With just two months to go before he retires, a longtime criminalist with the state police in New Hampshire is being credited after using an “old school” technique that led to a breakthrough in a 50-year-old unsolved killing.
The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office announced Monday that — after several failed efforts over the years — the human remains found in a water-filled pit off Interstate 93 in Salem on Aug. 7, 1969, had finally been identified. They belonged to Winston Richard Morris, a Vermont man known as Skip who was 30 years old when he was killed by several gunshot wounds to his head, officials said.
Mr. Morris’s remains were identified not through genetic genealogy, which has helped solve a number of high-profile cold cases in recent years, including those tied to the so-called Golden State Killer. Rather, it was through the manual plotting of the details of one of the victim’s fingers, which was done by Timothy Jackson, a criminalist at the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory since 1999.
Previous attempts at identifying the remains through fingerprinting or DNA were unsuccessful, officials said.
In 2012, the New Hampshire Cold Case Unit requested that the remains be exhumed. It was then that the state police lab “received the fingers of Mr. Morris from the medical examiner’s office,” the Attorney General’s Office said. In January 2013, the office said, the laboratory began processing one of the fingers to try to obtain a usable fingerprint.
The efforts to obtain a fingerprint were successful, but no match was found at that time.
Then in 2019, as the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the remains approached, the Attorney General’s Office said, the Cold Case Unit approached the state police lab again.
Mr. Jackson was hopeful last year, as he ran the one usable fingerprint that had been obtained through various databases, that upgraded computers and algorithms would lead to better results. But he still got nothing.
The system wasn’t responding, he said, because the finger in question was missing the top layer of skin, or the epidermis.
“That has deteriorated after being in the ground since 1969,” Mr. Jackson said in an interview on Monday. “So what I am truly looking at in the finger is the dermal layer of skin,” which is below the epidermis.
Fingerprints look a little different in the dermal layer, where there are actually two rows of ridges “that ultimately grow out to one” on the top level, Mr. Jackson said.
He explained that he didn’t think the instrument he was using was “seeing the ridge detail the way that it normally does because we’re dealing with the dermal layer of skin.” But he knew a way around the problem.
“I just go old school, which is very easy for me because I’m old school,” said Mr. Jackson, who is retiring in June. “I decide to plot the individual characteristics, or the minutiae, myself.”
Then he ran the fingerprint through the computer again, this time using only the F.B.I.’s database. He saw a possible match.
Two other examiners also looked at it, he said, and they all came to the same conclusion: “It is the number 8 finger, which is the left middle finger, of Winston Richard Morris.”
“I’m not saying I did something that no one else would have done, because they would have realized the same thing I did,” said Mr. Jackson, who worked at the Army crime lab as a fingerprint examiner for a decade before joining the state police. He also credited upgrades in technology with helping him find the match.
“I don’t know if the system’s algorithms were good enough to have picked it up” when the lab tried to identify Mr. Morris’s remains in 2012, he added.
“It’s pretty remarkable that he was able to plot out details and that helped him get a match,” Susan Morrell, senior assistant attorney general, said of Mr. Jackson’s work in an interview on Monday evening.
Scant details have been made public about Mr. Morris, who the Attorney General’s Office said had been released from prison three months before his body was found. The last known sighting of Mr. Morris was in Burlington, Vt., on July 25, 1969. Ms. Morrell declined to give additional information about Mr. Morris.
Attempts to reach the family of Mr. Morris on Monday night were unsuccessful.
Praising Mr. Jackson for using the technique he did, Ms. Morrell said she was very impressed with his work, noting that “we had run that print numerous times.”
Mr. Morris’s remains were identified last year, just before the 50th anniversary of his death. The authorities have since turned their attention to finding out who killed Mr. Morris.
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.