Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Contributions of Orfila

In the early 90s I helped my ex-girlfriend research the century old unsolved murder of Jennie Cramer. I spent hours digging up old newspaper reports, going over every detail of the investigation and the trial. Those few months gave me an insatiable appetite for mysteries.

In August 1881 the body of Jennie Cramer was found on a sand bar off the coast of West Haven, Connecticut. It was first assumed that she had drowned, but there was no water in her lungs and further investigation revealed that she had died of arsenic poisoning. It was also revealed she had been raped prior to her death. The accused were Jimmie and Walter Malley and Blanche Douglas, but they were acquitted and the case remains unsolved.

Eleven years later in August 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts Lizzie Borden attempted to purchase prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) from Eli Bence, the local druggist. Shortly before Lizzie Borden took an axe the Borden household became violently ill. Did she try to kill her parents by poisoning and only resorted to the axe murder when it didn’t work?

The queen of crime herself, Dame Agatha Christie used cyanide and arsenic in many of her novels, and an occasional overdose of morphine as in By the Pricking of My Thumbs. Christie didn’t stop there. She used digitoxia in both Appointment With Death and Fate. Strophantin was used in Verdict. Shortly after her marriage Dame Agatha worked in the hospital dispensary in Torquay where she picked up a lot of the knowledge that she would use in her stories. She wrote in her autobiography:

“SometimesI would be on duty alone in the afternoon…I began considering what kind of detective story I should write. Since I was surrounded by poisons, perhaps it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method I selected.”

The first chapter in my Criminalistics textbook lists the major contributors to the field of forensic science. One of these Mathieu Orfila is considered the father of forensic toxicology. In 1814 he published Traité des poisons, the first scientific treatise on the detection of poisons and their affects.



Forensic scientists – and crime and mystery writers who share a curiosity for the forensic field – owe a lot to the contributions of Mathieu Orfila.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Snared By Her Own Words



Proverbs 6:2 - You are snared with the words of your mouth, you are taken with the words of your mouth.

I watch 48 Hours Mysteries because they make one stop to think. They don’t give you the answers. They give you the evidence and let you form an opinion. Tonight’s episode “In Too Deep” detailed the investigation of the grisly murder of University of Texas student 21 year old Jennifer Cave whose dismembered body was discovered in a bath tub in the apartment of Colton Pitonyak whose girlfriend Laura Hall had dreams of becoming a lawyer.

He allegedly invited Laura Hall into his apartment to show her what he had done, claiming memory loss. He let her return to her own apartment and instead of calling the police she did nothing. Laura said: "It didn't seem like a good move. I mean, look, I didn't know what was gonna happen if I called the police, OK? There was nothing I could have done to save her life at that point."

When asked if she was concerned about the dead girl Laura said: "I wasn't able to even process - and even today, I have not processed the emotions. I didn't know who she was."

Instead of reporting the murder she helped Pitonyak to flee to Mexico where they were arrested and returned to the U.S. in handcuffs. After a lengthy trial in which Laura stood by him, Pitonyak turned on her after being found guilty.

Was Laura Hall guilty of masterminding the murder and mutilation of Jennifer Cave? I don’t think so. Is Laura Hall guilty of being an accomplice to murder? She tried to cover it up – perhaps tampering with evidence – and lied to the police until she confessed to knowledge of the murder. She assisted Pitonyak in fleeing to Mexico to avoid the law. That sounds like an accomplice to me.

When in prison her phone calls were monitored and recorded, and Laura Hall’s words in a phone conversation earned her the maximum sentence the court could give:

"I'm a sociopath. What? Because I don't feel sorry for Sharon? I don't know how and I don't know when, but she's goin' down. She f-----d with the wrong girl. I'm pretty mad. There are a lot of people that are gonna pay for this. ...And I know everyone who's responsible."

She made a threat over the phone and her own words brought the guilty verdict crashing down on her.

As it is written in the Biblical book of Proverbs chapter six and verse two: You are snared with the words of your mouth, you are taken with the words of your mouth.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Passing of an Icon.

When I was in college I took a course in special effects makeup. What I enjoyed best was the day I turned myself into an old man. I looked like the grandfather played by Peter Falk on The Princess Bride. I was saddened today to learn of his passing.



Peter Falk’s portrayal of Columbo has given me ideas for characterization in some of my own stories. When I picture the character of Reverend John Banshee in my novel The Banshee & the Archangel I picture him more like Columbo than Father Dowling. There will never be another Columbo. I take my hat off to Peter Falk. He will be greatly missed.

Friday, June 17, 2011

My Other Passion

My father was a teacher and an ordained Assemblies of God minister and evangelist. Every summer when I was growing up he would leave his classroom for the season and my family would travel around the country in an RV, going from church to church around the nation ministering in music. We didn’t stay at 4 star hotels and my father wasn’t the kind of evangelist that asked for money for doing what he loved. Sometimes all the churches could provide was lunch and gas money to get to the next town. We would park the RV behind the church and stay on the grounds. We would often stop and see the sites on the way to our next destination. I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood, seeing new places and meeting new people at every stop. That part of my life ended on August 29, 1994 a few days after we had returned from a trip to Tennessee and Pennsylvania. That was the day my father died.

