Judge clears way for fingerprint evidence in trial

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Fingerprint evidence and related testimony will be allowed in the capital murder trial of an Arizona fugitive accused of carjacking and killing a retired Oklahoma couple, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

Attorneys for John McCluskey had sought to have the key evidence thrown out, arguing that any testimony based on fingerprint comparisons done by a complicated automated system would be unreliable.

The motion claimed the mathematical system used to match the prints to McCluskey has an error rate of 50 percent, a standard too low to guarantee his right to a fair trial.

U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera ruled the defense filed the motion too late. She said the defense also failed to explain why it waited until the eleventh hour, "leaving the court with the impression that the delay was tactical."

Herrera said the defense would be able to point out the system's limitations during cross examination.

The legal wrangling related to the testimony of fingerprint expert Bonnie Knoll, who was called to the witness stand Thursday.

Prosecutors say Gary and Linda Haas of Tecumseh, Okla., were targeted by McCluskey, fellow escaped inmate Tracy Province and accomplice Casslyn Welch at a rest stop near the Texas-New Mexico state line on Aug. 2, 2010. The trio allegedly wanted the couple's truck and travel trailer.

After being carjacked at gunpoint, the couple was forced to drive west on Interstate 40 before pulling off on a two-lane road, where they were ordered into the trailer and shot, court documents state.

The trailer was then taken to a more remote location, unhitched and burned with the bodies inside.

Authorities later found the Haases' stolen truck in Albuquerque. Court documents allege the three suspects bought paper towels and brake fluid to wipe away any fingerprints. A brake fluid canister and keys were found in the truck's cup holders, and plastic wrap from paper towels was found on the floorboard.

Prosecutor Greg Fouratt said during opening statements on Monday that evidence would show fingerprints found on the plastic wrapper belonged to McCluskey. He said experts were also able to identify Province's fingerprints.

Province and Welch pleaded guilty to charges of carjacking resulting in death, conspiracy, use of a firearm during a violent crime and other counts. They are expected to testify during McCluskey's trial.