Dr. Herschel Henry & Son: Fingerprint Experts – by STEPHEN COOPER (originally published in Great Jones Street Press)

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This story was originally published in Great Jones Street Press

Dr. Herschel Henry & Son: Fingerprint Experts

Reaching deep into the Coleman cooler, Herschel extracted another cold beer for himself.  Bottom of the barrel he thought, which meant a beer run to Culpeper later – but that was OK – what else did he have planned but drinking more beer?  Leaning back in his plastic folding chair, Herschel closed his eyes, gulping the crisp liquid down, finding solace in its sharp coolness.  Draining it, he crunched the can with both hands, adding its carcass to the collection of empties in the dirt-streaked gravel-pocked grass beside him.  Opening his eyes, he squinted at the sun’s fiery finale – fireworks of orange and red ornamenting the Virginia sky – as it sank behind the mountain where Herschel’s RV was parked, just below the tree line.

“Parked” is a euphemism because the RV – a Voyager 4600, the nauseating color of faux wood-paneled station wagons from the 70s – had stopped voyaging long, long ago, its pedometer cracked at 243,102 miles.  A hulking metal structure like an abandoned boxcar, it was wheel-less and propped up on cinder blocks, its roof reinforced by a thin and rusted layer of corrugated tin.  Herschel bought it from the previous tenant, a cowboy, for $200 and a six pack, which the cowboy generously shared with Herschel before mounting his pickup truck, heading for parts unknown.

In the distance a hawk soared, inspecting the sun’s disappearance firsthand, and Herschel watched, admiring its flight, as he listened to the moos of the Jersey cows from across the gravel road dividing his tract of land from his neighbor’s.  Soon the stars would emerge, bringing their friends, the frogs and coyotes, and their chirps and displeased howls would provide a halting rhythm to the cacophonous nighttime symphony.  It was not unlike the sounds Herschel heard from the balcony of his former penthouse apartment in Georgetown; but there it was the discordant shrieks of emergency vehicles and occasional peals from over-jubilant pedestrians on K Street that soared over the gnarl of city traffic, punctuating the night air.  It was amazing what you got used to, Herschel thought.

Then he heard something that surprised him.  It was a sound he’d not heard the entire six years he’d been living in the town of Reva, a blip in central Virginia, 15 minutes from Culpeper, and two hours from Washington, D.C.  The sound was a car transmission wheezing and choking as it got steadily closer, climbing the winding and unaccommodating rocky road that emptied in a clearing and the final resting ground of the Voyager 4600.

Herschel reached into the cooler rummaging through the ice water for a last beer.  Finding one hiding out on the bottom, he freed it, popping its top just as the car came in view.

It was a blue sedan, and as the car made its final ascent towards the Voyager, Herschel got up, lumbering, beer in hand, to the front door.  As he walked, Herschel unconsciously rubbed the belly he’d grown during his self-imposed exile in the country (a pudginess which, in another life, when he billed $500 an hour, would have been intolerable and incongruent with his tailored suits).  Sipping his beer and adjusting his too tight jeans with his left hand, Herschel watched as the car approached, stopping with a squeal and cloud of dust a respectful twenty yards away from him.

“That’s him?!” Lilly exclaimed.

In the driver seat, her boss, Bill Salerno, didn’t answer Lilly DeFarina’s question because he was wondering the same thing.  Could this disheveled and dumpy old man drinking cheap beer and scratching his belly really be world-renowned fingerprint expert, Dr. Herschel Henry?

Before dropping off the face of the earth, Dr. Henry was a pillar in the field of fingerprint identification or, as court-testifying fingerprint experts called it, “latent print” or “friction ridge” identification; some of the smugger ones testified they specialized in “ridgeology,” but the trial lawyers were really to blame for not reining that in.  Spanning the last three decades, Dr. Henry had testified, usually for the prosecution, though not always, in many, many high-profile criminal cases.  A Westlaw search Lilly ran on Dr. Henry had spit out a zillion hits; the man had testified as an expert witness in thousands of serious criminal cases across the country, both in state and federal courts, not to mention twice in the U.K., twice in Australia, and even once in Monaco (in that country’s only murder trial in 10 years!).  Dr. Henry’s book, “Mastering Fingerprint Identification: Science, Art, and Skill (Reflections on a Craft)” is considered a seminal text by the International Association of Fingerprint Examiners and required reading for anyone seeking certification in latent print identification.

