Dead Reckoning: The New Science of Catching Killers

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9780684852713: Dead Reckoning: The New Science of Catching Killers
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For most people, the forensic sciences are something reported on the news when a crime is solved through DNA evidence, or used as a plot twist for television shows. But behind the crime-scene tape and the doors of the morgue is a world never seen by the public. Now famed pathologist and medical examiner Dr. Michael Baden and award-winning writer Marion Roach take readers into the laboratory, above the autopsy table, onto the witness stand and out in the field to show how advances in forensic science can solve crucial questions in a criminal case, often with startling accuracy.
Baden and Roach reveal how a key clue to the killer of Nicole Brown Simpson was lost when her body was moved to the morgue, and why the JonBenet Ramsey case can never be solved. They show how no clue is too small to be analyzed and no case too old to be reopened. Full of behind-the-scenes drama and surprising revelations, Dead Reckoning is a fascinating look at how forensic science is changing the way we convict the guilty and free the innocent.

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About the Author:

Michael Baden, M.D., was the chief medical examiner of New York City for more than twenty-five years. He is a forensic pathologist and currently codirector of the New York State Police Medico-Legal Investigation Unit. He is the host of the popular HBO series Autopsy and is the author of a previous book, Unnatural Death. He lives in New York City with his wife and three children.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter Seven: Bugs

The level, flat slab of the Midwest may be the place where the risky game of chicken was born. Here cars can race side by side or hurtle toward each other on a collision course at terrific speed without so much as the hint of an incline, a whisper of a curve or the shock of a stop sign. The road goes on forever until it meets another road at crisp right angles, only to go on again.

Houses are set back from the road and are sheltered by the only trees around: Large, leafy bowers hang the shade on the roofs that otherwise would bake in the Indiana sun. Go up in a plane and these little clots of houses and green trees appear as dots on the graph paper that is America's farmland. Box after box, rigid in their limits, limitless in their shades of yellow and green, the graph expands beneath you exponentially in all directions the higher you fly. Leaving the land behind becomes impossible: It simply grows under the wings of the plane until it is everywhere.

Indiana is the solid Midwest. There is no mistaking it. Here fireworks outlets brace the edges of the state, pork chops are on every restaurant menu, people drink Mr. Pibb and red pop and farmers drive the astonishing pieces of machinery that cultivate American agriculture. In the planting and harvesting seasons these machines roam the massive, soft fields that blanket the limestone base laid in the Upper Silurian Age.

Despite its name, Jasper County, Indiana, is bedrocked from end to end with that limestone. The county seat is a city called Rensselaer, a treed, cool oasis from the hot and dusty business of farming. In the middle of town is the Busy Bee ice cream stand by the Iroquois River. It opens in May, and its staff is good at giving directions to a well-known eight-hundred-acre farm just outside of town. You go east a ways; then, they will tell you, you start looking on the north side of the road. It turns out that the place is easy to find on an early summer night, distinguished, as it is, amid the threshers and the combines, by a slow moving, twenty-three-ton, steel-cleated World War II tank that is firing tennis balls into the dusk.

Dr. Neal Haskell, it seems, is spending a rare evening at home.

As the only full-time professional forensic entomologist in the world, Dr. Haskell travels nearly all the time. But not this week. Every year at the beginning of the summer he runs a school. Law enforcement people from all over the world fly into Chicago or Indianapolis, then drive two hours to Rensselaer, to learn from the master about the ancient science of bugs on dead people.

Climbing out of the tank, he looks like nothing so much as a round peg in a small hole. Haskell, who is a professor of forensic science and biology at St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, is a big boy, whose barrel-bellied shape stretches the slogans on his T-shirts into easy reading for the large-type set. This one reads MAGGOT POWER on the front and IT'S FUN TO PUT SNAP, CRACKLE AND POP INTO THE MOURNING on the back.

The beer he serves up out of the barn cooler, called "Old Scratch" lager, features a half-dog, half-flea mascot. The Dodge Caravan SE parked next to the main house bears a license plate that reads maggot. This man is dead serious -- in a funny kind of way -- about his bugs.

As a body starts to die something sends certain members of the bug world into a frenzy. Female blowflies have a keen sense of smell and from as far away as a mile and a half can smell the moments of death. Perhaps it is a gas discharged by bacteria in the gut. Perhaps it is something far more obscure.

The process was documented as early as 1235 a.d., when Sung Tz'u, a Chinese death investigator, wrote a book entitled The Washing Away of Wrongs, about the forensic sciences of the time. It contains what is probably the first written account of the use of bugs in determining criminal behavior. A slashing murder had occurred in a small Chinese village, and after the usual questioning of the locals, no suspect had been located. The local investigator then had all the villagers bring their sickles to an open spot and lay them out before the crowd. Flies landed on one of the sickles, probably because of the bits of the victim's tissue that remained on the instrument. The owner of the sickle broke down and confessed.

