Palm prints may hold key to cold cases

The RCMP will expand its fingerprint database to include palm prints next month, in the hope that the new forensic database could help crack a number of cold cases.
The RCMP is expanding its fingerprint database to include palm prints, which contain just as much unique identifying information as fingertips 2:47

Police have high hopes a new forensic database could help crack some cold cases.

Next month, the RCMP will expand its fingerprint database to include palm prints. Palms contain just as much unique identifying information as people's fingertips and police say they find palm prints at up to 30 per cent of all crime scenes.

Supt. Alain Bouchard, director of the RCMP's integrated forensic identification services in Ottawa, says police often lift palm prints from ledges, doorknobs, patio doors, paper and weapons such as knives or bats.

The RCMP hope the inclusion of palm prints in its fingerprint database will help the force crack some cold cases. (Ohio Attorney General's Office)

Lifting his hands up to his face, Bouchard demonstrates why it's so common to find impressions from the sides of people's palms on windows, "I find them very often at break and enters, what we call the writer's palm, when people are actually looking inside the residence to see if anybody's home."

While analysts can map all the creases, islands and lines of someone's palm, the prints' usefulness have been limited by technology. Canadian police have been able to upload, search and match fingerprints through a computerized criminal fingerprint database for decades, but up until now, there has been no similar way to match palm prints.

"Previous years we had no way of searching palm prints. As you can just imagine, if you were to send palm prints here it would just be sitting in a box. If we wanted to identify a palm print we needed basically a suspect. Someone would come to me and say, 'I think its Joe and here's Joe's palm print' and we'd do a comparison at my desk."

That will change next month when 26 police services across Canada will be able to submit and search for palm prints. The database will be small at first, only containing fresh prints scanned in from people who have just been charged with a crime. But the RCMP is encouraging police to send in palm impressions found at old crime scenes.

The Mounties alone will begin re-processing thousands of palm prints linked to cold cases across Canada, starting with unsolved murders.

Unsolved murders

Halton Regional Police's Det. Dave Banks knows which old print he'll be submitting to the new database, a palm impression linked to the unsolved murder of Paavo Paul Henttonen.

"I have a palm print from that particular case from the vehicle that was used in that particular homicide and recovered from the inside surface of the door."

Henttonen was stabbed to death inside his home in Georgetown, Ont., in 2002. 

"With the new RCMP database involving palms we're hopeful that once this crime scene impression gets put into the database that any new people getting arrested or re-arrested and their palm prints taken and put into that database, we'll get a match on it," he said.

Police aren't the only ones with high hopes for the new forensic tool. Tim Nadeau is praying for a break in a case that dates back to Sept. 3, 1976.  He was just 15 at the time and working at Cowan's Dairy Bar in Smiths Falls, Ont., when a masked armed robber shot and killed his boss, Lawrence Cowan. 

Even after all these years, Nadeau hasn't been able to get the image out of his mind. "Mr. Cowan had been shot and he was on the floor right in front of the cash ... The door was covered in blood, the magazine rack was covered in blood and the ceiling was covered in blood."

The killer got away that night and the only real clue police have had  to work with is a bloody palm print left on the inside of a door frame. Nadeau says for some reason he feels confident that if police run the palm print through the new database, they'll find a match.

"I want to know who did it. I don't care if they're dead or in jail or, you know, hopefully they're still alive, because we'd like to see justice done. That's what I want. I don't want anything else but to know and to give the family and to some extent myself some peace of mind."