Crown prosecutor Jim Stewart has introduced the first piece of evidence linking Travis Vader to Lyle and Marie McCann at the weeks-long murder trial in Edmonton.
Investigators are confident a fingerprint found on a beer can in the cup holder of the McCanns' green Hyundai Tucson SUV belongs to Vader, an RCMP expert witness explained.
Sgt. Michael Donnelly was qualified as an expert in fingerprint analysis, and gave testimony Thursday afternoon and Friday morning about fingerprint evidence found in, on and around the SUV that was found abandoned on a rural property two weeks after the St. Albert couple disappeared July 3, 2010. His testimony mostly revolved around a single print found on the beer can.
"My conclusion was that the fingerprint on the beer can was a match to a fingerprint on the (database form) bearing the name Travis Vader," he said.
Vader is accused of murdering the McCanns, who were last seen filling up their motorhome with gas prior to a road trip on July 3, 2010. They are presumed dead, though their bodies have never been found.
Donnelly explained he lifted the print from the can by putting it into a chamber to be heated and exposed to glue fumes, then using a dye powder to adhere to that glue, which he explained is a typical method to get a print from an object like a drink can.
That print was then sent to the RCMP fingerprint database, which Donnelly said has roughly 10 million samples, and was returned as a possible match to Vader.
"They advised me that they made a match and I had an email coming," he said.
After, another officer compared the print on the can to the prints provided from the database, and found there was a match. Donnelly explained he verified that finding by doing his own comparison using a "ridge-to-ridge comparison."
"When we do a comparison we look at each available ridge and note the agreement or lack of agreement," he explained, referring to enlarged photographs of the two prints side by side.
There were was just one potential usable fingerprint found on the SUV itself, on the door jam. That print was photographed and swabbed for DNA evidence instead of being lifted as a fingerprint; Donnelly explained that at the time, the information coming from RCMP experts was that DNA material from that kind of mark was suitable to analyze and may provide reliable evidence.
Donnelly said there were a total of 13 possible prints found on various scenes, some of which provided possible matches to Vader's prints in the database, but using the same techniques used on the beer-can print, investigators could not be confident enough of a match to either confirm or dispute those prints were Vader's.
Several of the other fingerprints Donnelly referred to came from DVDs found in a suitcase at the property of Don Bulmer, where Vader was arrested July 19, 2010. There has so far been no indication that suitcase or those DVDs are linked to the McCanns.
Stewart asked Donnelly to briefly discuss when and where other prints were found at various scenes related to the disappearance, many of which were possible matches to Vader's prints and others which were possible matches to Terry McColman, a man defence lawyer Brian Beresh has previously suggested may be a possible alternative suspect in the McCanns' disappearance.
Stewart said the beer-can print was the most important of the bunch for his purposes.
"This is the only print in the investigation I'll be relying on in final arguments," he said.
Beresh is expected to cross-examine Donnelly about the fingerprint evidence Friday afternoon after the lunch break.
Qualifications and questions
Beresh applied for and was granted permission to have his own fingerprint-expert witness, Kathleen Birmbaum, sit at the defence table for the duration of Donnelly's testimony about the fingerprint evidence. On several occasions during the testimony Beresh had whispered conversations with her.
Donnelly explained his qualifications in a voir dire hearing prior to give his testimony about the fingerprint evidence found in and on the SUV.
Basic fingerprint training takes place during basic RCMP training at the depot in Regina, and he followed up that training with several subsequent courses and certifications over the years. He was ultimately given the designation of forensic identification specialist with the RCMP, and noted there is little tolerance for mistakes within those programs.
"Any mistake in training or mistakes in the field meant removal from the program," Donnelly said.
Beresh questioned not just Donnelly's training, noting it had been provided almost entirely through RCMP sources instead of independent sources, but also repeatedly implied the fingerprint analysis was biased because of the "pressure" to solve the disappearance, and the fact Vader was quickly named a person of interest.
"I expect there's the same pressure to solve and missing persons case," Donnelly replied. "That doesn't change the focus of my investigation."
Beresh also raised questions about the reliability of fingerprint evidence in general, citing specifically a recent case where a fingerprint found at the scene of a bombing in Spain was initially linked to an Oregon lawyer before the bomber was found and the fingerprint match was proven false.
He first raised this line of argument on his opening statement, where he said he would lead evidence that would reveal fingerprint analysis as not providing results with certainty.
"Three major cases in North America have established that fingerprint testing is not infallible," he said in that statement. "Mistakes have been made."
Immediately after the lunch break Friday afternoon, Crown prosecutor Ashley Finlayson told Justice Denny Thomas that Bobbi Jo Vader, Travis's sister, had been subpoenaed to appear but had not done so. She sent a text message to a police officer involved in the case saying she was out of town and not feeling well.
Finlayson asked for a warrant to hold until Monday at 9:30 a.m., "in case she's feeling better and decides to come."
Thomas issued the arrest warrant, which will come into effect Monday.