St. Paul's forensics class tackles cold case from Long Island

Investigation of two murders from 1842 is the final exam

  • Will Stokes, left, of Hunt Valley, helps Nick Skudrna, of Cockeysville, to determine blood type.
Will Stokes, left, of Hunt Valley, helps Nick Skudrna, of Cockeysville,… (Hairston,Kim, Baltimore…)
May 23, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

Seniors in the forensics class at St. Paul's School scrapped the traditional blue books and delved into a real-life mystery for their final exam. Instead of an essay, they applied 21st-century tools and technology to their investigation of an unsolved 170-year-old double murder.

"It's our own episode of 'Cold Case,'" said Will Stokes of Hunt Valley. "They get very lucky on TV. Our job was more tedious."

Working in teams of four in one of the Brooklandville school's co-ed classes, the students took two weeks to study the 1842 murder of Alexander and Rebecca Smith, analyze the evidence found at their Long Island farmhouse, which was the scene of the crime, and draw their conclusions based on what they discovered.

"Those TV shows are exaggerated," said Brittany Ballentine of Baltimore. "It takes a lot longer to solve a crime on your own."

Teacher Howard Schindler said the exercise allows his students to learn and "use science in a way that is situational and in context." He knew the history and outcome of the case, but willingly listened to alternative theories as long as students supported their conclusions with reason and logic based on the evidence.

"The ultimate answer is not the driving force in this assignment," he said. "It is the process. You accumulate answers and build to a conclusion. Most of us want a direct path to a bull's eye. This is more open-ended. The students are finding there is always room for interpretation."

Students are fascinated with solving mysteries, he said. As forensics study gains in popularity among high school students, Schindler is helping other teachers incorporate the science into their curricula, he said.

"Forensics allows students to combine science and mystery," he said.

The senior teams reviewed newspaper accounts of the crime that made national news and combed through the coroner's report for details of the crime.

"It must have been hard to solve without DNA," said Calloway Burns of Baltimore. "They had witness testimony, but no eyewitness, and the coroner's report. It would be hard to convict on that."

The students studied the sheriff's evidence list and a diagram of the home's interior marked to show where investigators found the bodies, footprints and fingerprints, as well as hair and blood samples.

"Working in groups is better," Ballentine said. "You can check each other's work. There is less room for error."

Alex Hand of Cockeysville became adept at blood typing but said the painstaking nature of all the tasks "would be torture doing alone."

Charlie Gaines of Phoenix said going through evidence together can be thrilling. "Everyone catches a different fact," he said.

A bloodied ax and hammer, discovered near the bodies, were the likely murder weapons. The Long Island sheriff and, much later, the forensics students settled on four suspects, including two German immigrants who worked as farmhands, a peddler and Mrs. Smith's niece.

"We had no definitive suspect," Stokes said. "We wanted to see what we can do now that is different from what they used back then."

The motive might have been robbery (the couple kept a money chest in the home) or revenge — Mr. Smith was known to ridicule the Germans, particularly Anton Geisler, his newest employee, for their broken English.

Hand and her group studied the murder scene, tracked down the alibis and eliminated all but one suspect. They felt they had ample evidence to tie Geisler to the crime.

"Our evidence disproves the other suspects," Hand said.

Other teams were not so sure. There was the other farmhand, who had tea with the Smiths shortly before the murders. The peddler's footprints were on the porch, and the niece stood to inherit the farm and the money chest.

"I think there is a lot of conflicting evidence," said David Hooper of Cockeysville.

The class had to file reports by midnight last Wednesday. This week, Schindler will have graded the reports and the class will gather for a last discussion.

Schindler knew that Geisler was convicted of the murders and hanged, but did not share that information with the class. In the follow-up discussion, he planned to ask students if any of their research disputed that conviction.

"It could go into another discussion on the merits of the death penalty," he said.

The goal of forensics is justice, said Shaniqua Jones of Baltimore.

"You may not be 100 percent sure with this science, but you can come very close," she said.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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