Forensic Botanists Discover Clues to the Crime

February 25, 2008

Fiction writers need to be aware of the advances in forensic science and techniques for gathering and analyzing evidence so their stories are relevant in today’s market.  The following true crime story was featured on a show called Forensic Files which airs on TRU TV. I thought it was interesting because police investigations are becoming more sophisticated.  Shows like CSI dramatize the facts, but there are still elements of truth.   Fourteen year old Genna disappeared from her home and no one witnessed anything suspicious in the neighborhood.  The next day, her nude body was found in a ditch 20 miles outside of town.  The coroner determined cause of death was strangulation, however there were other injuries, including blunt force injuries to the head and post mortem pressure marks. These marks would normally fade quickly, but when the blood doesn’t circulate away from the pressure spot the color remains.  Police checked the Genna’s home, but found no signs of struggle.  Police began to check into alibis of Genna’s family, her mother, her older brother and her step father Doug.   Doug said he was at work in the morning, however, the security cameras were off that day.  He provided a second alibi, a fast food restaurant.  Amazingly, the fast food restaurant’s cameras weren’t working either, so police could not verify Doug’s alibi.  They searched his car and didn’t find any blood or signs the vehicle had been recently cleaned.  They did find plant material under the car.   Forensic Botanists examined the material and found yellow star thistle which was present at the crime scene and on the body.  Diagnostic characteristics are unique aspects of the plant which differentiate it from other plants of the same species, such as developmental life cycles of each plant.  The plant was too common to tie Doug to the crime scene. Police investigators returned to the marks on Genna’s body to find more evidence.  Photographs of the marks were sent to a Photogrammatrist, who was able to create a 3 dimensional image of the skin pattern and precise measurements of the object which created the marks.   Acting on a hunch, investigators placed a model, similar is size and weight to Genna, in a vehicle similar to Doug’s and found the pressure marks were made by a seat belt buckle and an edge of carpeting.  He was convicted, but maintains his innocence to date.


True Crime Stories – Women who kill

February 5, 2008

Most True Crime Stories you read involve men.  That’s because 93% of murders are committed by men but women are also capable of horrific acts.  Women are less violent then men due to brain anatomy.   The amygdala is used to assess threats and the Orbital Frontal Region is used to act on them. Men have a smaller Orbital Frontal Regions. 

Mothers and caregivers who are expected to nurture, but they murder instead. 

Jean Harris, a headmistress at a girl’s school, killed her lover in a crime of passion.  The majority of female killers kill loved ones.

MaryBeth Tinning killed her own children, three in the span of two months.  She thrived on the outpouring of sympathy she received.  As a child she received little attention, especially from her father.  He died without ever showing her the affection she craved.  Over the next three years, four more children would die, the cause of death deemed Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).  By 1981, suspicious grows when an adopted son dies and one more biological child. Nine Tinning Children died in 14 years.  She suffered from Munchausen by Proxy.  

According to KidshealthIn MBPS, an individual – usually a mother – deliberately makes another person (most often his or her own preschool child) sick or convinces others that the person is sick….Typically, the perpetrator feels satisfied when he or she has the attention and sympathy of doctors, nurses, and others who come into contact with him or her and the child. Some experts believe that it isn’t just the attention that’s gained from the “illness” of the child that drives this behavior, but there is satisfaction gained by the perpetrator in being able to deceive individuals that they consider to be more important and powerful than themselves.”

Susan Smith killed her two small boys and claimed they had been taken in a carjacking.  Smith exploited public sympathy but police were suspicious of her story.  Nine days after her sons’ disappearance, she confessed to drowning her sons by strapping them into their car seats and driving her car into a lake.  Susan Smith killed her children to continue an affair. 

Cathy Wood and Gwen Graham played a vicious game. The two work in as nurses in an elderly care center and begin to have an affair.  They planned to murder victims whose initials would spell MURDER.  The game was meant to draw the two together forever; however, Gwen left Cathy for another woman.  Cathy confessed their crimes to her ex husband and he went to the authorities.  Cathy testified for the persecution claiming Gwen was the mastermind behind the game.

Aileen Wuornos is the first female serial killer according to FBI profiles. She is unique for her method of killing and targeting stranger victims.  Many violent women studied had troubled childhoods, anti social behavior disorder and a history of substance abuse.  Wuornos was motivated by revenge against men, perhaps in response to rage from her adolescence, in which she claimed to have been raped.  

Belle Gunness murdered for financial benefit, murdering suitors and burying their dismembered bodies.

Nanny Doss poisoned four husbands. She is also suspected of killing her mother and two children.

Women are rarely sadistic killers. Teresa Knorr was an exception.  She was a controlling wife and mother. She shot her first husband during an argument and claimed self defense.  She married three more times and had five children.  Her children suffered torture at her hands, burned with cigarettes, stabbed, shot or locked in a freezer.  Suesan was shot and the wound became infected. Knorr took Susan to a field and set her on fire, burning her to death. Sheila was locked in a freezer and starved to death.     


True Crime Stories – Revenge Killers

February 3, 2008

Writers know there is a wealth of story ideas in daily headlines. True Crime Stories fascinate audiences and inspire writers who interweave fact with fiction.  Revenge killers are not satisfied until the objects of their anger are destroyed.   Coy Wayne Westbrook killed his estranged wife, Gloria, driven to a point of no return.  He was overcome with jealousy and rage when he witnessed Gloria having sex with a party guest.  He had no previous violent tendencies, yet the humiliation he endured that night resulted in the deaths of five people.    Coy suffered from dyslexia and dropped out of school, as a result, he suffered from low self esteem as an adult.    Anger that builds to uncontrollable rage may be a result of diminished brain function.  As areas of the brain are activated they use more oxygen.  Researchers can identify brain activity by monitoring isotopes delivered with oxygen to regions of the brain. The Orbital Frontal Cortex (OFC) is activated when subjects visualize their angriest moments.  However, some people have reduced levels of functionality in the OFC and they are unable to control their actions.  Revenge is a need to punish those who have hurt us.  In 1973, Archie Mccafferty discovered his infant son accidentally smothered to death by his wife, who rolled over on him in the night.  He fantasized about killing others to relieve his overwhelming grief.  He planned to kill seven people in a spree of vengeance.   He abducted and killed three victims, with no sympathy.  He planned to finish his spree by killing his wife and her family, but instead, he turned on one of his own gang members.  The gang member turned him in to authorities. Even incarcerated, he wanted to complete his mission to kill seven victims believing it would bring his son back to life.  Unlike Westbrook, Mccafferty had a history of violence. He was abused as a child and seemed destined for a life of crime. He was a thief and had been incarcerated for much of his youth. Mccafferty was released after 25 years in prison and is deported to Scotland, where he lives today.    Love seems to have destroyed and saved Mccafferty.  The connection between love and revenge is strong.  Having a loved one near by has been shown to help subject regulate stress and anxiety.