The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday reversed a terrible opinion by the Appeals Court that upheld the conviction of a defendant based on a single fingerprint found at the scene of the crime. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. French.
Albano’s Market in Springfield was broken into on August 30, 2013, and the crook stole cigarettes worth hundreds of dollars. The assailant gained entry into the story by removing a plexiglass window pane and climbing inside. The piece of plexiglass was left at the store and the cops found it leaning against the building. A police officer discovered there was a latent fingerprint on the plexiglass and the print ended up being a match to the defendant. The defendant waived his right to a jury trial and a judge found him guilty of breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony and larceny. The Appeals Court affirmed the convictions in a divided opinion. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed to review the case and reversed.
The Court said the Commonwealth was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s fingerprint had been left at the crime scene at the time the crime was being committed. If there is reasonable doubt as to when the fingerprint was left, the defendant is entitled to an acquittal. The location of the fingerprint is often the most important factor in cases where a single print is the basis for a conviction. For example, Massachusetts defendants had properly been convicted of crimes when their fingerprints were found inside a locked soda vending machine (an area not available to members of the public) or on a door of a cabinet that was not ordinarily used and had been opened by robbers. In this case, the Court pointed out that the plexiglass was located in an area that would have been accessible to the public. Even if the print had been left near the top portion of the plexiglass, the cops testified it would have been no higher than six feet from the ground. The Court reasoned a print could have been innocently left in that location. Further, after the robber removed the plexiglass from the window, he left it on the ground leaning against the building. There was no evidence about the exact time the break-in had occurred, so it is possible the plexiglass was leaning against the building for many hours. The defendant’s fingerprint could have been left on the plexiglass after the crime had already been committed.
The Court pointed out that the Commonwealth is not responsible for presenting evidence that excludes every theory that the defendant might be innocent. However, in this case, the only evidence identifying the defendant as the perpetrator was the fingerprint. Accordingly, the Commonwealth is obligated to present some evidence that the print was not left at a time other than when the crime was being committed. Because the Commonwealth failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant left his fingerprint on the plexiglass at the time of the commission of the crime, he should not have been convicted of the crime.