Murder in a Nutshell

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photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Frances Glessner Lee was a wealthy divorcee who used her money, her energy, her contacts, and her passion for crime investigation to jumpstart the field of forensic medicine in the United States some 80 years ago. One of this country’s first forensic pathologists, George Burgess Magrath, was a Boston friend, and his informal tutelage piqued her interest. Denied the chance to go to college and discouraged from pursuing her rather odd interest in murder, her career didn’t get going until she was in her 50s.

According to journalist Bruce Goldfarb, on staff at the prestigious Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Frances was the country’s only woman involved in the early development of forensic science. At a Renwick Gallery talk, he described how she gave funds to support lectures by leading European forensic medicine specialists at Harvard Medical School; donated her library of more than a thousand volumes on crime investigation; established training fellowships; endowed Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine (the first in the country); and promoted the training of police detectives in forensic methods.

Further, she lobbied her wealthy and powerful connections to replace the outdated system of coroners with one employing trained medical examiners, thus enabling, among other things, many entertaining seasons of CSI. Coroners, an office that still exists in many parts of the United States, are often elected officials and need have no particular forensic, medical, or legal knowledge. They were known to tromp through crime scenes, take a quick look at the body, and decide on the spot whether it was homicide, suicide, or death by misadventure. A list of “causes of death” extracted from coroners’ reports in New York included the enlightened conclusion “found dead.”

Back in the days before virtual reality, one of her educational activities was constructing highly detailed, dollhouse-sized dioramas of crime scenes. These “nutshell studies” were used to train homicide investigators in what to look for in cases of unexplained death. Nineteen of them still exist, and this winter they were gathered at Washington, D.C.’s Renwick Gallery for an immensely popular exhibit: “Murder Is Her Hobby,” which I saw in its last days.

You may recognize CSI’s slant homage to Lee in its “Miniature Killer” episodes (season 7; see trailer). Look for a copy of the film “Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story” (trailer) or “Of Dolls and Murder” (trailer), both directed by Susan Marks. Apparently there’s a new book coming out, too, as the 2004 book by Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, is not readily available. “The Nutshells are essentially about teaching people how to see,” said Renwick curator Nora Atkinson.

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photo: Vicki Weisfeld

5 Forensic Science Myths

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Mystery: why is this trainer so clean? (photo: West Midlands Police, creative commons license)

CSI’s wise-cracking investigators, expensive cars, and sexy co-workers with great hair? High on the drama scale, low on reality. Crime and mystery writers striving for drama and accuracy have to get past such exaggerated expectations. Deborah Cole, a forensic scientist with the New Jersey State Police, spoke to a recent meeting of the Liberty States Fiction Writers Group about forensic science myths.

The first is how television has primed people to believe that forensic science is infallible. The reality is that it cannot always provide definitive answers. Nor is it true that scientists never make mistakes or mess up the chain of custody. Sometimes “a good defense attorney can find holes,” she said. (Interestingly, criminals have become aware of the power of forensics and have learned from tv how to cover their tracks more effectively.)

Response is not as fast as people expect. Some states have only one crime laboratory, and crime labs are often small and outfitted with, well, not-the-latest equipment. As a result, they may have a backlog of testing to do, which adds to the time needed to complete tests (or whether they are ever completed at all, with unexamined rape test kits a prime example). Some tests themselves take a long time to produce results. Tests for different toxic substances must be conducted individually, and all this may take a month or more to complete.

Forensic scientists do not interrogate suspects and witnesses, regardless of what tv suggests. Not their skill set. And they certainly don’t make arrests. They may be called to a high-profile crime scene, but they aren’t there first (unlike in the UK’s Midsomer Murders tv series where the ME and crime scene team is always working away—with findings!—by the time the investigating detectives arrive). When they do visit a scene, they collect evidence to bring to the lab for analysis by someone else.

One scientist cannot handle an entire case. Forensic scientists are specialized (in the lab, their focus may be toxicology, chemical analysis, ballistics, and so on), which means that the evidence from a single case may be tested by a number of different scientists. The New Jersey State Police lab employs 130 scientists in different disciplines, and they are involved in some 35,000 cases a year.

Another reason one person can’t do it all relates to the Locard exchange principle: “whenever two objects come in contact with each other, there is always an exchange of material.” The practical application of this principle is that material from the clothing, floor, furniture, car, or other environs of the crime, which is gathered from the scene, from the victim, and from the suspected perpetrator (if there is one) must all be processed in different rooms and even by different people, in order to avoid cross-contamination.

Finally, Cole said (and she laughed when she said this), tv gives the impression that every day is exciting!

Further Information:

♦Useful for writers: http://www.forensicsciencesimplified.org/onducting Forensic ♦Research: A Tutorial for Mystery Writers: http://www.writing-world.com/mystery/forensics.shtml
♦Forensic workshops, including “TV v. Reality”: http://www.crimemuseum.org/forensic-workshops
♦Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us about Crime, by Val McDermid (2015)