Weather takes the witness stand

SUN JOURNAL

Forensics: Meteorologists work with government investigators and civil litigators, and in criminal cases, to determine the role of the weather in crimes and in the loss of lives and dollars.

August 10, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Summer haze and darkness obscure the skies over Martha's Vineyard, and a small plane plummets into the Atlantic, killing a president's son.

A blistering heat wave overwhelms electrical transformers in New York City and thousands of people lose the power to keep cool and stay open for business.

In both cases, it's a good bet that forensic meteorologists will be working alongside government investigators and civil litigators to assess the role of weather in the losses of lives and dollars.

Forensic meteorologists have not caught the attention of Hollywood producers who turned TV's Quincy into the country's best-known forensic pathologist. But it's not because they're not busy in high-profile investigations.

Weather experts were called in by lawyers in the snow-related bus accident in 1990 that injured singer Gloria Estafan and the auto accident on a rainy night in 1983 in which network newswoman Jessica Savitch drowned.

Joseph P. Sobel, a senior vice president at AccuWeather Inc., was hired by the prosecution in 1986 after Betty Wolsieffer was murdered on a dark and dewy night in Wilkes Barre, Pa. His job was to determine just how dewy it was.

It was so dewy, he testified, that the murderer's feet would have become soaked in it as he approached his victim's house. Any intruder would have left dewy footprints on the ladder, on the windowsill and inside the house.

"They found none of that," he said. "It suggested the ladder was not used to break into the house."

Instead, prosecutors argued that Wolsieffer was beaten to death by her husband in their Birch Street home. They said dentist Glen Wolsieffer set the ladder against the house only to bolster his claim that he had been surprised by "druggies" -- intruders who knocked him out then murdered his wife.

Wolsieffer was convicted and imprisoned. Sobel's testimony wasn't the clincher -- there was plenty of other evidence of Wolsieffer's guilt -- but it helped.

The Wolsieffer murder led to a 1992 book and a made-for-TV movie.

Weather conditions can figure critically in investigations of airplane accidents and the resolution of civil suits that follow.

After an American Airlines plane crashed June 1 at a storm-raked airport in Little Rock, Ark., forensic meteorologists across the country were buzzing about what they saw when they went to their computers and called up that night's radar and satellite data for Little Rock.

"Just looking at those storms, it was not the type of thing you'd fly in and land in," said H. Michael Mogil of Weatherworks in Rockville. "I'm sure the lawyers are very busy looking for meteorology experts to talk about the weather conditions."

Mogil is a former National Weather Service meteorologist who does weather education and forensic work.

The American Meteorological Society has 106 members -- three in Maryland -- who list forensic work among their specialties. The number is growing slowly, said AMS Executive Director Ronald McPherson.

"I would guess it has to do with the increasingly complex legal aspects of our society," he said. "As our society grows more complex, weather is a bigger factor in accidents, agriculture and corporate decisions."

Weather forensics is a relatively small enterprise for big-time national companies such as AccuWeather. Sobel said AccuWeather has 95 full-time meteorologists, six working in forensics.

But demand from lawyers is providing significant cash for smaller companies, solo practitioners and retired meteorologists. They provide information, write reports and provide expert testimony in court.

One of the Marylanders is James H. Meyer of Silver Spring. "I may have two or three cases going at once," said Meyer, 71, a former research meteorologist retired from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. "It's very sporadic. It depends on how many people are suing other people."

Meyer helped on a case in Virginia a few years ago in which a woman claimed that her estranged husband had crept into her bedroom and shot her.

"The main thing was to prove the lighting conditions in that bedroom," he said. After figuring in the local weather on that night and the lack of moonlight, he said, "I was saying there was not enough light in that bedroom, that if she woke up and looked, she probably could not tell who it was.

"It turned out she shot herself. She was playing around with the gun, holding it next to her head."

After it went off and the bullet ripped through her ear, she tried to blame it on her husband, who was out of town.

That kind of case is memorable but is the exception.

"A lot of our cases are civil cases," said Sobel. "Somebody slips on a sidewalk, and the issue becomes, `What were the weather conditions then, and what were preceding conditions?' " Disputes arise over construction delays and auto accidents.

The weather investigators collect reports from official and unofficial sources, data archives and witnesses, and assemble them into a logical, informed description of what happened.

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