All those road trips and experiences stuck with me. When you are so used to traveling it gets into your blood. I love road trips. There is no other way to travel as far as I’m concerned. I once developed a travel site called “The Long and Winding Road” for those who wanted to follow the open road. I provided links to all the places I had personally seen in my life, and there were quite a few of them.

Although mysteries are my passion my other love is travel. I had even considered becoming a travel writer – someday I still may. I am enthused with travel and tourism. Just give me a travel writing assignment and watch me race to my keyboard.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What about Locard's Exchange Principle

As a student of criminalistics Locard’s Exchange Principle has always fascinated me. It states:

Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen he deposits or collects. All of these and more, bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong, it cannot perjure itself, it cannot be wholly absent. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value.

In the court system people are innocent until the forensic evidence proves them guilty. Forensic evidence is far more reliable than witness testimony, because scientific evidence cannot lie whereas human testimony can be twisted or misunderstood. Legal investigators and attorneys should be able to use Locard’s Principle to convict the guilty through the weight of forensic evidence or exonerate them because of the lack of it.

There are certain cases that stick with us and continually raise questions – the JonBenet Ramsey murder or the O.J. Simpson trial. It has been almost two weeks since 48 Hours Mystery aired the story of Noura Jackson who was convicted of the brutal murder of her mother. I read reports of the case and I still have questions on whether justice was served.

Jennifer Jackson was stabbed fifty times in what can only be described as an act of rage. One would think because of Locard’s Principle that evidence would be everywhere. The DNA evidence discovered proved that there was someone else present in the apartment, someone other than Noura Jackson. There was blood at the scene from two unknown females, neither was Noura Jackson. Yet, Noura Jackson was convicted.

I read the newspaper accounts, and it just added more questions. Jurors were dismissed for health reasons. Would those jurors have to be replaced with new jurors, and wouldn’t that disrupt a trial?

An inheritance is the alleged motive for murder, and other family members were quick to turn on Noura, filing a civil suit for $14 million dollars. I echo one of the comments that I read after the news reports: Does it appear they seemed a little too quick to get their hands on the inheritance…or is it just me?

Noura had emotional problems because of drug abuse and a sometimes stormy relationship with her mother, but is that enough to build a case for matricide?

Is witness testimony more reliable than indisputable scientific forensic evidence? The physical evidence in the case was lacking. Was Locard’s Principle disregarded? I can’t help but wonder if those involved were more interested in getting a conviction than finding out the truth. It wouldn’t be the first time. How long did the system focus on the Ramsey’s before they finally exonerated them for the murder of JonBenet? In the mean time the true killer walks free. Could it be the same in the Noura Jackson case? Are they looking into the possibility of other suspects, or will it remain a case that raises questions whenever it is mentioned? Was justice served?

Monday, June 6, 2011

For the Sake of Knowledge...

Today I added a couple of new books to my library. Forensics by D,P. Lyle, M.D. completes my collection of the Howdunnit series with books by my fellow MWA members D.P. Lyle and Lee Lofland.

I also got my textbook Criminalistics: An Introduction to Forensic Science by Richard Saferstein and I’m starting coursework in Forensic Biology and Impression Evidence, a course I learned about in the recent 3rd Degree, the newsletter put out by the Mystery Writers of America. Sal Towse wrote an article about "OpenCourseWare for writers" and I jumped at the opportunity to study a new subject. I like learning for learning’s sake.

I’m disappointed I won’t be able to attend the Writers Police Academy this year, but I have my Forensic Biology Course to complete and books like Forensics by D.P. Lyle, Police Procedure & Investigation by Lee Lofland, and Book of Poisons by Serita Stevens and Anne Bannon to study.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Can guilt be proven without sufficient evidence?

I have seen it on the news many times. Someone gets sent to prison for murder, and after a decade or more behind bars they are exonerated by DNA evidence. The JonBenet Ramsey case intrigued me for years. The media already had the parents pegged as the murderers, and despite the lack of evidence to convict them they lived under the shadow of suspicion for over a decade. Patsy Ramsey died under that shadow. Only recently has DNA exonerated them.

I watched tonight’s 48 Hours Mystery about the grisly murder of Jennifer Jackson, and at the end I have to admit I was surprised when they found Nora Jackson guilty without sufficient forensic evidence. I will admit that Nora’s behavior was suspicious, but that doesn’t prove guilt.

There was no blood or DNA evidence that you would suspect to find at the scene of the crime. In fact there was some unidentified DNA that proves that there was someone else – and could that someone else have done it?

When Jennifer's body was found on the floor in her bedroom, she was clutching some strands of hair in her hand. Is it possible that maybe Jennifer fought her attacker? The hair did not belong to Nora.

In my opinion there was a lack of proof and the scientific evidence that could have exonerated Nora Jackson was ignored.

Her father Nazmi was murdered in what was not just a random crime. The murderer was looking for something. Is it possible that the same murderer attacked Jennifer for the same reason?

Can Nora’s guilt be proven without a reasonable doubt? Can guilt be proven without concrete forensic evidence? Are the investigators exploring other avenues…such as finding the owner of the unidentified DNA? And if they did so is it possible that it could exonerate Nora? There are still too many unanswered questions, and in my opinion it is still an unsolved mystery.