Massachusetts Appeals Court Affirms Conviction Based on Single Fingerprint

A divided panel of the Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld a man’s conviction for breaking and entering into a convenience store based on a single fingerprint of the defendant being found at the crime scene.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. French.

In August of 2013, somebody broke into Albano’s Market in Springfield after hours and stole cigarettes and change.  The owner noticed a plexiglass window had been removed and placed next to the front door of the store.  There was a milk crate near the door that would have allowed the thief to enter through the frame where the window had been removed.  The police began an investigation and found numerous latent fingerprints around the sides of the upper half of the plexiglass windowpane.  A police officer testified at trial that the fingerprints were found in an area that suggested someone had lifted the window up and placed it to the side.  One of the fingerprints found on the window matched the defendant.  The officer testified he could not determine how old the fingerprint was.  The defendant waived his right to a jury trial and elected to have a judge determine his guilt or innocence.  That decision didn’t work out for the defendant, as the judge found him guilty of breaking and entering in the daytime with the intent to commit a felony and larceny of property over $250.

The defendant appealed, arguing that the evidence against him was insufficient as a matter of law.  The Appeals Court acknowledged a single fingerprint at a crime scene is not sufficient to sustain a conviction.  The Commonwealth must also present evidence that reasonably excludes a hypothesis that the fingerprints were left at a time other than when the crime was being committed.  The Court ruled the Commonwealth had presented such evidence in this case.  Circumstantial evidence established the burglar removed the window and stepped on the milk crate to enter the store through the open window frame.  The defendant’s fingerprint was found in an area on the windowpane that suggested he could have lifted it out of its frame.  The Court concluded there was no innocent explanation for why the defendant’s fingerprint had been found on that part of the window.  Therefore, according to the Court, there was sufficient corroborating evidence to convict the defendant of the crimes.

Justice Agnes dissented.  He disagreed with the majority that there was evidence of the defendant’s guilt other than the single fingerprint.  Justice Agnes pointed out the area of the window containing the defendant’s fingerprint was accessible to the public and the police could not determine when the fingerprint was left on the window.  Because the fingerprint was not found in an area that was generally inaccessible to the public, Justice Agnes wrote there was insufficient evidence to establish the defendant’s guilt.

This is a bad decision for criminal defendants.  It’s scary to think such flimsy evidence is enough to convict somebody of a crime.  Hopefully the Supreme Judicial Court will review the Appeals Court’s decision and adopt the reasoning of Justice Agnes’s dissent.