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Saturday, December 5, 2015

Albert Hamilton: Courtroom Charlatan

     In 1908, Albert Hamilton self-published a brochure about himself called, That Man From Auburn.  In this piece of self-advertisement, the druggist from Auburn, New York presented himself as an expert in chemistry, microscopy, handwriting identification, ink analysis, photography, fingerprints, and forensic toxicology. He also claimed expertise in the fields of gunshot wounds, bullet identification, blood stain analysis, cause of death determination, anatomy, embalming, and toxicology. To match his impressive qualifications, he awarded himself a medical degree, and from then on was known as Dr. Hamilton.

     Hamilton came into prominence in 1915 when he testified for the prosecution as a firearms identification expert in a rural New York murder case. The defendant, Charlie Stielow, an illiterate farmhand who stood accused of shooting to death the elderly couple who owned the farm where he worked, was facing the death sentence. The jury found Stielow guilty of first-degree murder on the strength of a coerced confession, and the testimony of Albert Hamilton who identified a defect inside the barrel of the defendant's .22-caliber revolver as having left its individualistic mark on one of the fatal bullets. Having earned $50 a day for his work on the case, Hamilton impressed the jury with his enlarged photographs of the murder bullet. It all looked quite scientific.

     In reality, Hamilton's testimony was pure hokum. The science of firearms identification, as it came to be practiced in the mid-1930s, did not exist in 1915. The comparison microscope, an instrument essential to the comparison and analysis of firearms evidence, was invented in 1926. Nevertheless, Hamilton assured the jurors that the fatal bullet had been fired from the defendant's handgun. His findings went unchallenged by the defense, and no one seemed to notice that he hadn't even test-fired the so-called murder weapon. The judge sentenced Stielow to death.

    Two years later, a pair of felons confessed to the murder, and the governor of New York formed a commission to review the case. The governor appointed Charles Waite, an investigator in the New York State Attorney General's office, to lead the inquiry. Waite took Stielow's revolver to a New York City police detective who knew about guns. An examination of the weapon convinced the officer that the revolver had not been fired in at least four years. Moreover, a naked eye examination of the bullets the New York police officer test-fired from the .22-caliber revolver showed vastly different barrel marks than those on the murder slugs.

     As a result of these and other post-conviction findings, the governor granted Charlie Stielow, and another defendant in the case, full pardons. Charles Waite, having been introduced to the possibilities of forensic firearms identification, went on to become a prominent practitioner in the field. In 1922, he formed the Bureau of Forensic Ballistics in New York City. The bureau, the first of its kind, was taken over in 1926 by Dr. Calvin Goddard, an Army surgeon and ordinance officer from Baltimore who became the most important and qualified firearms identification expert in the world.

     In 1923, two Italian-American anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolemo Vanzetti, were convicted of shooting a factory paymaster and his bodyguard to death in South Braintree, Massachusetts. The defendants' attorneys were seeking grounds for a new trial, and called upon the services of Albert Hamilton. Since the Sacco-Vanzetti case had been grabbing headlines for months, Hamilton eagerly got involved in the case.

     Nicola Sacco's conviction was based chiefly on the testimony of three firearms identification witnesses who said the bullet that killed the guard had been fired from his Colt .32-caliber handgun. The experts also believed that the gun the police found on Vanzetti had belonged to the slain guard.

     After examining the firearms evidence, Hamilton reported that the fatal bullet had not been fired from Sacco's gun, and the weapon that had been in Vanzetti's possession was not the weapon that had once belonged to the bodyguard. Relying on Albert Hamilton's report, the Sacco-Vanzetti defense team filed a motion for a new trial. To counter the motion, the prosecution acquired the services of two experts who had not testified at the trial.

     In November 1933, during the hearing on the motion for the new trial, Hamilton conducted an in-court demonstration involving two new Colt revolvers, and Sacco's handgun. The two Colt .32-caliber demonstration revolvers belonged to Hamilton. In front of the judge, and lawyers for both sides, Hamilton disassembled all three revolvers and placed their parts in three piles on the defense table. He then explained the functions of each part, and demonstrated how they were interchangeable. After reassembling the handguns, Hamilton placed the two new weapons back into his pocket, and handed Sacco's Colt to the court clerk. Before he left the courtroom, the judge asked Hamilton to leave his two guns behind.

     Several months later, when the judge asked one of the prosecution firearms experts to reinspect Sacco's revolver, the expert discovered that the barrel to Sacco's gun was brand new. Following an inquiry, Albert Hamilton admitted that the new barrel on Sacco's Colt had come from one of his revolvers. Although it was obvious to everyone that Hamilton had made the switch, presumably with a mistrial in mind, he denied any wrongdoing. Hamilton continued his association with the Sacco-Vanzetti defense, but he no longer played an important role in the case. He had destroyed his credibility as a firearms expert and witness.

     The Sacco-Vanzetti motion for a new trial was denied, and in 1927, the two men died in the electric chair. Prior to their deaths, Dr. Calvin Goddard, the most qualified firearms identification expert in the world, stated that Sacco's gun had in fact been the murder weapon. (Several modern firearms identification experts have examined the ballistics evidence in the case, and agree with Dr. Goddard's findings.)

     The barrel-switching incident in the Sacco-Vanzetti case apparently had little effect on Hamilton's phony career as a forensic scientist. Eight years after the Sacco-Vanzetti debacle, he testified for the defense in a New York murder case. In 1932, Stephen Witherell murdered his father, Charles. The defendant admitted shooting his father at point blank range with a Remington rifle he had stolen from his cousin. An expert with the New York City Police Department identified this rifle as the murder weapon.

     By the time the trial rolled around, Stephen Witherell had recanted his confession. He took the stand on his behalf and denied shooting anyone. In fact, he denied the body in question was even his father's. (Decomposition and the massive gunshot wound to the victim's head had made the corpse unrecognizable.) Albert Hamilton took the stand, and testified that there were two gunshot wounds on the body: the head wound caused by a rifle, and a wound on the victim's hand, made by a handgun. Actually, there was no hand wound at all. The victim had lost two fingers in an industrial accident. Once again, Hamilton had proven that he was incompetent, and a charlatan.

     In 1934, Hamilton tried to insert himself in the Lindbergh kidnapping case by identifying a man named Manny Strewl as the writer of the ransom letters. Hamilton was not a qualified questioned document expert, and the writer of the extortion notes turned out to be Bruno Richard Hauptmann. The carpenter from the Bronx, an illegal alien from Germany with a criminal history in his home country, was executed in 1936 for the murder of the Lindbergh baby.

     Albert Hamilton continued to disgrace himself as an expert witness in several forensic fields for another ten years, making him one of the most notorious forensic charlatans in American history. If there is anything to learn from this man's career, it is that the woods are full of phony experts, and if judges let down their guards, we will have charlatans in our court rooms, and baloney in our verdicts.   

1 comment:

  1. Great story here. I have enjoyed your books for years.

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