FRANCISCA ROJAS: GUILTY BY FINGERPRINT
First use of Forensic Fingerprinting in Buenos Aries, Argentina
Fingerprinting was first used as a means of perpetrator identification in a murder case in 1892, in the town of Necochea near Buenos Aires, Argentina. Buenos Aires was the home of police analyst Juan Vucetich’s groundbreaking Center for Dactyloscopy (fingerprint analysis). Croatian-born Vucetich was a pioneer in the use of fingerprinting for forensic analysis and personal identification.
Fingerprints of Francisca Rojas (1892)
MUSEO DE ARTE LATINOAMERICANO DE BUENOS AIRES (MALBA)
In June 1892, Francisca Rojas was found wounded along with her two children at their home in Nocochea, Argentina. By the time they were discovered, the two children had unfortunately succumbed to their injuries. Rojas claimed that they had been attacked by a neighbor, Pedro Ramón Velázquez. She attested that Velázquez was a former suitor and that he had sought revenge for being recently slighted. Velázquez was arrested and interrogated, but he did not confess to the crime. Instead, Velázquez insisted that he had been with friends.
Stumped, the local police sent for Inspector Eduardo Alvárez to investigate the scene. Alvárez found a bloody fingerprint on the bedroom door at the Rojas home. The Inspector removed the part of the door with the fingerprint and contacted another police official, Juan Vucetich. At the time, Vucetich was working on developing a police system for fingerprint identification and had inaugurated the world’s first fingerprint police bureau just one year prior. Vucetich did not find a match between Velázquez’s fingerprints and the one on the door, but he did find a match with Rojas’s. This evidence was especially revealing given that Rojas had previously denied touching the bodies of the children.
When presented with this finding, Rojas immediately confessed to the crime, and admitted her wounds were self-inflicted. Rojas had another suitor who had wanted to marry her but did not want the children. She was sentenced to life in prison.
The Argentine police recognized the power of fingerprint evidence and adopted Vucetich’s method of fingerprint classification. In 1904, Vucetich published Dactiloscopia Comparada (Comparative Dactyloscopy), which gained international recognition. Shortly after, Vucetich went on a world tour to speak about his work and the importance of fingerprint classification. He visited a number of American cities, discussing the Rojas case and sharing his vision for universal fingerprinting: “In my opinion, it is a fundamental thing that everybody should carry with him a finger print record. It is the only means sometimes of distinguishing an honest man from a criminal…A man might be arrested on a charge of which he is perfectly innocent. It would be a small matter for him to free himself were he in possession of a finger print card. I am of the opinion that false arrests under such a system would be few.” He also emphasized that there should be a central political and civil bureau for identification, not just a police institution.
However, Vucetich’s vision of identification-based safety was not embraced by all. When the Argentine government passed a law to have the entire population fingerprinted in 1916, some rebelled and refused to be fingerprinted, even burning some existing fingerprint records and gaining enough traction to stop the law from going into effect. Vucetich did not live to see his dreams for identification-driven justice fully materialize, but despite this early hurdle, Argentina did become the first country to rely solely on fingerprinting for identification and eventually established a national Office of Identification with both criminal and non-criminal fingerprint records.
Argentina achieved quite a few “firsts” in this key forensic development, and fingerprint-based evidence started to make gains in other parts of the world, soon becoming a primary piece of forensics gathering at Scotland Yard in London in 1901. India, the U.S., and Canada swiftly followed suit in the next few years. The importance of fingerprinting as a means of identification and as part of the criminal system is clear now, coming a long way from the crime committed at Necochea.
First Published 11/19/2014