adopted a new electronic fingerprint data base system called the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS).  IAFIS now processes in excess of 50,000 requests for information concerning individuals and matches such fingerprints prints on a daily basis, including 10’s of thousands of new fingerprint cards that are regularly submitted.  The IAFIS system itself contains almost 50 million fingerprint cards, times 10 fingers (with notable exceptions like “eight finger Louie” and “12 finger Tommy”) equals about 450 million individual electronic fingerprint images.

Although the new system was designed to be 95 percent effective, it has proven to be upwards of 99 percent accurate in its matching capability. The system successfully assists in the identification of dozens of fugitives on a daily basis, usually within minutes or a few hours at most from the time they are electronically submitted to the FBI.  

But when it goes wrong, it can go very wrong
Thirty-one-year-old Jeremy Bryan Jones had been sought by law enforcement since 2000 for a sexual assault in Oklahoma. Jones apparently adopted one or more aliases in his attempt to avoid being linked to the outstanding 2000 arrest warrant, including the name of John Paul Chapman for whom Jones was able to obtain a birth certificate and then get a Missouri driver’s license that he subsequently traded for an Alabama license in the same name.  (We call this identity theft.) 

Evidently Jones, using the a.k.a. of Chapman, was arrested and released on various charges to include drug possession, trespassing and indecent exposure during 2003 and 2004.  When “Chapman’s” first electronic fingerprint card was entered into the FBI’s IAFIS system, the computer system (and not a human examiner) failed to match the fingerprint card of the person using the name of Chapman to the existing fingerprints of Jones, therefore the system created an entirely new FBI number and file for Mr. Chapman. When Chapman was arrested on subsequent occasions, IAFIS simply matched the new prints to the existing prints (and name) of John Paul Chapman, leaving the prints of the fugitive Jeremy Jones unmatched.

Murders that might have been prevented…
As it now turns out, Jeremy Jones is a suspect in as many as 20 killings across several states. 

On Feb. 14, 2004, about a month after Jones (using the identity of Chapman) was arrested and released by Carroll County, GA, authorities, police in New Orleans found the body of Katherine Collins, who had been raped, stabbed and beaten with a tire iron.  Then in March 2004, 16-year-old Douglasville, GA resident Amanda Greenwell disappeared.  Her body was found April 20, 2004, in the woods near her mobile home.  On April 15, 2004, hairdresser Patrice Endres disappeared in Forsyth County, GA.  Jones later confessed to abducting, raping, and murdering Endres and then disposing of her body over a bridge in Douglasville, GA.  In September, 2004, 45-year-old Mobile County, Alabama resident Lisa Nichols was sexually assaulted, shot in the head and set on fire. 

John Chapman, known locally as “Oklahoma,” became a good suspect in Nichols’ brutal murder.  When Chapman boldly called authorities, they quickly identified the location of Chapman’s telephone and arrested him on the spot. Local investigators and an FBI agent in Mobile, Alabama who were working the Nichols murder investigation were finally able to match the identity of John Paul Chapman (who in reality was already in jail in Missouri for robbery) and serial killer suspect Jeremy Bryan Jones.

Somehow the fingerprints of Jones went unmatched to those of the “new” John Chapman and a number of murders were committed by a monster that by all rights should have been in jail.

The FBI indicates that this incident was the result of a “technical database error” and not a so-called human error.  Evidently the computer was simply not smart enough to tell its keepers that there might be a connection between Jones and Chapman, and people died because the computer didn’t make this connection.

It’s just a machine
Computers are inanimate, therefore emotionless machines that do a pretty good job of doing things faster and more accurate than humans could do the same job, at least most of the time. And “most of the time” is why there are ejection seats in F-18 fighter jets and reboot buttons on your home computer. 

In this case an apparent serial killer was allowed to keep killing while a computer tried and failed to link two names and multiple sets of fingerprints together. 

Let’s hope humans can correct the computer system so other criminals can not slip through the system in a similar manner. "Sorry" or "computer error" is simply not good enough for the families of the victims and statistical probabilities don’t replace a human life.  Somehow 95 percent to 98 percent accurate in other fields just isn’t enough in criminal justice when our very lives are on the line. And may the monster known as Jeremy Jones never again see the light of day as a free man, no matter what name he chooses to use.

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Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Van Zandt Associates Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed, a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."


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