Merrett and Spilsbury With the ever-increasing reach of forensic science success stories comes cautionary tales. For me, one of the most sobering exposés has been that of Sir Bernard Spilsbury. […]
Merrett and Spilsbury
With the ever-increasing reach of forensic science success stories comes cautionary tales.
For me, one of the most sobering exposés has been that of Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Read enough forensics books, especially from England, and you’ll know his name. He may have handled more classic cases than any other forensic expert, starting with the Crippen case [see British Cases Tab]. But later experts have called into question whether he was really an expert—or just a good showman.
Spilsbury, aided by a “celebrity” firearms expert, helped acquit Donald Merrett of killing his mother. According to Merrett, his mother was sitting at her desk writing and he was standing nearby when she shot herself. The prosecution expert pointed out the absence of gunpowder residue or stippling near the wound, meaning the gun wasn’t near her head when it discharged. And she couldn’t, within reasonable belief, have held the gun at the angle needed to create that trajectory. Nonetheless, the star power of the experts convinced the jury that Donald was wrongly accused and set him free.
He inherited his mother’s estate, promptly spent it all, and later murdered both his wife and mother-in-law. He fled to Germany and killed himself as the police caught up to him, avoiding another trial, with or without forensic evidence.
For more, see Jim Fisher, Forensics Under Fire: Are bad science and dueling experts corrupting criminal justice? (2008).
Andrew Rose, Lethal Witness: Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Honorary Pathologist (2007).
For a sampling of other interesting glimpses inside forensic science:
Block, Eugune B., The Wizard of Berkeley: Edward Oscar Heinrich (1967).
Block, Eugene B., Science vs. Crime: The Evolution of the Crime Lab (1979).
Camps, Francis E., Camps on Crime (1973).
Camps, F.E. with Richard Barber, The Investigation of Murder (1966).
Douglas, John and Mark Olshaker, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit (1995) and later books.
Lane, Brian, The Encyclopedia of Forensic Science (UK: 1992).
May, Luke S., Crime’s Nemesis (1936).
Ragle, Larry, Crime Scene (1995, 2002).
Ressler, Robert and Tom Schactman, Whoever Fights Monsters: My 20 Years Hunting Serial Killers for the FBI (1992).
Thorwald, Jürgen, Crime and Science: The New Frontier in Criminology (1966, translated from German).
Thorwald, Jürgen, The Century of the Detective (the last half of the 19th century)(1964, translated from German).
A couple of examples raise the frightening question: how often do the so-called scientific or medical opinions of “experts” send an innocent person to jail—and thereby let the guilty go free?
Dr. Roy Meadow
In 1996, when Sally Clark was accused of murdering her second son Harry, she came up against Sir Roy Meadow the Crown prosecutions’ go-to expert whenever a British baby died unexpectedly.
Harry was the second of the Clarks’ children to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS, or “cot death” in the UK). The Clarks had the support of a program called Care of the Next Infant (CONI), and those professionals saw Sally as a competent, caring mum.
Dr. Meadow, though, saw something else in the death of small children. With his kindly, grandfatherly air of concern and understanding, he was deadly effective in front of a jury. Sally Clark said his testimony so effectively painted her as guilty that she herself could doubt her innocence.
Meadow’s testimony carried extra weight because, after all, he’d written the article that introduced the world to seemingly normal mothers who harm their children to get attention. He called it Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy and the article in The Lancet medical journal earned him a knighthood.
On the stand, testifying for the prosecution against Sally Clark, he stepped beyond his role as pediatrician and made arguments unsupported by science and based on glaring math errors. His memorably famous phrases captured jurors: “there is no evidence that cot deaths run in families, but there is plenty of evidence that child abuse does” and “one cot death is a tragedy, two is suspicious, three is murder” [Schneps 13].
He went further, saying the likelihood that the second of Sally Clark’s children would die of SIDS was 1 in 73 million (1½ times the population of England). Trouble was, his math was faulty. The odds, using the study he cited, should have been about 1 in 8543, for either the first child or the second. In technical terms, he multiplied non-independent probabilities and got a woman convicted of murder.
Trouble was, the doctor’s math error was huge. By multiplying together related rather than independent elements, he got 1-in-73-million as an answer, when the real probability was closer to 1-in-8500. Not nearly as rare and unheard of as he claimed—or as the jurors believed.
While she was in prison, Sally’s husband Steve kept investigating, eventually turning up medical records showing Harry most likely died from a severe, undiagnosed staph infection. The Royal Statistical Society got involved, too, filing a complaint with the Lord Chancellor. Sally’s conviction was quashed on appeal and she was released.
The publicity surrounding her appeal and release led to censure of Dr. Meadow and of his testimony in other cases, freeing other wrongfully accused women.
But Sally Clark never recovered from the accusations or the loss of her children or her three years in prison; she died four years after her release, at the age of 42.
Meadow, Roy. “Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy: The Hinterlands of Child Abuse,”
The Lancet, August 13, 1977, pp. 343-45.
Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy, “True Crime: Books on Trial,” Mystery Readers Journal: Medical Mysteries 2014.
Schneps, Leila and Coralie Colmez. Math on Trial (2013), pp. 1-21.
Watkins, Stephen J. “Conviction by Mathematical Error,” British Medical Journal 320:2-3, January 2000.
Dr. Louise Robbins
In another case of misguided expertise, Louise Robbins, an anthropology professor in North Carolina, literally wrote the book on footprint evidence. When a foot or shoe impression in the victim’s blood is found at a crime scene and linked to a peculiar marking or defect in a shoe sole, it helps build the case against a criminal defendant.
Dr. Robbins claimed, however, to carry the “science” a step further [yes, couldn’t resist the pun]: She didn’t need to link a print at the scene to a shoe with unique markings. She just needed a shoe, any shoe, from the defendant’s closet. She said her research enabled her to link a suspect with a foot impression, no matter which of his shoes he’d worn at the scene of the crime! There was no need to find a characteristic mark that could only be left by a particular shoe; every step we take marks itself as uniquely ours, and she could tell by looking inside our shoes.
However, no other scientist or footwear impression expert could replicate her research or her findings in criminal cases. William Bodziak, an FBI expert, was called by the defense to testify against Dr. Robbins in a growing number of cases. FBI experts don’t often testify for criminal defendants; they’re typically on the other side. But as he saw innocent men convicted in courts across the country, Bodziak knew her claims of groundbreaking science were dangerous and unfounded.
Eventually, in 1987 (coincidentally, the year she died of a brain tumor), a 135-member panel, convened by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) to investigate her work, found it had no basis in science. Easy to see why jurors could be swayed by what looked like science when the “expert” had written the book, but hard to explain to the twelve or more men who went to prison based on her expert testimony.
Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy, “True Crime: Books on Trial,” Mystery Readers Journal: Medical Mysteries (2014).
Robbins, Louise. Footprints: Collection, Analysis, and Interpretation (1985).
Schneps, Leila and Coralie Colmez. Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom (2013), pg 1-21.