Watching the man through the windshield as he scratched his bum and drank his beer – this man whom the local convenience store owner assured him was indeed “that famous fingerprint man that was always in the news” – Bill wondered if he ought to turn the car around right now and drive back to D.C.   Even if this specimen was the famed Dr. Henry, he looked a wreck.  Barely dinner time and this geezer was drunk by the looks of his unsteady gait and slovenly appearance, not to mention the can of PBR he seemed to be either toasting or hailing them with. Bob guessed it came from the family-size Coleman cooler positioned near a lawn chair about 100 yards off in the distance, facing the woods.

Jeez, how many beers can that thing hold?, Bill wondered.

“Y’all gonna ogle me from your car all day, or what?,” Dr. Henry shouted at them.  Bill looked at Lilly, nodded, and they both stepped out of the car, walking in the direction of the Voyager 4600 and Dr. Henry.

“So you’re lawyers.  I’ve worked with far too many to know.  Your duds, your briefcases, your overly-shocked expressions, those sticks up your butts, they give you away,” said Dr. Henry.

“You are Dr. Henry, then?,” Bill asked.

“You know I am, and that’s why you and Ms. Missy Stuck-Up over here are so damn shell-shocked,” said Dr. Henry.  Sighing, he looked directly at Lilly and said “Yeah, I know I don’t look great; but you try losing your livelihood, your entire life’s work, and see what it does for your waistline . . . and your bottom line.”

“Dr. Henry, could we talk to you for a bit?,” asked Bill.

“What do you call what we’re doing now?,” Dr. Henry asked.

Bill said: “My name is Bill Salerno and this is Lilly DeFarina.  Lilly’s an associate; I’m a partner.  We’re lawyers in a small boutique firm in D.C. called Delvecchio & Portis  . . . maybe you’ve heard of it?”  Dr. Henry shook his head, no, and Bill continued.  “We specialize in criminal appeals; it’s all we do.  And there’s a case we think you could help us with, and of course, if you’re agreeable, we’ll pay your standard hourly fee, plus expenses.”

“You need me to testify . . .  .?asked Dr. Henry.

“Don’t know yetRight now, we just need your analysis,” said Bill.    

“You know about the Armstrong case?,” asked Dr. Henry.

“We do,” Bill replied, “we don’t care.”

The Armstrong case had been well publicized and that fact more than anything else convinced Dr. Henry his career was over.  How do you recover professionally from headlines like: “Fingerprint Guru Wrong: Prints on Bomb Belong to Someone Else!”; “Fingerprint Expert Foul-Up: Dr. Herschel Henry Forced to Admit Error on the Stand,” or “Lyle Armstrong, Not Guilty! Almost Convicted Via Fingerprint Expert’s Fiction!”

What happened, in sum, is that Lyle Armstrong, a wealthy hedge fund manager and socialite, was put on trial for planting a bomb under his wife’s car; there was evidence she’d been cheating on him and that he found out.  The evidence he’d committed the murder, however, was 100% circumstantial and many of the witnesses had axes to grind – like the victim’s mother – who actually testified that from the moment she’d met him, Lyle always had an “explosive” temper.

Undaunted, the prosecutor, buoyed by testimony from the famed Dr. Henry, staked the state’s entire case on “the one piece of evidence that doesn’t lie, doesn’t exaggerate, and doesn’t know Lyle Armstrong from Shinola: The fingerprint evidence.”  Armstrong was convicted.

But then, barely two months later, Armstrong’s lawyers threw their own bomb at the prosecutors: They filed a motion for new trial attaching affidavits from five of Dr. Henry’s peers in the field of latent print identification.  The affidavits declared that each expert had reviewed the transcript and evidence from the Armstrong trial.  And then – and this is the part that made Dr. Henry sit down and take some deep breaths the first time he read it – the affidavits declared that each expert had also compared the latent print from the bomb remnants to the fingerprint of a local man named Whitney Mason.  And they matched.

