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Crime-Scene Scene

James Starrs

Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death. Jessica Snyder Sachs. xii + 270 pp. Perseus Publishing, 2001. $25.

Dead Reckoning: The New Science of Catching Killers. Michael Baden and Marion Roach. 288 pp. Simon & Schuster, 2001. $25.

Cracking Cases: The Science of Solving Crimes. Henry C. Lee, with Thomas W. O'Neil. 316 pp. Prometheus Books, 2002. $26.

The Forensic Science of C.S.I. Katherine Ramsland. xvi + 271 pp. Berkeley Boulevard Books, 2001. Paper, $12.95.

No Stone Unturned: The True Story of NecroSearch International, the World's Premier Forensic Investigators. Steve Jackson. x + 374 pp. Kensington Books, 2002. $24.

As anyone who watches primetime television knows, the chilling activities of the pathologist in the autopsy suite at the morgue are no longer out of public view. Shows purporting to offer an insider's view of forensic science in action (C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation is the most successful) have proliferated, and publishers have followed suit with a wave of books aimed at revealing the secrets of the crime laboratory. The books discussed here could all be categorized as popular entertainment, but they differ decidedly in approach. They also differ to some extent in subject matter, despite considerable overlap in topics covered, cases discussed and forensic experts featured.

Corpse, by Jessica Snyder Sachs, a science writer, is a stem-to-stern study of the various methods pathologists use to estimate time of death, at least in the early postmortem interval before the onset of putrefaction. The search for a method of determining time of death with an acceptable degree of certainty is an ongoing scientific quest with no end in sight. For now, we are forced to rely on such signs as rigor mortis (muscle stiffening), livor mortis (discoloration of skin caused by the settling of blood as gravity pulls it downward) and algor mortis (cooling of the body), all of which are notoriously imprecise. As Sachs informs us, "a prudent medical examiner can rarely, if ever, accurately measure the interval between death and a body's discovery."

One case she describes illustrates this point vividly: Forensic anthropologist William Bass once estimated that a very well-preserved corpse had been dead 6 to 12 months before being exhumed, only to eventually discover that the remains were those of Lieutenant Colonel William Shy, who was killed in the Civil War. As Bass banteringly told a local reporter, he was off on the time of death by 113 years.

Bass is well known as the founder of the "Body Farm" at the Knoxville campus of the University of Tennessee, where he and his students do research on decomposition. Sachs discusses various aspects of Bass's work in some detail at several points in her book. She also follows a number of forensic entomologists, including Neal Haskell, as they go about determining time of death in a variety of circumstances. The book contains a fair amount of material on the history of forensics and concludes with a description of the promise of forensic ecology, which views the human corpse as an evolving ecosystem.

Corpse is a joy to read. Sachs has a sure hand with a felicitous phrase: For instance, she refers to physical anthropologists being "trained . . . to view flesh as myth, an ephemeral if distasteful obstacle to the solid reality of bone." Her writing style far outranks that of the authors of the other books reviewed here.

Unfortunately, the book has no notes, just a short list of "Further Reading." Sachs includes a recommendation I would second: Read, "for the pure delight of it," Kenneth Iserson's Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies (2001). If I were compiling such a list myself, I would add Christine Quigley's The Corpse: A History (1996).

In Cracking Cases, Henry C. Lee, former chief criminalist for the state of Connecticut, walks readers through the investigations of five compelling cases in which a variety of forensic disciplines were called on to examine crime scenes. Lee's skill at interpreting crime scenes shines on every page. His admonitions concerning the protection of crime scene integrity should be included in every textbook description of investigative procedure.

Lee is well known for his work for the defense in the O. J. Simpson case, which he discusses at length here, emphasizing the "shoddy" handling of blood evidence by the police. He appends to his description of the case some remarks on fingerprinting (Lee is coauthor of a leading text on advanced fingerprint techniques). After explaining how superglue fuming is used to develop latent prints, he mentions that recent court challenges to fingerprint identifications stem from a lack of "standards on minimum number of friction ridge characters which must be present in two fingerprints in order to establish a positive match." Lee is wrong on this point: As I and others have pointed out in court testimony, those challenges have been based on the lack of empirical studies supporting the claim that the fingerprints of an individual are unique, and on the rampant subjectivity of even certified examiners in making fingerprint identifications. Consequently, I take vigorous exception to Lee's characterization of fingerprint evidence as "totally accepted" by scientists.

Another famous case Lee discusses is that of Richard Crafts, who was convicted of murdering his wife, Helle, and then fragmenting her remains with a woodchipper. Lee mentions at the outset of his account that "The old English court system and our common law roots, even up until the 1980s, depended on the police discovering a body as categorical proof that a homicide had been committed." But by 1985, he says, "this ironclad insistence on the existence of an identifiable body had begun to change."

In fact, such insistence has never been ironclad; even the common law had no such fixed and arbitrary rule. Citing court decisions from 1705 to 1975, Rollin Perkins observes in his standard text on Criminal Law that "Time and again courts have gone out of their way to emphasize that finding the dead body of the victim is not indispensable in a murder prosecution."

Lee falters elsewhere as well: For example, he fails to comment on the inappropriateness of University of Massachusetts wood anatomist Bruce Hoadly being called to testify about the distinctive cutting marks that various woodchipper models leave on wood chips. This type of identification should have been made by a seasoned tool-mark analyst. Also, Crafts was sentenced to 50 years in prison, not 99 as Lee reports.

