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Monday, July 24, 2017

Lizzie Borden to O. J. Simpson: The Disappointing History of Forensic Science

     The historical trajectory of forensic science can be illustrated by three celebrated murder trials: The Lizzie Borden case in 1892; the 1932 murder of the Lindbergh baby and trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann; and the O. J. Simpson double murder and marathon trial of the mid-1990s. Starting with the Borden case, the arc rises to the Lindbergh investigation and trial, then falls to the bungled Simpson crime scene investigation and subsequent trial featuring investigative and forensic incompetence, hired-gun testimony, and televised courtroom showboating and baffoonery.

Lizzie Borden

     While Lizzie Borden may have had the opportunity, motive, and means of hacking her stepmother and father to death in their Fall River, Massachusetts home on August 4, 1892, the police, without the benefit of forensic serology and latent fingerprint identification, had no way to physically link her to the bludgeoned victims, or to the never identified hatchet believed to be the instrument of death.

     In England, the year of the Borden murders, a biologist named Francis Galton published the world's first book on fingerprint classification. As early as 1880, another Englishman, Henry Faulds, had been writing about the use of finger marks (latent prints) as a method of placing suspects at the scenes of crimes. When Mr. and Mrs. Borden were brutally beaten to death in Fall River, the so-called "exchange principle"--conceived by the French chemist Edmond Locard--that a criminal leaves part of himself at the scene of a crime and takes part of it with him--had not evolved from theory into practice. In 1901, nine years after Lizzie Borden's arrest, scientists in Germany discovered a way to identify and group human blood, a forensic technique that, had it existed in 1892, may have changed the outcome of the Borden case.

     The all-male jury at Lizzie Borden's spectator-packed trial, without being presented with physical evidence linking the 32-year-old defendant to the bludgeoned and bloodied bodies, and believing that upper-middle-class women were too genteel for such brutality, found her not guilty. Had expert witnesses identified the stain on her dress as human blood, and matched a bloody crime scene latent to one of her fingers, the evidence, albeit circumstantial, may have convinced the jurors of her guilt. Assuming that she did in fact commit the double murder, Lizzie, confronted by investigators in possession of such damning, physical evidence, may have confessed, or in the very least, made an incriminating remark.

Bruno Richard Hauptmann

     In 1935, when Bruno Richard Hauptmann, an illegal alien from Germany living in the Bronx went on trial in Flemington, New Jersey for the March 1, 1932 murder of the 20-month-old son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, America had confidence in forensic science, and considered it the wave of the future. Because no one had seen the 35-year-old defendant climb the homemade, wooden extension ladder to the second story nursery window at the Lindbergh estate near Hopewell, New Jersey, prosecutors didn't possess direct evidence of his guilt. Moreover, no one knew exactly how Hauptmann had killed the baby--had he been strangled, suffocated, or bludgeoned to death?--or even exactly where the murder took place. (A truck driver who had pulled over to relieve himself along the road, found the baby's remains in a shallow grave about two miles from the Lindbergh house.) If Hauptmann were to be convicted, it would have to be entirely on physical evidence. In other words, jurors, based on the physical evidence and its expert analysis, would have to infer his guilt.

     Having eluded detection for two and a half years following the hand-off of $50,000 in ransom money to a shadowy figure in a Bronx cemetery, the kidnapper had been passing the ransom bills, identified by their recorded serial numbers, around New York City. In September 1934, a squad made up of FBI agents, troopers from the New Jersey State Police, and officers with the New York City Police Department, pulled Hauptmann out of his car in Manhattan as he drove from his rented house in the Bronx to Wall Street where he had lost $25,000 in the stock market. From his wallet, the arresting officers recovered one of the ransom bills, and back at his house, found bundles of the ransom money--totaling $14,000--hidden in his garage. Confronted with this and other circumstantial evidence of his guilt, Hauptmann, a low-grade sociopath, refused to confess.

     At Hauptmann's January 1935 trial, the most publicized and celebrated event of its kind in America, and perhaps the world, eight of the country's most prominent questioned document examiners testified that Hauptmann had written the note left in the nursery as well as the fourteen ransom negotiation letters sent to the Lindberghs prior to the cemetery payoff. A federal wood expert from Wisconsin took the stand and identified a board from the kidnap ladder as having come from Hauptmann's attic floor. This witness also matched tool marks on the ladder with test marks from the blade of Hauptmann's wood plane. (Although a carpenter by trade, Hauptmann had not used his tools since the ransom payoff in April 1932.)

     On February 14, 1935, the jury, based upon Hauptmann's possession of the ransom money, and the physical evidence linking him to the extortion documents and the kidnap ladder, found him guilty. On April 3, 1936, following a series of appeals, prison personnel at the state penitentiary in Trenton, New Jersey strapped him into the electric chair and threw the switch. The handful of protestors gathered outside the death house, when informed of Hauptmann's execution, went home.

O. J. Simpson

     Sixty years after Hauptmann's execution, detectives in Los Angeles arrested O. J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman. The blooding knifings occurred at a time when most big city detectives had at least some college education, and months of police academy training. Human blood could not only be identified as such and grouped, it could be traced, through DNA science, to an individual donor. Unlike the Borden murders, the double homicide in California produced identifiable blood stains, drops and pools at the death site, in Simpson's vehicle, and inside his house. The prolonged, nationally televised trial featured the testimony of DNA analysts, crime scene technicians, blood spatter interpretation witnesses, footwear impression experts, and forensic pathologists. The Simpson trial introduced forensic DNA science to the American public, and could have been a showcase for forensic science in general. Instead, the case featured investigative bungling, batteries of opposing experts, prosecutorial incompetence, and a jury so confounded by the conflicting science, they found Simpson not guilty of a crime most people believe he committed.

     Like Lizzie Borden, O. J. Simpson, while acquitted, was not exonerated. He was destined to live out the rest of his life in that gray area between innocence and guilt. In the Borden case, prosecutors did the best they could with what they had. In the Simpson case, the state squandered cutting edge science and an embarrassment of riches in physical, crime scene evidence. Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Simpson case is this: in a time of cutting edge science and relatively high-paid, well-educated police officers, criminal investigation has become a lost art, and forensic science, a failed promise.

2 comments:

  1. I wonder how the OJ case would have turned out if the trial had a no nonsense judge. Judge Ito let the defense run the trial and he refused to stand up to them. I was appalled with the way the defense had even semi-intelligent people thrown off the jury so that they could have a cherry picked group who would either ignore evidence or not understand it. I shake my head when I think about the way that the defense made the trial all about a detective who said the "n" word instead of a brutal man who butchered 2 people. I don't have any respect for the prosecution either. They played the stupid games that the defense played instead of focusing the trial on the murders. If the trial hadn't been televised and the lawyers didn't have a camera to play to, I bet that the trial would have been a lot shorter and there would have been a guilty verdict.

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  2. If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit. Beyond a shadow of a doubt.............

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