The Forensic Palm Reader


The Tale

Miami, 1986.  As a result of a double homicide, two latin male victims were found alongside a busy expressway, late at night, apparently shot and then pushed from a vehicle. A likely drug deal gone bad.  As was frequently the case in South Florida, the homicide investigators did not have the victims’ names, much less the subjects’ identity, and no real crime scene (the crime scene was last seen westbound on the Palmetto Expressway), and little else to go on.  A double “Whodunit.”

During the initial investigation, the Crime Scene Investigator, while still at the roadway crime scene, discovered what he thought might be ink writing on one of the victim’s palms. The detective “bagged” the victim’s hands and followed the ambulance to the Medical Examiner’s office to get a closer look at what could be a slim lead. At the Medical Examiner’s office two numbers could be faintly recognized.

During subsequent conversation with the Questioned Document Unit of the Miami-Dade County Crime Laboratory, the detective was advised that theoretically there was a possibility that portions of the ink remaining on the victim’s palm, and unseen by the naked eye, might become visible by viewing in the infrared range for infrared luminescence. The thought was that in similar circumstances involving paper documents, the glycol based ink found in ballpoint pens “wets” the paper and this carrier, along with fatty acids, resins, and viscosity adjusters which have been added to the ink, is still present after most of the visible dye portion of the ink has been lost by erasure, abrasion, or age fading.  In some formulations this remnant of the original ink would luminesce when excited by light with the red portion of the spectrum filtered out, and this resultant luminescing line could be observed and then recorded by use of either infrared photography using the correct filtering medium, or by use of a (then) fairly new instrument, the VSC (Video-spectral Comparator).  Not infrequently, altered/obliterated document cases had been solved in this manner.  It seemed possible that this same phenomenon might have happened if the ink had “wet” the hand by seeping into the skin pores.

At one point the author advised the Crime Scene Investigator that even in the unlikely advent that what was seen on the victim’s palm was actually some writing, and in the even more unlikely advent that this writing could be recovered, “It will not be the shooter’s phone number.”  An exact quote.

Of course, the problem here was one of mechanics.  Using Infrared luminescent photography instead of VSC, was a tricky business at best and subject to numerous difficult variables. Under the conditions at the Medical Examiner’s office, photographic success would be next to impossible. Just the attempt to gain the total darkness necessary for this type photography while at that office would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The advent of Foster & Freeman’s Video Spectral Comparator (VSC) has made the normal luminescent investigation process on paper documents not only quickly accomplished, but quite simple.  The VSC eliminated the need for sophisticated photography as the result was immediate, being viewed on a CRT (television monitor) which could then be photographed directly.  Today, with the advent of digital photography and associated media capture software, this is accomplished via computer.

The case discussion now turned to the proverbial “Mohammed/Mountain” analogy. The question became one of physically getting the body to the fifth floor Questioned Document Unit which was several blocks away from the Medical Examiner’s office.  The even more difficult problem would be that of positioning the questioned palm within the VSC.  Among the discussed plans was one which required severing the victim’s hand at the wrist. The final, more rational decision was excision of the skin containing the questioned area from the hand and subsequent transport of it to the Questioned Document Unit office. Obviously, great care was taken by the Medical Examiner during this procedure so as to do no additional damage to the “questioned document” which might further obscure or obliterate any of the writing, if such actually existed.  Obviously chemical fixing to prevent decay could not be done. The “document“, once removed from the victim’s hand, was taken to the laboratory in a small plastic airtight container and was to be examined at once.  Returning from lunch, the author found a property receipt and a delicatessen cup on his desk.


The Chase

The excised palm was placed into the VSC-1.  Under infrared luminescence and using Foster & Freeman’s “FS-2” filter, a telephone number became readily legible.  642-9823.



Cross-referencing the phone number gave the homicide detectives an address.  The man that answered the door at that address was not only the shooter, but had been also shot.  Although the recovery of the telephone number on the victim’s palm is a noteworthy forensic accomplishment by itself, this telephone number led directly to the identification of the homicide subject and identification of the victims, thereby saving many hours or days of investigative leg work.  To this day, the author keeps hearing his own words “It will not be the shooter’s phone number.”


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