On May 29, 1971, Cheryl Miller and Pamella Jackson, high school juniors from Vermillion, South Dakota, were in a 1960 Studebaker Lark en route to a party held at a gravel pit near Elk Point, a town near the Iowa border thirty miles …
On May 29, 1971, Cheryl Miller and Pamella Jackson, high school juniors from Vermillion, South Dakota, were in a 1960 Studebaker Lark en route to a party held at a gravel pit near Elk Point, a town near the Iowa border thirty miles east of their hometown. Along the way, the girls asked a car full of boys for directions to the party site. According to the boys, while leading the girls to the gravel pit, they looked in their rearview mirror and didn't see the Studebaker.
The Vermillion High School Students did not arrive at the party, and did not return home. The Studebaker went missing as well. (The youths who gave Miller and Jackson directions were never suspects in their disappearance.) The missing persons investigation led nowhere, and died on the vine. Decades after they went missing, no one had a clue regarding what had happened to the Vermillion students. It seemed they had just vanished off the face of the earth.
Early in 2007, Aloysius Black Crow, a South Dakota prison inmate, told the authorities that he had secretly audio-taped a fellow prisoner who had confessed to him that he had raped and murdered the Vermillion girls. David Lykken, the 54-year-old man Aloysius Black Crow said he'd taped, was a convicted rapist and kidnapper who was serving a 227-year prison sentence. In 2004, the police had found human bones, articles of female clothing, and a purse on Lykken's farm. (In 1971, Lykken would have been 18-years-old.)
A Union County Grand Jury, based upon the jailhouse snitch's audio-tape, indicted Lykken on two counts of murder, kidnapping, and rape. As it turned out, the confession Aloysius Black Crow had taped was a fake. The charges against Lykken were dropped, and in 2008, the jailhouse informant pleaded guilty to perjury.
On Tuesday, September 24, 2013, a fisherman on Brule Creek near Elk Point, spotted the wheels of a car sitting on its roof in the drought-shallowed creek. Several hours later, the authorities pulled a 1960 Studebaker Lark out of the water and mud. Inside the rusted vehicle, police officers discovered what appeared to be the skeletons of two people, remains presumed to be those of Cheryl Miller and Pamella Jackson.
On April 15, 2014, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley told reporters that forensic scientists have confirmed the identities of the remains as being Miller and Jackson. Investigators and forensic experts determined that the vehicle's ignition and headlights had been on when the car went into the water. The car was also in the third gear. Given the absence of gunshot or knife wounds, and no signs of alcohol consumption, the deaths went into the books as accidental.
As a missing persons case, the 42-year-old mystery was solved. While the case was officially closed, family members would never know the exact circumstances of the crash, or how quickly the girls had died.
If the lakes, rivers, creeks, and ponds in the United States suddenly went dry, there wouldn't be enough forensic scientists to analyze all of the remains. America's waterways are grave sites for thousands of missing persons, people whose stories will never be told.
Daphne Caruana Galizia was a Maltese journalist whose anti-corruption investigations exposed powerful people. She was murdered in October by a car bomb. Galizia used WhatsApp to communicate securely with her sources. Now that she is dead, the Maltese police want to break into her phone or the app, and find out who those sources were. One journalist reports: Part of…
Daphne Caruana Galizia was a Maltese journalist whose anti-corruption investigations exposed powerful people. She was murdered in October by a car bomb.
Galizia used WhatsApp to communicate securely with her sources. Now that she is dead, the Maltese police want to break into her phone or the app, and find out who those sources were.
Part of Daphne's destroyed smart phone was elevated from the scene.
Investigators say that Caruana Galizia had not taken her laptop with her on that particular trip. If she had done so, the forensic experts would have found evidence on the ground.
Her mobile phone is also being examined, as can be seen from her WhatsApp profile, which has registered activity since the murder. But it is understood that the data is safe.
Sources close to the newsroom said that as part of the investigation her sim card has been cloned. This is done with the help of mobile service providers in similar cases. Asked if her WhatsApp messages or any other messages that were stored in her phone will be retrieved, the source said that since the messaging application is encrypted, the messages cannot be seen. Therefore it is unlikely that any data can be retrieved.
I am less optimistic than that reporter. The FBI is providing "specific assistance." The article doesn't explain that, but I would not be surprised if they were helping crack the phone.
It will be interesting to see if WhatsApp's security survives this. My guess is that it depends on how much of the phone was recovered from the bombed car.
The head of a Massachusetts crime lab office was fired after investigators found that staff withheld exculpatory evidence from defense lawyers in thousands of drunken-driving cases since 2011. The disclosure could threaten many convictions.
