a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

If they had Malvo’s fingerprint in Montgomery, Alabama…

Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 27th, 2002

…and in an INS fingerprint file, why wasn’t he already a fugitive from the law? (A loyal reader poses this question via e-mail; I spring into action! Here you go, Dad.) Malvo, of course, is the younger of the pair arrested for the DC area sniper serial murders. The answer appears to be that the Alabama Department of Public Safety has only four fingerprint examiners, and had a backlog of cases ahead of the Montgomery one, according to a Saturday report by the New York Times’ David Halbfinger (“Sniper Clue Sat for Weeks in Crime Lab in Alabama“). The fingerprint Malvo left at the Montgomery murder scene reached the Alabama crime lab on September 24, but had not been processed by the time police officials in the D.C. area needed to know whose prints they were:

“Most crime happens in your own backyard,” said a spokesman for the city police, Sgt. Scott Martino, explaining why detectives did not immediately send the print to the F.B.I. for comparison to a national database.

But the result of the state bureau’s search showing no match to anyone in its system did not arrive for 27 days, coming only on Monday, after federal investigators had already connected the liquor store killing to the sniper shootings in the Washington area. […]

Capt. Hugh McCall, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Public Safety, said the state crime laboratory had only four examiners of latent fingerprints to handle crimes from all over the state, and that there was a backlog of cases ahead of the Montgomery liquor store shootings.

Nationwide, a shortage of fingerprint examiners is hobbling detectives and slowing manhunts. New technology has eliminated lower-level jobs where examiners cut their teeth, and the number of new examiners has not kept up with growing ranks of police officers and new cases. Nationally, The Baltimore Sun reported in March, there are only about 2,000 examiners. In Baltimore, the crime laboratory is 1,000 cases behind; in Phoenix, an understaffed laboratory has a 6,000-case backlog.

The Montgomery, Alabama part of the sniper story suggests two things to me:

1) The “Islamic sniper connection” currently being suggested here and there across the ‘blogosphere’* is 99% bunk, barring Muhammad turning up on the Hamas payroll or something. There was little of “Islamic terror” about either the DC spree or the Montgomery crime. These were two goons who turned a nasty little dream of a bag of cash in Montgomery into a nasty big dream of $10 million score a couple of weeks later. Turning a loser thug’s half-baked conversion to Black Muslimhood into “Exhibit anything” of the world Islamic terror offensive is far-fetched at best, on any evidence available so far. This was a latter day “Bonnie and Clyde” episode that was unusually extortionate and murderous, but an episode all the same.

2) Had Alabama been less tardy in attempting a match with the national fingerprint database, Malvo would already have been a wanted man by the time he and Muhammad began their D.C. area shootings. That wouldn’t necessarily have stopped them, but it couldn’t have hurt, given the number of times the two were pulled over during their serial murders.**

As the Times discussion indicates, fingerprint specialists aren’t just overloaded in Alabama. It would be worthwhile to learn why this crucial part of police work is apparently often so underfunded that bad guys can expect fingerprint matches to take weeks if not months, especially if they have crossed states or regions before committing their crime. In the case of Alabama, it would seem like that state has three choices: (1) continue doing what it’s doing now, or (2) increase funding and staff for the fingerprinting work, and/or (3) start immediately forwarding fingerprints to the FBI to rule out national database fingerprints before hunt-and-pecking their way through the Alabama files.

Option (1) seems unacceptable; from this Marylander’s point of view, I should hope the great State of Alabama faces some significant liability claims for its performance in the Malvo/Muhammad case, and improved court-ordered performance should be but the cheapest of the penalties it will have to pay for. Options (2) and (3) no doubt face political hurdles of one sort or another. Those hurdles had better get cleared. On a wider level, the whole country’s fingerprinting efforts are no stronger than the weakest funded or managed state link; as a matter of “homeland defense” in its original sense — crime prevention — this situation requires some national thinking, not just some Montgomery thinking.


*Among others, Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Reynolds, Natalie Solent, and Jeff Jarvis are touting this notion to one degree or another. Jarvis, for example, normally the working definition of “stickler for accuracy,” writes “In the name of Islam, a madman shut down our capital.” Really? No more than Al Capone shut down Chicago in the name of Catholicism. It seems to me so far like Muhammad’s actions were mainly in the name of $10 million.

I suppose it comes down to this: can a Black Muslim commit crimes that do not reflect on Black Muslimhood? On Islam? I say yes. I get the feeling Sullivan et al say no, at least to any practical purposes. I’ll be glad to be corrected. And even if it turns out Muhammad was Bin Laden’s right hand man in Antigua, I think there is some value to not jumping to that conclusion ahead of time, “PC” though that attitude may be. Read Tim Dunlop and Jim Henley, among others, for views similar to mine on this score, doubtless better expressed.

UPDATE: For what it’s worth, this New York Times article, “Once Calmed by Faith, Suspect Turned Furious,” describes Muhammad as a low-intensity kind of Black Muslim, whose angers seemed mainly about his family life and failures. EDITS, 10/29: “Bonnie and Clyde” sentence moved to appropriate paragraph, Halbfinger sentence corrected.

**A Saturday Washington Post article finds even more: “Police Checked Suspect’s Plates At Least 10 Times.” It’s not clear how many of these encounters were face-to-face. Via Tony Adragna.

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