Mason was serving an 18-year sentence in federal prison for sending pipe bombs to local politicians with whom he was upset.  However, it turns out, anti-social tendencies notwithstanding, before being put away in the federal case, Mason had been sleeping with Lyle Armstrong’s wife.  Wising slowly to Mason’s colossal weirdness, she’d tried to break it off, and Mason, well, Mason did what Mason knew best: He built her a bomb.

Of course post-trial hearings were held, the five defense experts testified, and under withering cross-examination, Dr. Henry was forced to do what he’d never done: admit he was wrong.  He was forced to admit, despite his contrary testimony in numerous trials that, even accepting the major premise undergirding all fingerprint identification – that every full human fingerprint is unique, like a snowflake (though truly, has someone ever inspected all the flakes in this world to find out?) – fragments of fingerprints can be strikingly similar.  Red-faced, Dr. Henry conceded, “a major factor in the misidentification” of Lyle Armstrong was “the unusual similarity between the latent print left on the bomb underneath his wife’s car and Armstrong’s known fingerprint.”  Specifically, there were eleven features, or “points” in the latent print that “were at least generally consistent with features in the known prints for both Lyle Armstrong and Whitney Mason.  But, when examined very, very closely, there was no doubt: the latent print left on the bomb was Mason’s not Armstrong’s.”

By the time Dr. Henry got off the witness stand, his suit filled with sweat, Lyle Armstrong was free, and the alleged science buttressing fingerprint identification had suffered a huge blow.   Instead of being infallible, the Armstrong case demonstrated to the legal community what defense attorneys had suspected for years:  Even if full fingerprints are unique, partial latent prints from two different people might have patterns similar enough that an impression from one could be mistakenly attributed to the other.

“If you know about the Armstrong case, then why are you here?  I’m damaged goods, no?,” asked Dr. Henry.

“Um, well, I take your point, but no . . . . Not in this particular instance,” said Bill.

Just what ‘instance’ is that?,” asked Dr. Henry, none too kindly.

Bill’s voice dropped an octave; he looked sheepish.  He said: “Well, in this case . . . you see it’s a murder case . . . and it’s just . . . it’s your son, Simon – he testified as the fingerprint examiner – for the prosecution.”

          “Ah . . . . Simon.  So that’s what this about.  And what do you think I can do?

          “Well, you’re his father.  You trained him.  Up until fairly recently, you worked together.  Who else would be better at spotting an error in his analysis or testimony than you?”

          “What makes you think he made an error?”

          “My client’s innocent.”

          “How long have you been practicing . . .  don’t you know: They’re all guilty?” 

          “All due respect Dr. Henry, but not this time.”

Herschel smiled despite himself.  He’d worked with committed defense lawyers before and liked them, but rarely could they afford his fee.

          “OK, bucko, since my most pressing appointment is a six pack – one I don’t even have yet – I guess I can spare a bit of time.  But you’re gonna spring for the six pack afterwards.  And, if this goes beyond today, well you’ll be multiplying each sixty minute increment by 500 bucks, and after that, I bill for each ten minutes of work performed.”

          “Done.  Is there a table where we can talk; show you the case file?,” asked Bill, looking dubiously at the Voyager 4600.

          “Sure,” Dr. Henry said, “follow me.”  Still holding his PBR and seeming to notice it for the first time, Dr. Henry chugged it, crushed it, and tossed it at the pile of empties like he was hitting a wide receiver in stride.  Then, turning his back on the two attorneys, both of whom were trying to count the number of crushed tricolor cans they saw, he trudged toward the Voyager 4600: the RV/All-Purpose Lean-To/Nomadic Bachelor Pad he called “home.”