The head of a Massachusetts crime lab office was fired Monday after investigators found that staff withheld exculpatory evidence from defense lawyers in thousands of drunken-driving cases since 2011. The disclosure could threaten many convictions, the Boston Globe reports. State public safety officials concluded that the Office of Alcohol Testing routinely withheld documents from defense lawyers in a lawsuit challenging the reliability of breathalyzer test results due to an “unwritten policy not to turn these documents over to any requester.” The documents included evidence that breath testing devices had failed to calibrate properly during the office’s certification process. The report said the office had “made serious errors of judgment in its responses to court-ordered discovery, errors which were enabled by a longstanding and insular institutional culture that was reflexively guarded . . . and which was inattentive to the legal obligations borne by those whose work facilitates criminal prosecutions.”
The investigation was conducted by the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. The Office of Alcohol Testing is part of the State Police crime laboratory and oversees the state breath testing program. Director Melissa O’Meara was fired and replaced by Curtis Wood, the undersecretary for forensic science and technology. Daniel Bennett, the state’s secretary of public safety, plans to hire a retired state judge “with experience presiding over criminal cases” to help the office handle court-ordered discovery. The state launched its investigation in August amid allegations from defense lawyers that the office failed to turn over evidence that the machines may have provided hundreds of flawed results over a two-year period. “This is going to impact every single breathalyzer test case,” said defense lawyer Joseph Bernard. “Every single breath test from 2011 to the present will be impacted by this.”
First you’re murdered, then you’re raped. This represents the ultimate victimization. Having sex with a dead person, while a relatively minor crime, reflects behavior that is beyond deviant, and worse than bad. It’s disturbing to kn…
First you're murdered, then you're raped. This represents the ultimate victimization. Having sex with a dead person, while a relatively minor crime, reflects behavior that is beyond deviant, and worse than bad. It's disturbing to know the world is populated with sexual deviants like Kenneth Douglas who can commit their disgusting acts for years without detection. However, while dead victims cannot speak, advances in forensic science have given them a voice. It's that voice that brought Mr. Douglas to justice.
From 1976 to 1992, Kenneth Douglas worked the night shift at the Hamilton County Morgue in Cincinnati, Ohio. According to his wife, who reported him several times to his morgue supervisors, when he'd undress at home after work he "reeked of alcohol and sex." Eventually morgue officials told Mrs. Douglas to stop calling. Apparently they were not interested in knowing if one of their morgue employees was abusing corpses and contaminating evidence. When the 38-year-old left the morgue in 1992 it was not because officials fired him. He simply stopped showing up for work. The situation at the Hamilton County Morgue reflects a fairly typical example of governmental inertia.
In 1982, ten years before Kenneth Douglas left the morgue, door-to-door salesman David Steffan confessed to beating and slashing the throat of 19-year-old Karen Range after she invited him into her home. The forensic pathologist found traces of semen in the murder victim's body. Steffen, however, said he had not raped the victim. The judge sentenced him to death. (Steffan remains on Ohio's death awaiting execution.)
In March 2008, police officers arrested Kenneth Douglas, the former morgue employee, on a drug charge. A detective ran his DNA sample through a database and came up with a match. The semen found in Karen Range's body was his.
Following his indictment for gross abuse of a corpse in August 2008, Douglas pleaded no contest to the charge. The judge sentenced him to three years in prison.
Four years later, investigators in Cincinnati discovered that Douglas' DNA matched semen that had been found in two other female corpses in the Hamilton County Morgue. One of these cases involved 24-year-old April Hicks who died in October 1991 after falling out of a three-story window. Kenneth Douglas, when confronted with the DNA evidence, admitted having sex with her body on the day she died.
The other case involved the 1992 murder of 23-year-old Charlene Appling. Douglas confessed to have sex with her corpse as well. Mark Chambers pleaded guilty to strangling Appling and was sentenced to 10 to 25 years. (He was paroled in 2000.)
Douglas shocked his interrogators by confessing to having sex with more than 100 Hamilton County corpses during his tenure at the morgue. He blamed his deviant behavior on crack cocaine and booze. (Blaming cocaine and alcohol was, of course, a load of crap.)
In 2012, relatives of Karen Range, Charlene Appling, and April Hicks sued Hamilton County in federal court. The plaintiffs accused the defendant of "recklessly and wantonly" neglecting to supervise Mr. Douglas. In 2013 a U.S. district judge dismissed the suit on grounds the plaintiffs, while perhaps victims of negligence on the part of morgue administrators, had failed to establish that their constitutional rights had been violated. The plaintiffs appealed that ruling.
