Howard County police identified three more criminal suspects this week through a new statewide computer fingerprint network that has given area police lab technicians another chance to crack unsolved cases,including some that have haunted them for years.

"I'm going to bebreaking out some of the old homicides that we never got a breakthrough on," said R. C. Bartley, chief of the county police criminal identification section. "I've got a few that I've been hoping to get a lead on for a long time. Maybe now it'll happen."

In the past week, Bartley and his fingerprint team used the computerized Maryland Automated Fingerprint Identification System, known as MAFIS, to identify possible culprits in two recent burglaries and atheft from several months ago.

Last month, county police used thesystem, which went on line Monday in several metropolitan police departments, to provide key evidence in the arrest of an Ohio man believed to have committed sexual assaults here in 1989.

The network computer, with high resolution graphics that enable investigators to closely scrutinize the ridges and contours of photographed fingerprints,currently has a database of approximately 550,000 suspect prints.

"We've got a lot of fingerprint experts out there who are very excited about working their old cases," said Lamont Edwards, the MAFIS manager for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The system is on line in Baltimore City, Baltimore, Howard and AnneArundel counties, while Prince George's and Montgomery counties are sharing a terminal. Every jurisdiction has been reporting two and three "hits," which so far have been in old burglary and theft cases.

"Every time someone makes a hit, they become more interested and amazed with the system," Edwards said. "With this kind of enthusiasm, it's inevitable that we'll be closing out hundreds of cases."

Among the Howard County homicide cases being crunched through the computer is the 1978 Columbia murder of Ira Lawson, a suspected drug dealer who was shot at his Skilift Court home, and the 1986 slaying of Robert Carroll Keyser, a Loomis Armored truck guard who was shot to death during a heist outside The Mall in Columbia.

Bartley said numerous prints were taken in both cases but matches were difficult to find through the old fingerprint identification system, in which a technicianhad to match a latent fingerprint with that of a suspect. That process, done by hand, took several hours, Bartley said.

With the MAFISsystem, the computer scans over a half million prints in seconds, giving the technician a "candidate list" of suspects whose prints most closely match the suspect print.

Keyser was shot inside the armored truck, where access was limited, so the prints obtained from insidethe vehicle may be those of the killer, Bartley said.

"If we can get an ID on those, we may have our man," he said.

Maryland state police have identified four suspects in recent crimes with the MAFIS system, said Jim Simms, a civilian fingerprint examiner for state police. Among those pinpointed were the suspects in a recent jewelry store robbery on the Eastern Shore, he said.

"We've only inputed datafrom about 20 cases, and already we've got four hits," Simms said. "And the system isn't even completely up and running yet."

Sharon Talmadge, the supervisor of the latent print unit of the Baltimore City police, said her office has identified a 1991 homicide suspect through the MAFIS system. She declined to say which case, since the suspect hasn't been arrested yet.

"Just because you get a print match-up doesn't mean that you can go right out and pick someone up," Talmadge said. "It gives you an advantage, but a detective still has to develop the case."

Talmadge said the new system has given investigators a second chance at cases that have lingered for more than a decade.

"I have this case from 1979, in which two elderly ladies were killed in their homes and furniture was piled up on them. It's been on my mind for a long time," she said.

"I've always wanted to know who did it."

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