THE BLOG
11/18/2014 08:57 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

How Fingerprints Became Part of the Modern Criminal Investigation

Andreyuu via Getty Images

The topic of my Sloan project came about very organically. As soon as I decided to apply for the grant, I knew it was going to involve forensics. Then I asked myself, "What's the most common tool people associate with criminal investigation?" The answer was obvious: fingerprints.

After some preliminary research I discovered this very little-known but fascinating murder case that few people outside law-enforcement circles have heard of. It involves the death of two children in the small, seaside Argentine town of Necochea in 1892. As I continued my research into the state of forensics in Argentina and the rest of the world at the time, I came across some very fascinating facts.

Juan Vucetich was at the center of this case. During this time he was working on his own methods of fingerprinting, which was first developed in England. Although his views on criminal investigation, like his preference for evidence over coercion or torture, differed from those of his contemporaries, he wasn't met with as much institutional resistance as one might expect.

The anthropometric method, which involved measuring body parts and distinguishing characteristics, was accurate, but it was expensive, time-consuming and hard to implement on a uniform basis, because it required careful training. That's where fingerprints come in.

The fact that each fingerprint was unique had been known for centuries. In order to avoid fraud, the British even used fingerprints to pay pension benefits in colonial India. So naturally the reason that fingerprints became widespread was their simplicity and low cost. But even at the time of this case, prints were only used to generate databases of convicted criminals and to register immigrants, which is a whole other topic of discussion entirely.

The story seemed very topical, mainly for two reasons. First, the way law enforcement goes about investigating crimes has always been a huge problem, be it the imperfection of the methods used or the inability of police to process the evidence already at hand. Just look at how many thousands of rape kits in U.S. never get tested because of their sheer volume. Also, needless to say, even after more than a hundred years since the beginning of modern forensics, evidence too often is politicized and misused by the police -- which happens to be the case in the Argentine murder case in 1892. What was true in Necochea back then is true in New York and Los Angeles today. This brings us to the second reason that I was interested in this story.

I didn't set out to make a film about current affairs, but quite often they find their way into a narrative anyway. Torture being both a feature of this century-old story and a source of debate in the post-9/11 world of today is, of course, a coincidence. Aside from not being compelled to search for physical evidence, police at the time of this case used casual torture as part of their investigative toolkit. The surviving victim in the Necochea case pointed to a suspect who was promptly forced to confess through the use of torture, without any evidence. In his later years, Vucetich became an outspoken critic of torture and a supporter of human rights. He gave speeches all around the world, including in the U.S.

Today many forensic methods, including fingerprinting, are undergoing scrutiny, be it for their inaccuracy or for fundamental misappropriation, which is all the more reason for the majority of forensic methods to be viewed as tools to be used in conjunction with intelligent, thorough, unbiased detective work and not silver bullets to be used for filling up prisons often motivated by fear.

Gabil Sultanov is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation-funded filmmaker. From Nov. 14 to Nov. 16, the Sloan Foundation and Film Independent hosted the 2014 Sloan Film Summit at L.A. Live in Los Angeles. The Summit celebrates the thriving nationwide Sloan film program, bringing together 150 screenwriters, directors and producers, as well as representatives from leading film schools and film organizations, who work to bridge the gap between science and popular culture. Learn more at SloanSummit2014.org.