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Monday, May 22, 2017

The Diane McDermott Murder Case

     Americans have enjoyed detective fiction since the 1930s. The early police detectives of literature and film were far more impressive than their thick-skulled, real-life contemporaries. In the U.S., criminal investigation, as practiced by the police, didn't become anything resembling a profession well into the 20th Century. The first widely read criminal investigation textbook didn't come out until 1958. (Criminal Investigation by Charles O'Hara) Colleges and universities didn't start criminal justice programs until the early 1970s, and most of them were puerile.

     As late as the 1950s and 60s, police detectives, instead of employing interrogation techniques to acquire confessions, simply beat the hell out of suspects until someone broke down and confessed. In the 1940s, Fred Inbau of Northwestern University Law School, developed a set of interrogation techniques designed to psychologically induce admissions of guilt without the use of force. As a polygraph examiner in the Chicago Crime Lab, he knew that confessions beat out of people by the Chicago Police were unreliable, not to mention inhumane. Inbau's methods, however, weren't universally practiced until after the 1966 Supreme Court decision, Miranda v. Arizona. Cops loved the third-degree, and old habits were hard to break.

     During the first half of the 20th Century and beyond, police detectives didn't routinely conduct professional crime scene investigations, take detailed notes, write case reports, or submit physical evidence to crime labs. Crimes were not systematically investigated and solved, and if a case didn't present an obvious suspect, detectives quickly closed it. Crime novelists and their readers loved murder mysteries, cops didn't. Homicide detectives regularly ignored or bungled murder cases, no one knew how to investigate arsons, and burglars were rarely caught because these crimes did not produce eyewitnesses. Most rape complaints received no investigation whatsoever. Cops who wore suits and carried gold badges were detectives in name only. (The word "detective" wasn't introduced into the English language until 1853 when Charles Dickens coined the term in his novel Bleak House.)

     Today, police detectives are well-paid and have access to cutting edge forensic science. They also can avail themselves of all sorts of relevant education and training. Still, in some big cities, small towns, and suburban communities, criminal investigations are regularly bungled due to indifference, laziness, corruption, and a shortage of qualified personnel. Modern law enforcement is principally focused on street crime, anti-terrorism, and the war on drugs. Criminal investigation has taken a backseat to these law enforcement priorities, and is becoming a lost art. (The nation's crime labs are also underfunded and understaffed.) In the history of criminal investigation, we are coming full circle.

The Diane McDermott Case

     A murder ignored by the police in 1967 drew attention in the spring of 2012 because the victim's son, a TV actor named Dylan McDermott, prevailed upon the authorities to take a second look at his mother's violent death. The Diane McDermott case is one of thousands of suspicious deaths in the past 100 years never investigated seriously or competently by the police.

     In 1967, Diane McDermott lived in a Waterbury, Connecticut apartment with her 5-year-old son Dylan, her 7-month-old daughter Robin, and John Sponza, her 27-year-old boyfriend. In February of that year, Sponza shot Diane McDermott in the head at point-blank range, placed a handgun next to her body that wasn't the firearm he had shot her with, then called the police. Sponza, a heroin addict with organized crime connections, told detectives with the Waterbury Police Department that Diane had picked up the gun he had been cleaning and accidentally shot herself in the head. Only an idiot, or cops on the take, would buy this story.

     Police interviews of Dylan McDermott, neighbors, and friends of the victim contradicted Sponza's claim that he and Diane rarely argued. Dylan said he had seen the boyfriend, who had once locked him out of the apartment, point a gun at his mother. Moreover, the two of them were often heard yelling at each other.

     Following a cursory investigation, the Waterbury Police closed the McDermott case as an accidental shooting. Four years later, police in Waltham, Massachusetts found Sponza's body in the trunk of a car parked in front of a a grocery store.

     The fact Sponza had murdered Diane McDermott in 1967 before DNA and other forensic science breakthroughs does not excuse the bungling of this case. (I don't know if McDermott's body had been autopsied, or if a forensic pathologist had recovered the fatal bullet. Media coverage of the case has focused on the actor's angst.) Even if the fatal slug had been too damaged for microscopic comparison with a test-fired bullet from the death scene handgun, a forensic firearms identification expert could have determined if the two projectiles were the same caliber. The victim's hands could have been tested for traces of gunshot residue, and the firearm next to her body could have been processed for latent fingerprints.

     In June 2012, Dr. H. Wayne Carver, the medical examiner for the state of Connecticut, reviewed the McDermott case file and concluded that the gun next to the victim's body was too small a caliber to have fired the fatal shot. In his report, Dr. Carver wrote, "The wound also showed that the murder weapon had been pressed to the back of the head." (This suggests the victim had been autopsied, and photographs had been taken.)

     Since people don't accidentally shoot themselves in the back of the head, Diane McDermott had obviously been murdered, and the last person to have seen her alive was John Sponza.

     While it's possible the detectives in charge of the McDermott case were either extremely stupid, lazy, or indifferent, I think they were corrupt. While the Connecticut criminal justice system failed to do its job in this case, John Sponza ended up where he belonged, dead in the trunk of someone's car.

      

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