when science is murder

Long before C.S.I. hit the airwaves, I was an avid fan of its forerunner, The Learning Channel’s Forensics: The New Detectives documentary series, detailing the latest advances in forensic technology via real-world criminal cases. I even managed to convince my editor at the now-tragically-defunct Industrial Physicist magazine to let me write an article on physics-based forensics techniques in April 2000 ("Detection on the Cutting Edge") — just so I could have the privilege of interviewing real forensic scientists.

That doesn’t mean I can’t suspend my disbelief. I’ve been a loyal fan of the original C.S.I. — if only for its tag line, "Follow the evidence" — although my interest has waned somewhat over the last year as the series has turned into yet another annoying spin-off franchise. But perhaps I’m just bitter because C.S.I.: DC has yet to make its mark on the medium.

(In a similar vein, Jen-Luc Piquant opines that the Law and Order franchise will soon have its very own cable network, and may one day gobble up the entire scope of broadcast programming — just like that hypothetical "strange matter" everyone thought Brookhaven’s RHIC facility would accidentally produce and ultimately destroy the known universe. Except the Law and Order takeover might conceivably happen, whereas strangelets are not so much with the likelihood…)

Washington, DC, might be excluded from the C.S.I. franchise, but the area now has its own real-world foray into the history of forensics by way of "Visible Proofs," a new exhibit at the National Library of Medicine, located on the grounds of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The exhibit details the rise of forensic science through history, and spotlights numerous gruesome murder cases in the process — along with a treasure trove of specimens and mementos. So naturally, as a forensics fan, I had to go check it out.

The exhibit doesn’t disappoint. There are autopsy tables, all manner of scientific instruments — from  knives and scalpels to camera microscopes — actual crime-scene photographs, and a plethora of organs preserved in formaldehyde, such as  a bullet-pierced heart, a kidney with a clear knife wound, and a stomach with the rippled edges indicative of arsenic poisoning.

It goes without saying that I’m also a mystery buff, especially of the historical variety. (Trivia question: who was Ethel LeNeve?) In that respect, "Visible Proofs" provides an embarrassment of riches. A highlight is the section focusing on Britain’s famed 1935 "Jigsaw Puzzle Murders," when mutilated body parts were found scattered under a bridge near the Scottish border. Forensic scientists photographed the re-assembled remains and superimposed the images over those of two women who’d been reported missing to confirm ID: Isabella Ruxton and her maid, Mary Rogerson. In a twist the fictional Gil Grissom would relish, scientists relied on maggots to determine the time of death. Blood stains, fingerprints and other clues led detectives to Isabella’s husband, a physician named Buck Ruxton. He was subsequently convicted and hanged. Although he eventually confessed, it was the forensic evidence that led to his capture.

I was also thrilled to be able to view firsthand the dollhouse dioramas of real-life crime scenes built in the 1940s and 1950s by Frances Glessner Lee, an heiress and fellow forensics fan. I first read about her work in The New Yorker several years ago. She reconstructs, on miniature scale, an entire room, complete with victim, murder weapon, furnishings and the like. Her dioramas provide visual clues for the viewer, who should then be able to "solve" the crime in question, or at least analyze the evidence in plain sight in the room. In fact, they are still used to test forensics students in nearby Baltimore. (Not sure how I fared in my analysis, since the NLM doesn’t disclose the answers.)

"Visible Proofs" reminds me a little bit of another favorite local haunt, the National Museum of Health and Medicine at the soon-to-be-closed Walter Reed Medical Center, a mere two miles away from my humble abode. The closing of a world-class facility like Walter Reed due to federal budget cuts is a crime in its own right. Chalk it up to just another casualty of the war in Iraq. It’s unclear where the museum’s bizarre, eclectic collection of artifacts will end up, but some of the pieces are truly one-of-a-kind, and therefore priceless.

This particular cabinet of medical curiosities includes a hairball in the shape of a stomach, removed from a young woman who suffered from a rare disorder that compelled her to consume her own tresses; a huge collection of vintage microscopes, including one from around 1600 built by the Janssen family (credited with inventing the instrument); an arsenic-embalmed 19th-century corpse; loads of artifacts from Civil War battlefields (both body parts and medical instruments); some 5000 skeletal specimens and over 10,000 preserved organs, documenting rare cases of disease and injury; and a very politically incorrect amassing of fetuses in various stages of development, pickled in formaldehyde for our viewing pleasure. (Sniffs Jen-Luc Piquant, "Ewww. Morbid much?")

Morbidity aside, perhaps the best thing about the "Visible Proofs" exhibit is that it’s so handily accessible to DC visitors and residents, including those (like me) who don’t own a car. Take the Red Line to the Medical Center Metro stop, walk south about 300 yards (that’s roughly three football field lengths, for comparison), and voila! Right there is the NLM. It’s open Monday through Friday, 8:30 AM to 5 PM, and on Saturday from 8:30 AM to 2 PM. For those poor souls who can’t get to DC, the online version of the exhibit is compelling in its own right — the next best thing to being there.

One final thought: Forensics is a thriving discipline, thanks in part to the staggering popularity of C.S.I. But in the midst of all the "gee whiz"  gadgetry, and our fascination with cases in the distant past, it’s easy to lose sight of the more immediate human factor. For me, that factor now has a human face. A sobering article in today’s New York Times reports on the murder of a young 20-something forensics student named Imette Carmella St. Guillen. She was last seen at a bar on Lafeyette Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (my old stomping grounds, as a former resident) in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Seventeen hours later, police found her body near Kennedy airport: stripped, violated, wrists and ankles bound with packing tape, which also covered her nose and mouth. She’d been strangled, in what appears to be a crime of "opportunity."

There’s tons of forensic evidence in this case, but that doesn’t mean Imette’s murder will be solved. The randomness of the crime makes it a hard nut to crack, although retired Brooklyn detective Raymond Abruzzi is quoted as saying that the fact the murder was committed on impulse could mean that the killer made a critical mistake that could eventually lead to his capture. Imette never got the chance to help solve real-world crimes; let’s hope forensic scientists can help solve her murder.


1 thought on “when science is murder”

  1. Thanks for the link.
    About the latest “fait divers” as we say in French,that terrible murder in Manhattan, i heard on CBSnews.com a different theory voiced by a female profiler: a serial killer might well be on the loose and in an increasing mode/mood or also two perverts because the killing was very elaborate. She also said that the phone call probably came from someone who had
    inadvertently found the body and who just called to warn the police. She adds she wouldn’t have given her name either.Indeed, let’s hope forensic scientists can help solve her murder.
    And stop that/those assassins who might have thought the body wouldn’t be found so quickly.
    Oh,and was the girl really a forensic scientist? In that case, i would closely investigate her entourage at the school.But i’m no profiler!

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