Experiments in 1668 by Francesco Redi essentially killed the widely held belief that rotting meat somehow spontaneously generated its own flies. The year 1855 saw the first use of insects as forensic indicators by a Westerner. When a baby's body was discovered behind the plaster mantle of a house in France, Dr. Bergeret d'Arbois performed an autopsy and determined that the assemblage of insects pointed to an earlier date, and thus previous occupants of the house, rather than those originally accused.

After that, it was a slow but inexorable series of steps to Rensselaer, Indiana, and Neal Haskell's summer bug school at the farm.

The night before things begin we are given our schedule. School will proceed pretty much like this: kill the pigs, watch for flies, look for maggots, do some experiments, drink some beers, have a pig roast.

At the heart of Rensselaer is the courthouse. It was erected in 1896, the year that Ohioan William McKinley beat out Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan, the "boy orator," for president of the United States. The structure is Gothic in style, with strong Victorian flourishes. Inside are polished stone stairs and stenciled ceilings, all reflecting the organic colors of this part of the country. Stained glass staves of wheat give way on the upper floors to scales of justice set in the leaded windows.

Surrounding the courthouse square are the hallmarks of prosperity of small town America. On the east side is the bank that locals for years considered the Democratic bank (a Republican bank once shared the courthouse square but has been replaced). On the south side of the square is the fitness and tanning salon. Along the west flank is the Ritz cinema and an eatery called the City Office and Pub (the mayor's office used to be in the building). Heading north out of town on Route 231, you can pick up a copy of the Rensselaer Republican, the local newspaper, before arriving at the American Legion Hall. That's where bug school starts at 8 a.m. sharp.

Inside the hall, thirty-seven students, some still smelling of soap and showers, mill around, warming in the June morning. They are quiet and well groomed, the men all sporting the close-cropped hair of law enforcement, the seven women looking more like fringe-science, with assorted piercings and a smattering of tattoos. The exception here is Laura, a Brooklyn-born FBI agent, whose dark hair is neat and trim and whose ankle is packing serious heat. Her explanation of a recent use of "Cadavahdawgs...you know, cadavahdawgs" is met initially with a blank stare. It takes a classmate several attempts to comprehend. "Oh, cadaver dogs," he says, as the light of recognition ignites. In this part of the world her accent is rarer than a Waco fire maggot (which, incidentally, Dr. Haskell has in his celebrity maggot collection).

This is the bingo room of the American Legion Hall, as evidenced by the ancient numbered light board and cage of numbered balls to the left in front. On the upper right of the front wall of the hall are written the words of the preamble of the Constitution. Right under those words, Dr. Haskell sets up his maggot display. This consists of Schmidt boxes that store bugs, bottles with neoprene stoppers and a small but impressive insect collection. This is his traveling show. His lab, with thousands of bugs at varying stages of life and death, is in his mother's basement on one of the nicest streets in town.

Today Dr. Haskell is wearing a T-shirt whose sleeve reads NO FLIES ON ME. One of the students sets out to change that by offering the professor a great, shiny necklace of plastic beetles and flies in the electric colors of Mardi Gras beads. Strung amid the insects are tiny rubber maggots. Oh, Dr. Haskell loves this. This is a real treasure.

All too often people use the expression "larger than life" to describe people who really are not. Within the first few moments of bug school, it becomes apparent that Neal Haskell is, in fact, larger than life. He's enormous with it, delighted to be here, joyous in his enthusiasm about teaching and about maggots themselves.

"Good news, folks," he says, turning in the aisle between the rows of desks. "We've got maggots. We've got migrating maggots. We've got puparia." The twenty-five pigs that were killed last night have attracted the usual suspects. Most of the class seems to know this already: They were up early, checking on their pigs.

Laura was among the early risers. From her experiment she will write a paper discussing whether charring and burning flesh alters the time it takes for flies to alight on a corpse. Or, as she says, "When a perp tries to burn the bodies, we don't know how much delay that causes in the bugs." This paper will become a poster at the next American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Reno, Nevada, in February. Knowing more about the question of bugs and charred flesh would have helped Dr. Haskell in a recent case in which someone tried to burn a body and left a perfect outline of it on the grass. That was helpful, and interesting, in terms of forensic botany. But the need for accuracy in forensic entomology demanded that Haskell know if the burning delayed the onset of the bugs and therefore delayed the well-known timetable of their activity. If so, that would help to determine the time of death.

That's one of the things certain bugs can do: They tell us when and where someone was killed, and they do it with exquisite accuracy that no man-made system will ever reproduce.

Dr. Haskell strolls around the room as he relates the details of a case he worked in Oklahoma, one of five hundred in his twenty-year career.

August in Stroud, Oklahoma, is a lot hotter than August in Rensselaer, Indiana, and flesh left out in the sun turns bad real fast. One morning a neighbor follow...

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