Twins, DNA, and Fingerprints

07 Apr

In 2008 police in Gwinnett, Georgia arrested Donald Smith for carjacking and murder. There was no doubt that they had their man. Witnesses identified him, a nearby security camera backed them up, and DNA evidence found at the scene matched Donald. Donald insisted they had the wrong guy and that the crime must’ve been committed by his twin brother. Yeah, right. We’ve heard this one before.

But fingerprints found at the scene did not match Donald but rather his brother Ronald. It turns out that they were identical twins and therefore shared DNA but not fingerprints. Donald was telling the truth and brother Ronald found himself in custody.

It was a similar case that brought down Bertillonage, the anthropometric identification system devised by Alphonse Bertillon in 1882. The need for a foolproof method of identification had dogged criminal investigations for many years. Eyewitness accounts were all that was really available. But Alphonse devised his system to correct this deficiency. Fortunately around the same time Sir Francis Galton, William Herschel, and Sir Edward Henry were doing their landmark research into fingerprints. The result was a clash of these two systems in the famous Will West case.

First a little background:

Anthropometry (anthrop means human; metry means to measure) is defined as the study of human body measurements for use in anthropological classification and comparison. Simply put, it is the making of body measurements in order to compare individuals with each other.
Using anthropometry, French police officer Alphonse Bertillon developed the first truly organized system for identifying individuals in 1882. Believing that the human skeleton did not change in size from about age 20 until death and that each person’s measurements were unique, he created a system of body measurements that became known as bertillonage. According to Bertillon, the odds of two people having the same bertillonage measurements were 286 million to one.

This belief led Bertillon to state that all people could be distinguished from one another by key measurements, such as height, seated height from head to seat, length and width of the head, right ear length, left little finger length, and width of the cheeks, among others. His greatest triumph came in February 1883, when he measured a thief named Dupont and compared his profile against his files of known criminals. He found that Dupont’s measurements matched a man named Martin. Dupont ultimately confessed that he was indeed Martin.

For many years, this system was accepted by many, but by the dawn of the 20th century cracks began to appear. The measurements were inexact and subject to variation, depending upon who made them. And because the measurements in two people who were of the same size, weight, and body type varied by fractions of a centimeter, flaws quickly appeared and the system was soon discontinued. Its death knell tolled with the famous Will West case.

Though landmark in its importance, this case was an odd comical coincidence. On May 1, 1903, Will West came to Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. The records clerk apparently thought that the man looked familiar, but the new inmate denied ever having been in the prison before. As part of his intake examination, anthropometry was performed and officials were surprised to find that Will’s measurements exactly matched those of William West, another inmate at Leavenworth. The two men even looked eerily similar as if they were twins.

They were brought together into the same room, but each stated that they were not brothers. Fingerprints were then used to distinguish between the two Wills. Leavenworth immediately dumped anthropometry and switched to a fingerprint-based system for identifying prisoners. New York’s Sing Sing Prison followed a month later.

But was the similarity between Will and William West just a bizarre coincidence? Not really. A report in The Journal of Police Science and Administration in 1980 revealed that the two actually were identical twins. They possessed many fingerprint similarities, nearly identical ear configurations (unusual in any circumstance except with identical twins), and each of the men wrote letters to the same brother, same five sisters, and same Uncle George. So, even though the brothers denied it, it seemed that they were related after all.


6 responses to “Twins, DNA, and Fingerprints

  1. G.M. Malliet

    April 8, 2010 at 7:03 am

    What a fascinating blog this is, and extremely useful for mystery writers. Thank you!


  2. Patricia

    April 8, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    This post is going to make an interesting dinner conversation. We have identical twins!


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      April 8, 2010 at 2:49 pm

      Good luck with that. They have ways of communicating that the rest of us can’t fathom. Hope to see you at Book Passage again this year.


  3. Mari Sloan

    April 11, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    Are you interested in old crimes that happened in the Atlanta area? my Great grand-mother was the matron at the “Tower” when Leo Franks was there, before he was lynched. My grandmother was a child living in the jail at that time. Contact me know if you are interested in stories that I was told about that crime.

    🙂 Mari Sloan at


  4. Mari Sloan

    April 11, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    That was Leo Frank. Sorry about the typo.
    😦 Mari


  5. Craig Faustus Buck

    April 21, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Hi Doug,

    I couldn’t resist piping in with a story about a guy who got caught a few years back by a red light camera in Beverly Hills. He went to court and insisted that his identical twin brother was driving his car at the time. The brother denied it. Since the police had no way of proving who was driving, the judge dismissed the case!





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