In August 2014, a three-judge panel on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court's decision. This meant that the civil case could go forward against Hamilton County.
In February 2015, Hamilton County settled the abuse of corpse lawsuit by paying the plaintiffs $800,000.
Kenneth Douglas is now 63-years-old and out of prison. One can only hopes he stays off drugs and booze and stays clear of morgues.
Flawed forensic evidence is a key reason for many wrongful convictions in criminal cases. Setting rigorous standards for judges and prosecutors to follow in pretrial discovery would reduce its use, argues a study published in the Northwestern University Law Review.
Rigorous rules for pretrial discovery in criminal cases will curb the use of flawed forensic science, and reduce the wrongful convictions arising from the “insidious” prosecutor-dominated culture of American courtrooms, argues a study published in the Northwestern University Law Review.
Criminal justice proceedings, unlike civil and tort trials, too often rely on questionable forensic evidence that is rarely challenged by judges or prosecutors, according to the study.
The study authors suggest the root of the problem is not necessarily individual misconduct by court officers, but the lack of consistent rules that govern the presentation of critical forensic evidence before trial.
“Systems-level procedural problems…all too often contribute to the admission of flawed forensics in criminal proceedings,” the study says.
The study added: “These dynamics are more insidious than questionable individual prosecutorial or judicial behavior in this context. Not only are judges likely to be former prosecutors, prosecutors are ‘repeat players’ in criminal litigation and, as such, routinely support reduced pretrial protections for defendants.”
The study, entitled “Discovering Forensic Fraud,” was written by Jennifer D. Oliva, Associate Professor of Law and Public Health at West Virginia University; and Valena E. Beety, Associate Professor of Law at West Virginia University College of Law.
Pretrial discovery and disclosure rules similar to those used in civil cases could “halt the flood of faulty forensic evidence routinely admitted against defendants in criminal prosecutions,” the authors claimed.
The study focused on forensic odontology—the study of bite marks—which both the American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP concluded in 2015 were an “unreliable forensic discipline.”
But, the study noted, “shockingly, courts continue to admit bite mark evidence in criminal trials and do so virtually exclusively on the bases of precedent.”
Several states have already begun to adopt more rigorous rules. Texas, North Carolina and West Virginia, for example, strengthened their criminal discovery standards following disclosures of wrongful convictions.
In 2014, Texas passed the Michael Morton Act, requiring full open-file discovery of favorable evidence after the prosecution receives a request. The Act was named after a man who was found to have been wrongfully convicted of his wife’s murder after his prosecutor—who later became a judge—hid exculpatory evidence.
The study called on other judicial systems around the country to follow suit.
“Such leveling of the playing field may return integrity to prosecutors’ offices and restore trust in our criminal adjudications,” the authors said.
This study was prepared by TCR news intern Julia Pagnamenta. She welcomes readers’ comments.
Lawyers and some scientists question the validity of two DNA analysis techniques formerly used by New York City’s chief medical examiner. The result could affect thousands of criminal cases.
A coalition of defense lawyers is asking the New York State inspector general’s office to launch an inquiry into the use of disputed DNA analysis methods in thousands of criminal cases, the New York Times reports, with ProPublica. Over the past decade, the DNA laboratory of New York City’s chief medical examiner emerged as a pioneer in analyzing the most complicated evidence from crime scenes. It developed two techniques that went beyond standard practice at the FBI and other public labs for making identifications from DNA samples that were tiny or that contained a mix of more than one person’s genetic material.
As its reputation spread, the lab processed DNA evidence supplied not only by the New York police, but also by about 50 jurisdictions as far away as Bozeman, Mt., and Floresville, Tx., which paid the lab $1,100 per sample. Some scientists question the tests’ validity. In court testimony, an ex-lab official said she was fired for criticizing one method. A former member of the New York State Commission on Forensic Science said he had been wrong when he approved their use. The first expert witness allowed by a judge to examine the software source code behind one technique said its accuracy “should be seriously questioned.” This year, the lab shelved the two methods and replaced them with newer, more broadly used technology. The medical examiner’s chief of laboratories, Timothy Kupferschmid, said the discarded techniques were well-tested and valid, and that the lab adopted newer methods to align with changing FBI standards. He compared it to a vehicle upgrade. “So just because we’re switching to the new model, I mean, our old pickup truck worked great, but my new pickup truck is so much better,” he said.
