Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Can You Get Fingerprints From a Dead Body?

No, I'm not talking about taking the victim's fingerprints, I'm talking about developing the killer's latent fingerprints from the victim's skin. The simple answer is yes, but the process is anything but simple. Latent fingerprints are a reproduction of the raised (friction) ridges in sweat. The sweat is 99% water but the remaining residue is made up of amino acids, fatty lipids, and salt among other "contaminants". There are a lot of factors including, environment, surface conditions, and a person's biology, which may affect the quality and recovery of those latent (invisible) prints. For example, a heavily textured surface won't allow enough of the ridges to make contact in a way to leave a recognizable print. Other surfaces may be so contaminated (dirty) that the fingers simply remove dust rather than leave an impression.

Human skin presents unique challenges to the investigator. First, the skin may not be totally smooth (hair). Second, the skin may already be "sweaty" or covered in a residue that masks the deposited fingerprints. Third, fingerprints can be easily damaged or smudged and are at constant risk of being lost during a struggle or movement of the body. Time is another significant factor. As the body decomposes these prints can be lost in a matter of days. Living victims can also rub them off through cleaning or massaging injuries (like wrists). Having said all that fingerprints can be recovered from a dead body.

One of the most critical factors in recovering fingerprints from skin is humidity. The humidity helps to "activate" the fingerprint residue making it more susceptible for reagent processing. Successful cases in the literature seem to be from crime scenes in humid environments (like Florida or Mississippi). Investigators may also alter the humidity by erecting a "tent" over the victim and adding humidity via a humidifier or bucket of hot water. Investigators have found that a relative humidity of at least 75% is ideal.

There are a couple of processes which have been successful in developing suspect fingerprints from a dead body. One is the use of a superglue (cyanoacrylate) fuming wand. The superglue is heated to a vapor form which then affixes to the residue of the fingerprint. It can then be photographed or developed further with powders. Another method is the use of magnetic fingerprint powder. This process seems to work best if the body is only a few hours old. The powder is brushed onto suspected areas (like the wrists, ankles, face, or breasts) and any developed prints are photographed and lifted.

Although is is very difficult to recover suspect fingerprints from human skin you should consider using it in your story. It is an amazing discovery linking a suspect to a body. If nothing else, your characters should make the effort to recover them or have a "white knight" character do it to break the case wide open. However you plan to use this process just remember that anything your suspect does with the body after touching it (such as burial, rolling down a hill side, putting in a dumpster) may all potentially damage the prints. IN an ideal situation the suspect would simply drag the victim by their wrists or ankles and leave them be. Don't be afraid to experiment with alternatives, just keep in mind that they are fragile.


  1. Very interesting post, Tom. In my first novel I had a strangulation (the suspect used their bare hands). The first question that was asked: whether or not the suspect left fingerprints on the victim's neck. I remember researching the topic and finding out how difficult it is to secure prints from a body. In this case, they weren't able to get any because the air was so dry (it was in the southwest desert) and because of all the dirt and debris (she was dumped in a ditch on the side of the road). It's definitely something an author should consider while writing about homicides--and in my reading, unfortunately, something that seems to get passed over.

  2. Fascinating stuff! Thanks for providing such great details. I'm making making notes from your posts.

  3. I really enjoy your posts, Tom. I've learned a lot from you!

  4. You have The Most Amazing information.

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  5. Thanks for the comments everyone! I'm still a bit in awe of all of you professional writers and I'm glad to hear you're finding the information useful. Details can serve to separate you from your peers but I think good story-telling is still the most important trait of a good writer.

  6. I am glad to know the details of this, and how it actually works. Thank you.

  7. Tom,

    I want to add my voice to the chorus singing your praises. I've really enjoyed learning from your posts. The opportunity to learn about wide-ranging topics is one of the things that attracted me to writing in the first place. Thanks for offering your expertise here!

  8. Thanks, Tom! I'm always looking for those little details that help make a story that much more believable (and cool!). Will be looking for more of your articles.

  9. Thanks CJ and Lauryn! I'm getting a lot out of these articles as well. I love reading the reader comments.

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  15. Hi Tom -

    This is really helpful stuff - I have my eighth novel coming out next year that I'm working on at the moment (I'm published by Simon and Schuster in the US), and your advice here has really just helped me out!



  16. I was quite happy to come upon this discussion even though my question is different. Does the skin actually have a print? The reason I ask this is, I was at my hand therapist and she had attached a bandage to my wrist crosswise and then attached two more strips, each going the length of my forearm to the bend of the elbow. She attached it by using a special form of glue and then applied a stretchable bandage which was intended to take the pressure off my tendons. Upon removing the bandages the following morning I was surprised to see what appears to be my skin print. I was so astonished I had to take a picture. The print appears to look like wood grain. As we know grain goes one way. It appears that, if this is my skin print, that our skin print goes two ways. What could have left this print on my arm? The glue? The tape? It appears to have a specific pattern. Just as our thumb print. I would be happy to attach the photo, but I'm not sure how.


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