Adrian - Forensic Science Communications - April 2004
April 2004 - Volume 6 - Number 2
Mortal Evidence: The Forensics Behind Nine Shocking Cases
Cyril Wecht, Greg Saitz, and Mark Curriden
Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 2003
Carl K. Adrian
Visual Information Specialist, Examiner
Investigative and Prosecutive Graphics Unit
Federal Bureau of Investigation
The authors state their purpose is "to offer a glimpse into the power and limitations of forensic science." They succeeded. They also provided insight into forensic techniques used in a variety of criminal cases, allowing the reader to review the perceptions and findings of the authors, as well as to examine the background of cases. Each of the nine chapters reviews a case—each with complex problems.
Chapter 1 explores the murder of a newborn boy in a hotel in Newark, Delaware. Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson, college freshmen, were charged with murdering their child. This case invoked strong emotions and created the urge to prosecute quickly. The forensic pathologist provides information about what actually caused the baby's death.
The unsolved murder of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey is reviewed in Chapter 2. The chapter provides insight into the forensics and the problems of the investigation. The authors' review the analytical processes employed as the information became available to the investigators.
Chapter 3 discusses the Las Vegas casino magnate's, Lonnie Ted Binion, homicide in 1998. Originally, his death was thought to be a suicide by ingesting a deadly combination of drugs. The authors describe the variety of forensic pathology techniques used and the different interpretations derived from the examinations conducted by different forensic pathologists.
Chapter 4 profiles the Sam Sheppard case. This case inspired a television series in the 1960s and a movie in the 1990s. The authors cover the background of osteopathic surgeon Sam Sheppard and his family prior to the brutal murder of his wife on July 4, 1954. Although Dr. Sheppard vehemently denied killing his wife, intense media coverage pushed the desire for a speedy trial and conviction. Dr. Sheppard was found guilty in 1954, but a retrial found him not guilty in 1966. The various examinations performed by doctors and forensic pathologists in the trial, as well as the subsequent examinations performed for the wrongful-imprisonment lawsuit in the mid-1990s are highlighted.
In Chapter 5, the authors outline the history and events that led to the shooting deaths of three people. The incident was between Christ Miracle Church members and local police officers in Miracle Valley, Arizona, on October 23, 1982. The authors used three-dimensional bullet-trajectory analysis of the autopsies using the medical examiner's report to dispute testimony of sheriffs who contended that church members shot first, and the officers shot in self-defense. Prosecutors dismissed the charges, and county officials settled the lawsuit brought by Christ Miracle Church.
Tammy Wynette's death and the problems associated with the investigation were examined in Chapter 6. Because an autopsy was not ordered immediately and Wynette's personal physician was not forthcoming about her pain medications, there will always be questions about the cause of her death. The authors' careful review of this case was insightful and informative.
Chapter 7 reviews the Orenthal James Simpson case. O. J.'s former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, were brutally murdered the night of June 12, 1994, in Brentwood, California. The authors research the history of O. J. Simpson from his youth, his years of professional football, and his acting career. They emphasize the defense versus the prosecution of the trial proceedings, explaining the criminal and civil trials and their respective and opposite verdicts. The authors point out the intricate levels of the investigation and how forensic analyses were used to support the trials. They also review some of the mistakes made by the forensic experts and detectives.
Robert Berdella, a serial rapist and murderer who killed six young men in the 1980s, is profiled in Chapter 8. This case was not publicized like the Jeffrey Dahmer case a few years later, but the authors show that it has many similarities. The details of this case are well presented and give a brief look into the twisted mind of a serial murderer.
Chapter 9 covers the 1991 homicide by poisoning of Robert Curley. A few days before Curley's death, a urine test showed a high level of thallium (primarily found in rat poison) in his body. Although the doctors tried to flush the thallium from Curley's body, it was too late. His death was ruled a homicide. A second autopsy was ordered in 1994. Segmental analyses of hairs removed from Curley's scalp allowed a pathologist to create a chronology of thallium exposure in the last months of Curley's life. This information allowed investigators to eliminate all possible suspects except for Curley's wife, Joann, who plead guilty to the murder in 1997. The authors cover the events in this case well, detailing the time line leading to the homicide as well as the forensics used in solving the case.
Overall, this book is well written in layman's terms and is informative about the types of forensic services available to aid investigators and attorneys in investigating, prosecuting, and defending homicide cases. The authors detail the defense side in most of these cases. The authors do not offer the same level of detail in the prosecution side of the cases, which would allow the reader an opportunity to evaluate the evidence in an unbiased manner and compare the conclusions and how they were reached by both sides.
The book reminds expert witnesses, law enforcement investigators, and attorneys about the pitfalls of not being thorough in a homicide investigation. It also shows readers how important it is to request appropriate forensic examinations. It explains how the forensic pathologist's examinations are often crucial in an investigation, and the authors clarify how forensic pathologists extract pieces of the puzzle from the victim's body that if not discovered would almost certainly cause the wrong conclusions.
The authors stress that experts must never overstep the boundaries of their expertise and always defer to those who are more qualified. The authors describe what can happen when public and political pressure adds to the complexity of difficult or high-profile homicide cases.
I believe that if you testify as an expert witness or provide investigative or analytical support in a homicide case, this book can shed light on various techniques provided by forensic pathologists and scientists, as well as pointing out the blunders that should be avoided.