(Posted by Evan)
Happy to put this blogging drought to an end! Let’s talk about the first half of American Sherlock by Kate Winkler Dawson.
First, let’s hear it for the librarians and archivists out there. While Oscar Heinrich is the star of the book, he receives help from his closest friend and pen-pal John Boynton Kaiser. Kaiser sends Heinrich books that he comes across during his work stocking the Tacoma library. I can’t imagine how awesome it would be if I had a friend who was reading papers in my field and shooting me the ones that were helpful to my work. Kaiser is perfectly matched Heinrich’s erudition. One of the most impressive things about Heinrich is the way he makes a point to learn new subjects and skills once he realizes that he can use it as a tool.
But there is another librarian who does yeoman’s work in the background, not in the life and times of E. O. Heinrich but in the production of the book itself. Kate Dawson’s very own Kaiser. In the prologue, we are informed about the massive archive of artifacts from Heinrich’s life and work: “In 1968, [Henrich’s son Mortimer] bequeathed his father’s many boxes, containing case files, evidence, personal diaries, letters, even romantic poetry, to the University of California at Berkeley, Oscar’s alma mater and the college where he spent years teaching forensic science. The archive was an incredible repository of information, but given the university’s limited budget for archival material and research, the collection remained uncatalogued and untouched for more than fifty years.”
In the acknowledgements, she dedicates the first two pages to the help of Lara Michels, the library’s head of archival processing at UC Berkeley. When Dawson’s initial request to access the archive is denied by the university, it is Michels’ piqued interest in Heinrich herself that leads her to help Dawson. “Michels would dedicate one day a week for the next eighteen months to traveling there and cataloguing his collection… She catalogued every tiny, itty-bitty thing she discovered. She meticulously read through each document; she squinted at each piece of evidence that Heinrich kept (which should have been turned over to the police by him, frankly). She dismissed nothing.” It also says that Michels was the one who suggested Dawson look into August Vollmer and Kaiser as well.
Blessed are the record keepers! The personal characteristic that jumps out at me about Heinrich is his fastidiousness. His detailed records were probably essential to recreating a coherent story about what happened at the scene of the crime. There is so much information for him to parse, wonder what the ratio of evidence collected and catalogued to the evidence presented to the DA’s was. I would wager it is small. Simply sifting through hundreds of facts to extract one or two that are the most suggestive and least refutable. I’ve generally observed the difference between competent scientists, such as myself, and exemplary scientists is the detailed record keeping and adherence to organizational systems of the latter. I geek out over organization, but for me it is an endeavor and not a way of life. My productivity requires cleaning up a mess afterwards. It is a nonlinear approach. I imagine the record keepers as those that maintain their sense of place and purpose more consistently, they stop to think more frequently but for less duration. Importantly, they stop to think at an earlier stage than I would, at points where I would keep plugging ahead. “Heinrich kept everything from his life (personal and professional), manically collecting notes written on napkins. Thousands of newspapers, hundreds of bullets, and dozens of financial journals. I began jokingly describing him as a “productive hoarder” – until my colleague, a psychology professor, at the University of Texas suggested that he had in fact fit the diagnostic criteria for obsessive-compulsive personality disorder… People with OCPD have a preoccupation with perfectionism, control, and order – a neat life. They are frequently extremely productive and successful…”. “Oscar faithfully, meticulously filled out several pages of his large field journals every day of the week, even on weekends and holidays. He chronicled specific times for every appointment, phone call, or scientific test and noted the case involved in the margins. He required that his secretaries and assistants do the same and, if they refused, or he fired them. Oscar always noted when he awoke in the morning, when he fell asleep, and when he required his afternoon naps (almost daily). He even journaled when he journaled, the mark of a fastidious, rigid man: “8pm-10pm, journalizing,” he wrote in one entry.” That's some impressive journalizing.
In Chapter 4, we are presented with several different forensic techniques that were pioneered around the time of the case of the baker’s handwriting, the disappearance and murder of Father Heslin. The most prominent one and most useful for the conviction is handwriting analysis. Additional remarks are made, however, about eyewitness identification, petrography, and the first use of the polygraph - the lie detector.
Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful conviction, we are told, according to the Innocence Project. This is because people are stupid liars with pliable memories. The Innocence project actually quantifies the “leading cause” as: “Mistaken eyewitness identifications contributed to approximately 71% of the more than 360 wrongful convictions in the United States overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence.” The Innocence Project also lists
Even fingerprints are not so solid, we learn in Chapter 6. According to a NAS report, the lack of quality samples of fingerprints at the crime scene. So, I guess DNA is the only thing that is safe?
The history of the polygraph was neat. How cool is that the guy who invented the blood pressure test also created Wonder Woman and the Lasso of Truth? The polygraph is no good either, particularly when it comes to likes of Costanza. But ultimately, I think that August Vollmer was an interesting guy, with good intentions, who deserves credit for improving that state of forensic science. The methods may not be truly sound, but these initial attempts to take investigations beyond ‘hunch’ and ‘beat it out of him’ were noble and clever. The collateral damage of lots of wrongful prosecutions isn’t to be dismissed or justified; science experiments should not affect people’s lives. But you have to push the envelope for progress and much of science is carried by innovations that are eventually realized to be in error. The Drude model of metallic conduction being my favorite example.
Happy reading, and be truthful!