In another book organized around engrossing cases, No Stone Unturned, journalist Steve Jackson tells the story of the origin and development of NecroSearch International, a private organization in Colorado whose essential mission is to locate dead bodies. In the first chapter he provides "A Brief History of Forensic Science," but the bulk of the book is taken up with the details of five cases in which NecroSearch has sought or analyzed human remains. Four of those were missing-person cases involving women from Colorado. In the fifth, NecroSearch was asked to look for two Romanovs (members of the royal family of Czar Nicholas II) whose remains were not among those found in a secret burial ground in 1978. (The Russians quickly dispensed with NecroSearch's services when its representatives raised the possibility that one of the two missing skeletons belonged to Anastasia.) Jackson is clearly on a crusade to broadcast the advantages of using bone-sniffing canines, ground-penetrating radar and other remote sensing devices to uncover clandestine grave sites.

In Dead Reckoning, famed forensic pathologist and medical examiner Michael Baden and writer Marion Roach take a compendious approach, describing crime scenes and autopsies in many well-known and some obscure cases to show how recent developments in forensic science are helping illuminate previously unsolvable crimes. They also weigh in on such topics as ethics and the need for national standards for crime scene investigations.

On the subject of fingerprints, Baden and Roach are succinct but assertive, reporting that investigators "often say that the ideal piece of evidence is the murderer's print in the victim's blood." (This statement calls for a footnote describing their sources, but the book has very few references.) In fact, investigators must be careful: When such a print is found, the fingerprint examiner's daunting task is to determine which came first, the fingerprint or the blood: Is this "the murderer's print in the victim's blood," or the victim's blood overlying an innocent person's fingerprint?

Baden was involved in the multidisciplinary effort to establish that bones found in Russia in 1978 belonged to the Romanovs. Mitochondrial DNA solved the riddle, thanks to the willingness of a distant relative of the Romanovs, Prince Philip of England, to provide the necessary mtDNA reference sample.

One of the book's best chapters, "Junk," is a call for forensic scientists and the public to wake up to "the sad fact . . . that some forensic scientists do, indeed, fool a lot of the people a lot of the time." The authors back up this assessment with the repulsive saga of Fred Zain, a former "superstar" of forensic science who was found by the West Virginia Supreme Court to have systematically engaged in laboratory fraud, overstating the strength of results and altering records. They also give an account of the ethical improprieties of forensic pathologist Ralph Erdmann, who was convicted of falsifying evidence and botching autopsies.

It would be easier to fend off junk science, Baden and Roach suggest, if a genuine credentialing program with a uniform set of standards were instituted for forensic scientists. They rightly deplore the "checkbook credentials" available for a fee from organizations such as the American College of Forensic Examiners.

Katherine Ramsland's The Forensic Science of C.S.I. takes us where the producers of the television show C.S.I. want their viewers to go—into the "black holes" of forensic science, a borderland in which junk science (graphology and voice printing, for example) holds sway. Ramsland is a former research assistant to an FBI profiler and has both a doctorate in the philosophy of psychology and a master's degree in forensic psychology. But she offers readers little guidance about which of the forensic methods she describes are well regarded and accepted, and which are not.

Unfortunately, lawyers fearful of claims of copyright infringement advised Ramsland to limit herself to describing in only the briefest fashion the subject matter of specific episodes of C.S.I. This made any detailed critique of the programs impossible. In "Unfriendly Skies," for example, we are told that nine passengers and a flight attendant are quizzed about the death of a passenger and that their story that the man had a panic attack and died doesn't fit the evidence. The subject is clearly "air rage." But what were the specific facts presented in the episode, and how credible are they scientifically? Ramsland can't tell us.

The C.S.I. programs referred to by Ramsland serve as little more than convenient springboards for her discourses on everything from blood-spatter interpretation to tool-mark comparisons, and even psychological autopsies (which collect information about a victim's state of mind before death). The book is a veritable treasure trove of the forensic sciences in action, but the discourses read too much like the cold, dead pages of a textbook, except that they unfortunately lack supporting references. Frequent sidebars presenting actual cases and the insights derived from them are the book's saving grace, given the generally humdrum prose and the frequent mistakes.

In a section on "Guns and Ammo," for example, Ramsland says that "Any bullet fired from a specific gun will show the same marks, unless there's been some intentional alteration." That's balderdash: The striae (from the barrel rifling) that a weapon puts on the bullets fired from it can be altered by a build-up of rust, or just by regular use of the gun. During the current craze for gun "fingerprinting," this downside has received little attention.

Even the glossary in Ramsland's book is sometimes incorrect. There she says that the American Academy of Forensic Sciences is "the body that certifies criminalists," but the AAFS does not certify anyone, and many of its members are not criminalists. Also, her definition of criminalistics as "the science of analyzing physical evidence from a crime" is incomplete: Criminalistics includes methods of obtaining evidence and preserving it, not just methods of analyzing it. The definition of criminology as "the study of criminal character and legal procedure" is also slightly off target. Criminalistics deals with the investigation of crimes, and criminology sets its sights on the causes of criminality and the behavioral patterns of criminals. This is an important distinction, one that was apparently lost on Lee and Sachs as well.

These books all suffer from the same malady: They follow the current trend of exalting forensic science rather than admitting candidly that the field is subject to human error and scientific uncertainty.—James E. Starrs, Forensic Sciences, The George Washington University and The George Washington University Law School

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