In a county in Western New York a man was found guilty of a double murder on the opinion of a firearms "expert" that the bullets remove from the bodies had issued from the defendant's revolver. The case aroused the interest of Charles E. Waite, a lifelong criminal investigator, then attached to the office of the State Attorney General. He proved the bullets could not possibly have come from the weapon in question, established the innocence of the convicted man and secured his pardon, and brought about the arrest of the actual murderers.
From that time, twelve years ago, Waite devoted his life to establishing a system of bullet and firearm identification which would require no "opinion' of experts to substantiate it. It was to deal with facts, and facts alone. In ten years he visited every pistol and revolver factory in America, and many in Europe, gathering a mass of data about weapons and their manufacture. Later he and I joined forces, adding as associates Philip O. Gravelle, a master of photography and John H. Fisher, an expert in micrometrics. Since the death of Mr. Waite last year, I have continued the work.
Today the result of our efforts is a new science of identifying weapons - a science as exact and conclusive as that of tracing criminals by their fingerprints founded on the revelations of the microscope and precision measurements within the ten thousandth of an inch.
This science bears the rather high sounding name of "forensic ballistics. Actually, though, it is simplicity itself. Like the fingerprint system, it is based on the fact that no two things ever are exactly alike. A bullet fired through a pistol, revolver or rifle invariably bears certain distinctive marks or scratches - the "fingerprint" of that particular weapon's barrel. Even bullets fired from two weapons of exactly the same make and type and made by the same machine and tools, bear characteristic imprints which even untrained eyes can distinguish under the microscope.
Moreover, the shell from which a bullet is fired also bears individual marks made by the firing pin and breech block of the weapon. We have developed scientific methods of employing these marks to trace a bullet or shell to the weapon from which it came; and of proving whether a certain bullet could possibly have been fired from a given weapon.
Perhaps I can best give an idea of the methods by describing briefly my recent tests of the bullets, shells and pistol in evidence in the famous Sacco-Vanzetti murder case, in which Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were put to deal for the murder of a factory paymaster and his guard at South Braintree, Mass., in 1920.
While the appeal from the sentence was under consideration by Governor Fuller last summer, I offered to make the tests. The pistol in question was a .32 caliber Colt automatic; Sacco had admitted its possession. While the prosecution and its experts had contended that at least one of six bullets from the bodies of the murdered men had issued from that weapon, the defense with equal vigor had denied this contention.
My sole purpose, in the interest of justice, was to establish the truth of the matter by the unbiased evidence of science. The offer was made first to the defense, which declined it; then to the prosecution, which accepted. Entirely irrespective of the guilt or innocence of the defendants, or whether they received fair trial, the test established beyond contradiction these two long-disputed points:
First, that the so-called fatal bullet, No. 3, one of four from the body of Berardelli, the paymaster's guard, was fired through the Colt automatic subsequently found in the possession of Sacco and could have been fired through none other.
Second, one of the six shells picked up at the scene of the murder and known as "Fraher shell No. 3." was fired in Sacco's pistol, and could have been fired in none other.
Those facts were revealed by the microscope so clearly that any layman might see them for himself, and so convincingly that an expert for the defense, in my presence, agreed in astonishment that they were beyond dispute.
In the Court House at Dedham Mass., I conducted the tests in the presence of a professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was an expert representing the defense; the Assistant District Attorney in charge of the case, a member of defense counsel, the Clerk of the Court, a stenographer and four newspaper men.
First I explained why every weapon leaves its own distinctive imprint on the projectiles it fires. In making a pistol or rifle barrel, the first step is to bore a hole through a cylindrical steel bar. Then a reamer smooths the rough inner surface. Next comes "rifling" - cutting a series of extremely shallow grooves, running spirally through the length of the barrel, to impart a spin to the bullet as it passes through. The surfaces between the grooves are known as the "lands." The grooves vary in different makes of weapons. In some there are five, for example; in others, six. In some they are arranged to give a right-hand twist; in others, left-hand.
