New FBI technology -- including a sharper fingerprint identification system -- is helping police resolve cold cases, such as the 1997 slaying of a teenage runaway from the northwest suburbs whose alleged killer was charged with the crime just last week.
The federal agency's Next Generation Identification system sounds like the name of a futuristic crime show -- and in some ways, it resembles one, with cutting-edge advances rolled out over the past few years.
Investigators credit the technology with helping to identify Palatine resident James P. Eaton, 36, as a suspect in the rape and killing of Amber Creek, 14, a ward of the state of Illinois whose remains were found in a remote area in Racine County, Wis., in 1997. Eaton's name had never come up as a potential suspect in the 17-year-old case, officials said.
That is, until this year, when his fingerprints were processed through the new system, which authorities say has a 99.6 percent matching accuracy rate, up from 92 percent, officials said.
"We do have this newer technology out there and have seen great success," said Meghan Jones, a technical manager at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. Last year, her office began running older crime scene fingerprints through the system -- including the set that police said was found to match Eaton's -- as part of an internal cold case project.
With apparent successes such as the arrest of Eaton, authorities are urging local agencies to take another run at unresolved cases. Eaton's prints, in the database because of an earlier minor infraction, were found to match those taken from a bag around Amber's head, police said.
"If (police) have anything that is unsolved, take the time to look at it, send it out," said Jones, whose office has reviewed 288 cases since October. "A lot of good has come out of it."
Wisconsin's state crime lab is now reviewing latent fingerprints from past cases, seeking similar success, said David Zibolski, deputy administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
The FBI's upgraded fingerprint technology became available to all law enforcement agencies nationwide last May, but not everyone is using it, experts said. Some state crime labs still use an older version of the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, launched in 1999.
Some critics have raised privacy concerns about the FBI's efforts to enhance suspect and victim identification through iris scans, palm prints, facial features and voice data. Experts use mathematical equations to represent characteristics of fingerprints, for example, allowing them to be searchable in a computer database.
Now the agency is working toward expanding its database of photographs of people that can be used for facial recognition.
The photographs will be obtained not only from police mug shots, but from driver's licenses and other noncriminal sources, said Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco group that aims to protect people's rights in the digital age.
"We are definitely calling for constraints on the system," she said.
She is more concerned about the FBI's facial recognition project than fingerprint scans because people don't always know they're being photographed, and "often there are false matches or false positives," she said.
Likewise, Lynch said she worries that fingerprints taken for purposes other than criminal investigations are increasingly likely to end up in the FBI database.
In Illinois, most law enforcement agencies, including the Chicago Police Department, send fingerprint evidence to the Illinois State Police or to a regional crime laboratory, officials said. Local law enforcement agencies must specify if they want the fingerprints run through the FBI's national database, officials said.
Illinois State Police "can currently submit fingerprint, palm prints and booking photos to the FBI to be searched and stored in the new NGI system," said Monique Bond, spokeswoman for the state agency.
The state eventually plans to use other FBI technology, "but budgetary constraints will always be an issue," Bond said.
Since last fall, the Oklahoma cold case workers have matched fingerprints in 17 of 95 cases that they ran through the FBI's new system, Jones said.
The oldest match led to a possible suspect in a 1970 homicide, she said. Three homicide victims from cases dating to 1978 also have been identified.
The FBI has not tracked the total number of cold cases that have been resolved, said William McKinsey, an FBI information technology administrator.
Tribune reporter Stacy St. Clair contributed.
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