From 'whodunit' to 'howdunit': crime fans are getting technical

The Argument

Forensics -- the science of crime solving -- is coming to the fore, in books and even broadcasting.

April 14, 2002|By Elsbeth L. Bothe | By Elsbeth L. Bothe,Special to the Sun

Vicariously experiencing crime is a popular pastime. Nowadays, many crime-loving couch potatoes switch their remotes between shows named Forensic Files, Justice Files, CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), Autopsy. As these titles reflect, focus has drifted from art toward science, from intuitive deduction to microscopic induction, from "whodunit" to "how it happens." Crime aficionados delve into forensic books for the same reason fat people read up on diets, or fine food lovers drool over descriptions of gourmet banquets. Current trends have spawned a number of easy reads in this otherwise arcane area.

Bookmarking the forensic path are medical examiners (MEs) -- physicians trained in pathology (historically, lay political hacks called coroners), who are responsible for determining the manner and cause of questioned deaths. (The TV character Quincy is their prototype.) Quite a few volumes have been produced from the experiences of real life MEs whose stock-in-trade is involvement with high-profile corpses.

Recent entries are from a triumvirate of celebrities: Dr. Henry C. Lee (with Thomas W. O'Neil): Cracking Cases: the Science of Solving Crimes (Prometheus Books, 300 pages, $26); Dr. Michael Baden (and Marion Roach): Dead Reckoning: The New Science of Catching Killers (Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $25); Dr. Cyril Wecht (with Mark Curridan and Benjamin Wecht): Grave Secrets (Dutton, 276 pages, $23.94). There is little to choose among them. Each features accounts of notable cases with the author talking about himself and his inestimable role in resolving them.

The physician detectives have more than enough war stories to go around. These are forensically informative, even as we gag over details from the bowels of bodies in revealing states of postmortem decay. That said, the state of digestion of the victim's last supper is far more engrossing than the menu for the Thanksgiving dinner Lee missed because he was reconstructing the remnants of a body pulverized in a wood chipper.

For those who want know-how and how-to, Baden's book stays closest to the mark. His 22-page explanation of an autopsy is a model of discreet clarity. Rare tidbits such as the problem of propping up a severed head (as opposed to a bare skull) might even interest opera lovers.

In a joint exercise that calls work ethics, if not expertise, into question, each of the medical nabobs writes extensively about his role in the most expensive criminal defense of all times -- you guessed it, O.J. Simpson's.

From what they write, all three supported the Dream Team without the slightest pause to analyze the evidence from the other side. Wecht assumed a pro-active role, but stayed away from the witness stand, because, as he blithely admits, he was more effective in "my new found 'career' as a media consultant."

More like defense strategists than dispassionate experts, the doctors overlook the build-up of circumstantial evidence in favor of picking apart petty links in the chain. Wecht technically supports O.J.'s explanation that his cut hand was caused from a shattered water glass, ignoring the coincidence that O.J sported suspicious wounds within hours of the bloody deed. He savages the autopsy findings because the L.A medical examiner didn't immediately examine the bodies and offers up the preposterous possibility that O.J.'s blood could, in the interim, have gotten on Nicole's dress while it was exposed to other bodies in the morgue.

Baden and Lee see droplets of blood on a photo of Nicole's bare back, taken before her body was bagged. Because Nicole was found face down, with the killer hypothetically bleeding over her, they suggest that investigators obliterated the possibility of establishing anyone's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Trying to account for the damning DNA matches to O.J.'s blood -- at the scene, in the Bronco, on the glove that didn't fit, on O.J.'s sock -- they fudge the fact that DNA typing errors can only result in exculpating a guilty suspect, never in falsely implicating an innocent one. While it's none of their business, the MEs explain away the astronomical odds of DNA mismatches by denouncing the L.A. police as racist stumblebums, nevertheless capable of methodically contaminating critical evidence to frame a black folk hero.

The O.J. evidence presented a slim opening -- less than an hour unguarded by an alibi -- through which the former football player could have sneaked for the deadly touchdown. This issue, so often critical to the outcome in a criminal court, is comprehensively covered in Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death by Jessica Snyder Sachs (Perseus Books, 240 pages, $25).

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