In The barrel of the Sacco pistol, there are six grooves, with left-hand twist. Each spiral makes one turn in sixteen inches. The depth of the grooves is .0035 of an inch; their width, .108 of an inch; the width of each land is .051 of an inch.
Now, the marks by which any bullet may be identified are due largely to the tool called the rifling cutter, which cuts the grooves. To the unaided eye the sharp edge of this tool appears perfectly even; but actually, as in the case of a razor, the edge consists of a row of minute saw teeth, visible only under the microscope. These teeth leave microscopic scratches and ridges on the inner surface of the barrel. And when a bullet is fired through, these irregularities are impressed upon it in the form of very fine lines running parallel to the deeper lines cut by the groove edges.
Since no two rifling cutters can have little saw teeth exactly alike, no two pistol barrels can have exactly the same markings. Moreover, the edge of a cutter changes with every cut; hence, even if two barrels are rifled on the same machine and with the same tool, the markings they leave on bullets will differ.
A similar thing happens in the case of the breechblock and firing pin of a pistol. In filing down the breechblock the file invariably leaves distinction scratches, which are never the same on any two arms. Later, when a bullet fired, and the shell is hurled back against the breech with a force of some 10,000 pounds pressure to the square inch, the breech acts as a steel die, impressing its file pattern indelibly on the copper primer or cap of the shell. Thus the breech of every gun leaves its own distinct pattern
Moreover, no two firing pins are ever the same in contour, even if made on the same machine. Consequently the dent made by the firing pin of a certain gun on the primer of a shell is an identity mark for that gun and no other. In short, every weapon in the world leaves its individual telltale fingerprints on every bullet and shell it fires.
In the Sacco-Vanzetti case there were four bullets from the body of Berardelli, the guard, and two from that of Parmenter, the paymaster. In the tests at Dedham the Berardelli bullets were the only ones in question. In addition there were six shells picked up at the scene of the murders. And, for comparison, a number of test bullets and shells subsequently fired from the Sacco pistol by representatives of both prosecution and defense. By comparing the murder bullets, one by one, with the test bullets, my object was to establish whether any of the former came from Sacco's weapon, and if so, which one or ones.
For this I used an instrument called a comparison microscope, invented by Philip O. Gravelle. This is really two microscopes in one, fitted with prisms so arranged that when two objects are placed beneath, the left half of one and the right half of the other are center in the single eyepiece. This has the effect of fusing the opposite sides of the two objects into a single image. The extent to which the two halves match is a measure of the similarity of the objects.
First I examined the shells. Under the microscope I placed one of the murder shells and one of the test shells, with the caps facing upward. Examination quickly showed that they could not have come from the same weapon, for the imprint of the firing pin was entirely different in the two halves. The substitution of a different test shell brought the same result.
Next I tried a second murder shell. This likewise was decidedly different from the test shell, both in the imprint of the firing pin and in the absence of certain ridges which appeared across the cap of the test shell. It was impossible to match the two halves.
But the third murder shell matched perfectly with the one known to have been fired from Sacco's automatic. There was no question that the two came out of the same gun. The firing pin imprints were of exactly the same diameter, and the markings imprinted by the breechblock were identical. Holding one of the shells stationary, I carefully turned the other until both were in the same phase, - that is, until the features of the opposite halves matched at the center line. The imprints - scratches and ridges - matched all the way across the face of the shell.
The identity of these "fingerprints" is revealed in the microscopic photographs of the two shells. At the right is the murder shell in evidence; at the left is the test shell fired in the Sacco pistol. If you look closely you will see the similarity of little V-shaped scratches on both primers. Then if you compare the other scratches and ridges you will see that in every case they are of the same dimensions and in the same relative positions.
The identity is equally clear in the imprints of the firing pin at the center, even though the test shell at the right bears the additional imprint of the trade mark "W'.' Observe especially the deep setback or indentation at the left of the firing pin imprint in each case. You will see, of course, that neither the firing pin marks nor the imprints of the breechblock as a Whole are in exactly the same relative position on the two shell caps. In any firearm there is a certain amount of play, and the shells do not always come back against the breech in exactly the same position; nor does the firing pin always strike the exact center of the primer. The positions of the individual markings in relation to the imprint as a whole are, however, identical.