Analysis of bite marks, latent fingerprints, burn patterns in arson investigations, footwear patterns and tire treads was once considered sound. It is now being denounced by lawyers and scientists who say it has not been studied enough to prove its reliability and in some cases has led to wrongful convictions. Even so, judges nationwide continue to admit such evidence regularly,
Hundreds of people have been convicted at least partly on the basis of forensic science that has come under fire during the past decade. Some of that science — analysis of bite marks, latent fingerprints, firearms identification, burn patterns in arson investigations, footwear patterns and tire treads — was once considered sound, but is now being denounced by lawyers and scientists who say it has not been studied enough to prove its reliability and in some cases has led to wrongful convictions. Even so, judges nationwide continue to admit such evidence regularly, reports the Associated Press. “Courts — unlike scientists — rely too heavily on precedent and not enough on the progress of science,” said Christopher Fabricant of the Innocence Project. “At some point, we have to acknowledge that precedent has to be overruled by scientific reality.”
Defense lawyers say prosecutors and judges are slow to acknowledge that some forensic science methods are flawed because they have for decades helped win convictions. Such evidence can be persuasive for jurors, many of whom who have seen it used dramatically on “Law & Order” and “CSI.” Rulings in the past year show judges are reluctant to rule against long-accepted evidence even when serious questions have been raised about its reliability. Two reports by scientific boards have sharply criticized such forensic evidence, and universities are moving toward more precise biometric tools. Some defense lawyers fear any progress on strengthening forensic science may be lost under President Trump. In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Justice Department would disband the National Commission on Forensic Science, an independent panel of scientists, researchers, judges and attorneys that had been studying how to improve forensic practices.
Thirty states collect DNA samples from arrestees. In states like Ohio, it’s rare for those who are not convicted to take their sample out of crime databases.
Ohio is among more than 30 states that have expanded their reach to collect DNA samples from people when they are arrested, rather than convicted, of serious crimes. For those who are never convicted, removing a DNA profile from state and federal databases used to solve crimes, is rare and, some say, burdensome, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports. Cuyahoga County officials have made a push to make sure all DNA samples are collected in all arrests for a felony offense, which has been required by Ohio law since 2011. The Plain Dealer reported in June that thousands of DNA samples — often on cheek swabs — were going uncollected here, a problem identified by the prosecutor’s office as it reinvestigated thousands of old rape cases. The prosecutor’s office, with researchers from Case Western Reserve University’s Begun Center, is formulating a plan to collect some of the missing or “owed” samples from people with active court cases or on parole or probation.
However, there is a flip side to the issue. It is just as important to make sure that people who are found not guilty, who have charges dropped or dismissed, or who never end up being charged after an arrest, can easily have their DNA removed — or expunged — from crime databases, said Cuyahoga County Chief Public Defender Mark Stanton and his deputy, Cullen Sweeney. The issue disproportionately affects low-income people of color who are more often stopped, searched and arrested, and already are unfairly overrepresented in government DNA databases. The process is not simple in Ohio, and the burden is placed on a person who was wrongfully accused to get a court order to remove DNA from the databases, often referred to as CODIS. The public defender’s office handles thousands of requests each year to help people seal criminal records.
Many wrongful convictions are based on forensic testimony based on science later exposed as flawed. A California statute this year laid out the terms for granting relief to defendants challenging ‘expert’ evidence—but striking the right balance between evolving scientific research and trial pressures remains a challenge, says a UC law professor.
The advent of nuclear DNA typing was a watershed in criminal justice. It has helped to convict the guilty, while also permitting the exoneration of wrongfully convicted individuals—more than 300, according to a 2014 study[i].
In its 2009 report, the National Research Council declared that nuclear DNA typing is the only “forensic method [that] has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”
But the exonerations have raised questions about why those wrongful convictions occurred in the first place. In many of them, the conviction rested in part on expert testimony that later scientific research exposed as flawed. In one study of 156 DNA exonerations, overstated expert testimony was presented at 60% of the trials.
These developments have prompted state legislatures to amend their post-conviction statutes to grant relief to defendants convicted on the basis of subsequently invalidated expert testimony.
While there is a growing consensus that there should be relief in some circumstances, articulating the circumstances in statutory language is challenging.
A California statute which came into effect this year appears to grant relief whenever the expert later “repudiate[s]” her opinion” without an express requirement that the expert specify a basis for the repudiation.
A 2015 Texas statute seems to grant relief only when new research flatly “contradicts” prior expert testimony. In the final analysis, these statutes must balance two fundamental interests: our abhorrence of wrongful convictions, and the finality of convictions that represent a substantial investment of time and resources.