Crossing the Voyager’s threshold, the first thing Bill Salerno and Lilly DeFarina noticed was a gigantic framed canvas displaying ten fingerprint cards, one for each finger, like the kind you’d see in those old cop shows when some hoodlum’s getting booked.  The canvas was so big it blocked the entire windshield of the RV which was exactly why Dr. Henry had it mounted there.  Out of the corner of his eye, Dr. Henry saw both Bill and Lilly staring at the massive canvas.  He turned and said: “Those are actually Simon’s fingerprints.  He gave them to me blown up as a gag.  Now I use it to block out the sun.  Quite useful, actually.”

The rest of the Voyager’s living space was how you might imagine any other recreational vehicle.  At its rear they could see there was a small john and adjoining tiled area outfitted with a shower nozzle and small detached sink like those in airplanes.  There was a stove, a microwave, a small kitchen sink, shelving and counter space.  A pull-out couch, a tattered sectional, and a weathered table with chairs filled the rest of the space.

There was one differentiating aspect concerning the interior decorating of the Voyager 4600 which made it unique among all recreational vehicles populating the universe.  Plastered to the walls and the ceiling of the RV, covering literally every space the eye could see, were magnified pictures of fingerprints.  Not whole fingerprints like the framed canvas at the front of the RV displaying Simon’s – but partial prints, displayed at myriad levels of magnification.

          “Ha!  You should see your faces,” said Dr. Henry with a wide-toothed rascally smile.  “Probably now you’re thinking, how fast can we get out of this crazy coot’s camper and get back to D.C.”

          “Not at all, Dr. Henry,” said Bill, but his voice was unconvincing.  Meanwhile, Lilly just stared at the walls.

          “You wanna know what you’re gaping at Missy?,” said Dr. Henry to the gawking Lilly.

Lilly flashed Bill a look.  “Sure,” she said.

          “Well, ok, then.  I’ll admit it’s a bit odd for wallpapering but, you know, when I sold my pad in Georgetown I got rid of all my art deco crap too.  These here prints are just as good.  Each is beauteous in its own right.  What you got here is Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 detail.  Do you know anything about fingerprints, young lady?”  Lilly shook her head.  “Well, it works like this.  Each fingerprint has three different ‘levels’ of detail.  ‘Level 1 detail’ refers to the overall design or pattern of a print’s ridges, known as arches, loops, or whorls.  ‘Level 2 details’ refer to the paths and shapes of the friction ridges, and are described with terms such as ‘islands,’ ‘ridge endings,’ or “branchings.”  ‘Level 3 details’ are tiny features of the friction ridges, such as the shapes of ridge edges, and the shape and relative location of the pores.  I got Level 3 prints on the left wall over there, Level 2 on the right wall, and if you look up, up on the ceiling, those are all Level 1.”  Bill and Lilly looked up.

          “Hmm, this is pretty interesting, Dr. Henry,” said Lilly.

          “It most certainly is not.  It’s battier than hell is what it is.  But let’s forget that for a minute and let you and your taskmaster here take a load off.”  Dr. Henry sat down at the table and indicated to Bill and Lilly they should too; they did.

          “OK, why don’t you tell me why y’all drove out here . . . as I’m getting thirsty,” said Dr. Henry.       

Bill opened his briefcase and took out a large folder which he placed on the table in front of Dr. Henry.

          “This is not the whole thing, just some of the major case documents, a copy of Simon’s testimony, a copy of the fingerprint evidence submitted at the trial, and a few other things.  This happened three years ago in Maryland at the Aspen Hill Racquet Club.  It’s a private tennis and racquetball club, though they’ve also got extensive workout facilities and an indoor pool.  Anyways, the club’s tennis instructor, a blonde woman by the name of Polina Patrova, was murdered in the Jacuzzi; her head bashed in with a Wilson tennis racquet.  Her body was found in the morning when the club opened, and the racquet – broken and bloodied – nearby. 