Under the microscope I compared this murder shell with other test shells fired from the Sacco pistol. Although the latter were somewhat fouled and dirty, the identity was again evident; so evident in fact, that the defense expert, looking through the microscope exclaimed:
"Well, what do you know about that!"
Finally I tested a fourth murder shell in the same manner. There was no similarity. Then I applied the tests to the four bullets from the body of Berardelli, comparing each with test bullets fired from the Sacco pistol into a box of sawdust. In each case the bullets were placed horizontally under the comparison microscope in little holders which enable them to be rotated.
The first one I examined, known in the evidence as fatal bullet No.3, was considerably fouled and corroded, but the microscope revealed beyond question that it had come from Sacco's weapon. First, the marks of the rifling grooves were of the same width and the same angle as those of the test bullets. In addition there appeared tiny scratches which were identical. In particular, the microscope revealed one very prominent gouge which matched perfectly. Rotating the bullets, I compared them groove by groove. I invited the defend expert to look into the microscope.
"That," he said, referring to fatal bullet No.3, "could not have come from any other gun."
None of the other body bullets matched. For example, one of them, bullet No.2, obviously, came through a right-hand twist pistol, where as Sacco's was left-band twist.
Returning again to fatal bullet No.3, at the defense expert's request I compared it with other test bullets, one by one. The marks of identity - tiny scratches and grooves - matched in every case.
Further evidence in corroboration was the fact that fatal bullet No.3 was of an obsolete type, manufactured with grooving near the bas known as the "cannelure" - a remnant of the old days of lead bullets. Three bullets of this type were found on Sacco's person.
No doubt many persons, including some officials, are skeptical of this sort of comparison evidence. "Guns leave their fingerprints Nonsense!" you may hear them say. Yet only twenty-five years ago everybody ridiculed Joseph A. Faurot, former deputy police commissioner of New York, for trying to secure recognition of human fingerprinting as a mean of identification. Faurot lived to see the fingerprint system adopted throughout the world, and also to say of the new method of identifying bullets and firearms:
"It is a science, in my opinion, as infallible, as practicable, as revolutionary, and as valuable in criminology as fingerprinting itself."
Today in our laboratories in New York City we have records of the shop standards entering into the manufacture of virtually every modern revolver and automatic pistol of both American and foreign makes, a collection of many hundreds of bullets of all calibers and types, fired through arms of nearly every make; and about five hundred revolvers and pistols from all parts of the globe. Given any bullet, we are ordinarily able to determine within a short time exactly what kind of weapon fired it; and if that weapon is eventually traced and found, we can identify it with scientific exactness.
With a remarkable instrument called a helixometer, designed by Mr. Fisher, we can examine the entire interior of the barrel of a weapon. It reveals every flaw, fouling deposit or rust spot that might be reproduced on a bullet fired through it. Moreover, by studying the deposits within the barrel we can determine the approximate time when the weapon was last fired, the kind of powder in the cartridge (black or smokeless), and sometimes the type of bullet.
Still another valuable instrument is a micrometer microscope with which we can measure the width of a riding groove to the ten thousandth of an inch. With the same accuracy we can measure the depth of the groove, its angle, and the pitch of the spiral.
We have collected specimens of the different kinds of powder grains used by virtually every manufacturer of projectiles. When a pistol is fired, usually some powder grains are discharged unburned. At close range some of these grains may lodge in the flesh of a victim. By examination and comparison with the specimen grains, we can determine the manufactures of the powder charge in the fatal cartridge.
By such methods we are supplanting "expert opinion" with facts. Our goal is that innocent men shall not be sent to their deaths, not guilty men acquitted, by testimony unsubstantiated by the facts of exact science.
LEARN ALL ABOUT FORENSIC BALLISTICS
There is a page dedicated to forensic ballistics on the All About Forensic Science website which you can access via the following link.
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