Miscellanea and Ephemeron
05/29/2004 Archived Entry: "Mortal Evidence"
Mortal Evidence: The Forensics Behind Nine Shocking Cases
Reviewed by Laurel Sutton
Summary: The subtitle pretty much says it all. Here are the really famous cases: OJ did it but he had help; JonBenet Ramsey’s parents were involved; Sam Sheppard did not murder his wife; Tammy Wynette probably died of natural causes; Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson probably didn't murder their newborn child.
I’m a sucker for true crime books – or rather, for true forensics books. It’s not the crime parts I dig, it’s the science. Sure, I just told you what Wecht, the author, thinks about some of the cases he discusses, but that's not the important part of this book. It's how he came to those conclusions – not through intuition or psychic visions or even the jury verdicts – it's Science, man, the kind you do with measuring tapes and labs and DNA analysis.
Wecht is a pathologist and has written six other popular books about the science of crime investigations as well as a boatload of professional publications. He's one of the guys (along with Michael Baden) who always gets called to be on Larry King or 20/20 to talk about current cases – in fact, he was on TV during the OJ trials almost every day. Despite being such a media darling, Wecht knows whereof he speaks, and this book is refreshingly free of psychological theorizing and free-associating that masquerades as evidence (if you think I'm kidding, pick up that book about Jack the Ripper by Patricia Cornwell – lady, you might be a crime writer but you wouldn't know the scientific method if it hit you in your expensively made-up face). It's just the facts, lots of them, and straightforward reviews of the crucial evidence involved in each case.
Wecht also goes out of his way to detail the errors made by the police during their investigations – sometimes made honestly, but sometimes gross violations of the criminal justice system. By now everyone pretty much knows how badly the police screwed up in the OJ case (by mishandling the crime scene and planting evidence), and the way the Ohio authorities railroaded Sheppard is appalling to read about. Again, it's science, which doesn't take sides, but holds the truth for those who would seek it.
One reason I like this type of book is that you get to find out the "what happened after" parts. Many of these cases will probably be familiar to the reader, but there are a few surprises – I can't believe I didn't know about Robert Berdella, who was Jeffrey Dahmer before there was Jeffrey Dahmer, if you know what I mean. But like most crimes reported in the press, you read about the developments as they happen and once another story pushes it off the front pages, you rarely find out the results of all the testing and analysis. I had followed the Grossberg/Peterson story pretty closely – they were from New Jersey, after all – and I was as horrified as anyone to think that they had murdered the baby Grossberg had delivered just hours before. But it never came out in the media that the baby's autopsy showed a terrible birth defect in the brain that meant it was likely stillborn or died shortly thereafter – which was consistent with the story they told. It doesn't excuse them, but it does shed light on why they panicked and tried to cover the whole thing up.
Oh, and if you're planning on committing a crime? Watch out, 'cause science will get your ass. It's only a matter of time.
The Wapshott Press
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