Murder Porn: Fingerprints

Forensic Files, the longest running Murder Porn series on TV, began when DNA profiling was in its infancy. Cases depicted in early episodes relied heavily on pseudoscience, like: psychological profiling, polygraphs, and fingerprint evidence.

That’s right; fingerprint evidence is not reliable. In fact, the validity of fingerprint evidence has never actually been proven. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):

Insufficient data exist to determine how unique fingerprint features really are, thus making it scientifically baseless to claim that an analysis has enabled examiners to narrow the pool of sources to a single person.

Despite this fact, prosecutors often lead juries to believe that fingerprint evidence is irrefutable. It is not, which is why I am not convinced by this next case.

“Screen Pass”: Season 12, Episode 12

Summary: A 13-year old girl goes missing. Friends and family come to the house to help search for her and thus contaminate the crime scene. Police lift 3 partial prints off of a window screen (I give their punny title a C-), which they believe were left behind by the abductor. The prints are eventually identified as belonging to Robert Charles Browne, a man who lived 1/2 mile away from the victim.

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Fingerprint analysis is unreliable, and the prints they had were smudged and incomplete

When I saw this episode, I was shocked that Robert Browne (hey, that’s my dad’s name!) was convicted of child abduction and murder based solely on fingerprint evidence. I think there were a lot of biases working against him.

The case had gone cold for 4 years, at which point the new Captain of Detectives for the El Paso County Sheriff’s office made solving this case his #1 priority. So, the police were determined to get a conviction – despite the lack of evidence.

Fingerprint analysis relies heavily on the skill of the print examiner, and their own biases can creep in. If the examiner knew about this crime, plus the fact it was nearby and that solving this case was the new captain’s top priority, could this have resulted in him forcing a match?

Based on the fact that Browne had prior convictions for burglary and car theft (but no violent crimes), prosecutors claimed that Browne murdered the victim in a robbery gone wrong. Browne maintained his innocence but was convicted. He later plead guilty to avoid the death penalty but to this day has never admitted to killing this young victim.

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Robert Browne is listed in Murderpedia as: “Serial Killer?”

Here’s where it gets really interesting: Five years into his life sentence, Browne started claiming to have taken the lives of 48 people – which would make him the most prolific serial killer in US history.

Browne’s murder claims are vague and scattered. Victims range from young women to gay men; the methods of murder range from strangulation to gunshots; the locations range from Louisiana to Vietnam. Plus, there is virtually no evidence. Browne claimed he never kept souvenirs from his victims, just occasionally stole things of value which he sold or gave away.

Here’s a theory: Browne, tired of being targeted by his fellow inmates for murdering a little girl, decided to rebrand himself as a serial killer. So, he researched unsolved murders and then claimed credit for them, hoping that something would stick.

After more than a decade of investigating these claims, Browne has only been convicted of one additional murder – that of a 15 year old girl whose body was never found. Detectives were able corroborate circumstantial evidence; they proved Browne had stolen the victim’s car and television.

So the question remains: Did Browne kill one girl, two girls, or 48 people?  In the time since being convicted Browne has had many interactions with investigators. He certainly plays the role of the crazed serial killer; he speaks in vague biblicisms with misogynistic undertones; he taunts the police with clues about his crimes; plus, he looks like Charles Manson.

But, maybe it’s all just an act. Maybe it’s survival.

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