          Right away the investigation focused on my client, Tony Keyser, because he’d taken a private tennis lesson with Ms. Patrova the night before the body was found; the front desk shows he signed in for the lesson at 9 pm.  The last witness to see Ms. Patrova alive was a janitor – Ms. Deborah Robertson – she swears she saw Ms. Patrova at about 8:55 pm, heading with her racquets and a basket of balls to indoor court #2 – presumably for her lesson with Mr. Keyser.  Anyways, as you’ll read in the file, the police took Mr. Keyser’s fingerprints and the long and short of it is that your son, Simon Henry, testified as an expert for the prosecution that the fingerprints of my client, Mr. Keyser, ‘matched’ the latent prints found on the murder weapon – the broken tennis racquet.  It was this evidence that convicted Keyser.”  Bill stopped and looked at Lilly.  “Am I forgetting anything?,” he asked.  Lilly shook her head.     

          Dr. Henry had a strange look on his face.  “You know,” he said slowly, “Simon plays racquetball at that club.”

          Bill said: “The prosecution disclosed that.  He was asked about it but said he only played racquetball there – not tennis; he’d never met Ms. Patrova.  We never found anyone to say different and with six different tennis instructors and two just for racquetball, not to mention a medley of other employees, it just wasn’t a fruitful angle to pursue.”

Dr. Henry picked up the folder Bill had put on the table.  He opened the cover and flipped through it a bit as Lilly and Bill watched.  Dr. Henry looked up at them, and right away they saw his eyes were teary.  “Dr. Henry, what’s wrong?,” asked Lilly.

“It’s that damn racquet club of his!  You know what that false son of mine told me the day he decided to excommunicate me from his world?  ‘They laugh at me at the club, Dad, laughing.  Fingerprint fudge-up, they’re saying . . . that and . . . and worse  . . . .” 

          “As if he’d never made a mistake before . . . .”

          “He told me: ‘You’re an embarrassment, Dad, a laughing stock.  You should be expelled from the International Association of Fingerprint Examiners . . . . If they vote, I’m voting yes, Dad, just want you to know that now . . . . We’re, we’re through.’  Dr. Henry wiped away another tear.  “Can you believe it?  My own son.  He’s . . . he’s banished me . . . .’” 

          The tears were free-flowing now and Dr. Henry couldn’t wipe them away fast enough.  Lilly pulled a tissue from her purse and handed it to him.  Taking it from her, Dr. Henry tossed the Keyser file on the table and a white sheet showing a magnification of the latent crime scene print spilled out.

As Bill Salerno would dramatically tell the story a year later at a celebration on the rooftop of his law firm: “That was the moment of magic; the moment Tony Keyser went free.  Because when Dr. Henry saw that magnified print from off of the murder weapon – the tennis racquet – his eyes lit up like he was on fire.  He picked that print up from off of the table and put it right up close to his face, studying it.  A whole minute passed, and Lilly and me, we’re just sitting there watching this guy.   And he gets up in this beat-up RV as his eyes are still glued to the paper.  Then, slowly, he walks over to the front of the cab, pulls down the huge canvas with his son Simon’s fingerprints and says to us: ‘You can take this with you when you leave.  That print you’ve got there in that file – the print on that murder weapon – well, that fingerprint belongs to Simon.  It’s his right index finger.  I guess he makes mistakes too.  Just like his father.’”         


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Stephen is a former D.C. and federal public defender. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California, with his wife, Tanya, and three dogs named Fox, Friend, and Monty. His writing has been published in numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas including The New Yorker, The Hill, JURIST, The Baltimore Sun, The Las Vegas Review-Journal, The Times of San Diego, The Palo Alto Free Press, The Huffington Post, The New Indian Express, The Trinidad Express, The Ventura County Reporter, The Stanford Daily, The Daily Californian, The Los Angeles Daily News, The Cayman Reporter, The Gleaner, The Havana Times, The Belize Times, Caribbean News Now, The Berkeley Daily Planet, Unhinged Magazine, The Pier Magazine, Yardflex Magazine, thegrio.com, al.com, ipinionsyndicate.com, reggae-vibes.com, themoderatevoice.com, al.com, the Alabama Political Reporter, The Montgomery Advertiser, Caribbean News Now, and The Selma Times-Journal. “Rifkin Rising,” his first work of fiction was published by the Flash Fiction Press on June 4, 2016, and his second short story, “The Submariner” was published by Sick Lit Magazine on July 5, 2016. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq.



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