How should that balance be struck? Consider three examples:
In some cases, later analysis almost completely discredits prior testimony. The FBI once employed Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis (CBLA). When the police recover an intact crime scene bullet, an expert can compare its striations to those on bullets fired from the defendant’s weapon.
However, when the crime scene bullet was too deformed, the FBI previously resorted to CBLA, analyzing seven elements in the crime scene bullet and bullets recovered from the defendant’s possession.
An expert often relied on CBLA as a basis for opining that the bullets came from the same batch (a single day’s manufacturing production) or the same box from the defendant’s possession.
But CBLA critics pointed out that even the limited testimony about a batch is valid only if each batch is unique and uniform. Later analyses of bullet-manufacturer data indicated that neither assumption was true. A 2004 National Research Council report endorsed that criticism, and the FBI discontinued the use of CBLA.
Situations involving the use of CBLA are rare.
It is unrealistic to demand conclusive proof of the invalidity of a scientific technique or theory.
The most important aspect of the Daubert decision is its frank acknowledgment of the limits of the scientific enterprise. A requirement that the prior expert testimony be utterly discredited will deny relief to most defendants convicted on the basis of flawed expert testimony.
Shaken Baby Syndrome
However, it is not enough for the defense to show that post trial, a competing school of thought emerged. Shaken baby syndrome (SBS) is a case in point.
There was formerly a consensus, especially among pediatricians and pathologists, that violently shaking an infant can cause fatal brain injury. In many cases, the autopsy revealed such injuries, a caregiver acknowledged shaking the child, but there was no evidence that the child’s head had struck a surface or object.
Later, biomechanical experts conducted experiments with primates and anthropomorphic models of infant necks. The experiments suggested that shaking alone cannot generate enough force to cause fatal brain injury.
Nevertheless, in 2016 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the biomechanical research had not invalidated the SBS theory to the extent that a defendant convicted on the basis of SBS was entitled to relief. In the court’s words, although the new research had prompted “a vigorous debate” over SBS, the research did not discredit SBS to the same extent that CBLA has been exposed.
There are doubts about whether the biomechanical findings can be extrapolated to human infants. And further research is complicated by the fact that medical ethics precludes subjecting infants to violent shaking to test the premise.
In the official Note accompanying the 2000 amendment to Federal Evidence Rule 702, the Advisory Committee stated that if proponents of two “competing scientific theories” can each satisfy 702’s reliability threshold, the judge should allow both to testify. In other words, the advent of a competing theory does not automatically invalidate a prior theory or mandate a new trial.
In the previous example, the emergence of a new theory merely raises doubts about the prior theory. But in some cases, new scientific research seriously undermines the theory.
An example is microscopic analysis of hair. Although trace evidence experts have recently given more circumscribed testimony, in the past they frequently went to the brink of opining that two hairs came from the same person because the hairs were “microscopically indistinguishable.”
In an FBI study of 268 microscopic hair analysis cases, reviewers found that prosecution experts had overstated at 96% of the trials. Another FBI study compared microscopic hair analysis opinions with mtDNA test results. In 11% of the cases in which the analysts opined that the defendant was a possible source of the two “microscopically indistinguishable” hair samples, the DNA established that the defendant was not the source.
One jury decided to convict after an expert testified that “it’s my experience in 10 years [that] it’s extremely rare I will have known hair samples from two different people I can’t tell apart.” In 2016, a Massachusetts Superior Court granted a new trial because the mtDNA research had gravely undermined confidence in microscopic hair analysis.
To gain post-conviction relief, a defendant ought to be required to demonstrate more than the emergence of a new school of thought. Moreover, even when the new scientific research is at odds with prior testimony, the defendant must show that the expert testimony played a major role in securing the conviction.
We must balance the competing interests.
A defendant should not receive a new trial simply because a new school of thought has emerged. Yet we cannot be illiberal and revise post-conviction relief statutes to grant new trials only when later research “certainly” debunks the prior testimony.
The standard ought to be whether new scientific insights seriously undermine our confidence in testimony that prompted an earlier conviction.
That standard is the best test for identifying and correcting convictions that are miscarriages of justice.
Edward Imwinkelried is the Edward L. Barrett, Jr. Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of California, Davis. He is a co-author of Giannelli, Imwinkelried, Roth & Campbell Moriarty, “Scientific Evidence” (5th ed. 2012) and author of the “Methods of Attacking Scientific Evidence” (5th ed. 2014). He welcomes readers’ comments.
[i] Beldock, Feldman & Steel, The Death of the “Hurricane” and the Criminal Justice System’s Failures, NAT’L L.J., Apr. 28, 2014, at 47.
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. Simps…
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.
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.