Of Dolls And Murder Reviews
November 2, 2012
To Find the Truth in a Nutshell
I am in many ways uncomfortable with my own interest in true crime. John Waters, who provides a description of certain cases in this documentary, talks about his own fascination with it in the special features. I mean, this is a man who knows personally one of the people whose past intrigues me so, who considers her a friend. He knows that his friend was guilty of the crimes with which she was charged; she has never claimed otherwise to him. She is merely his example of how people can change. He says that the true crime books are always tucked away in a corner, that the people behind the counter look down on you when you ask where they are. In general, we are supposed to be ashamed. It's referred to as glamourizing criminals, though the book which got me started was by a prosecutor, and one of the authors I read is a former cop. However interesting I find the police and prosecutors, the book would not have been written were it not for the criminals. It can be unsettling, and I think every fan of true crime must reconcile themselves to their fascination in their own way.
This documentary touches very little on those problems, however. Instead, it is about one of the most curious collections in forensic science, indeed one of the things which helped launch forensic science as a serious study. Frances Glessner Lee was an heiress who was forbidden by her father to attend college. When her brother died in 1930, she finally managed to start seriously studying pathology. The result of her studies was a series of (originally) twenty perfect dioramas called the "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death." Each one was a replica of a crime scene, one wherein every detail was as accurate as she could make it. If you've read about how exacting the details were on Coraline? She did essentially that, only of crime scenes. She knitted socks on pins and made sure that rocking chairs moved exactly the same way as the full-size original, and the whole thing on a 1:12 scale. They weren't intended as tools with which to solve crimes, but they were intended as tools to teach detectives how to look at crime scenes. Indeed, they are still used today by Harvard Associates in Police Science, part of the first-ever legal medicine department in the US--which, naturally, she endowed.
The documentary also talks about the so-called [i]CSI[/i] effect--the double-edged sword that the current spate of crime procedural TV programming has created. On the one hand, you no longer have to explain DNA to a jury in mind-numbing detail. Jurors no longer completely tune out the technical evidence. On the other hand, a case is mentioned wherein the jury found someone not guilty because the police had not fingerprinted the grass. Juries accept technical evidence more easily, but they also have unreasonable standards for how much evidence ought to be there. DNA is only helpful in a very small number of cases, but juries have started considering detectives lax if they can't produce the kind of evidence that is available so readily on TV. Heck, even fingerprints aren't always reliably found at crime scenes, much less fingerprints that lead to the conviction of a criminal. When we discussed [i]Blowup[/i], we talked about the magic [i]CSI[/i] photo-enhancing software, and similar expectations are held of other forensic evidence.
The field of forensic science owes a great deal to Frances Glessner Lee and her little rooms. For one thing, they sparked the public imagination--there's a recurring villain on [i]CSI[/i] who creates similar dioramas, in fact. Lee was friends with George Burgess Magrath, and the pair were pioneers in having old-fashioned coroners replaced with properly trained medical examiners. Remember, not all of these dioramas were necessarily of murder cases. The key word was "unexplained." There is one where, according to the husband, the woman stopped in the middle of cooking dinner and killed herself. There's one where "the gun just went off." Lee clearly saw that it was important to train people in how to look at a room, how to determine what was wrong with it. At Lee's conferences in the '40s and '50s, where she introduced the rooms, the guests were allowed ninety minutes to examine them. That may not seem very long, but how much time do you think you usually spend just looking at a room? How much time do even investigators spend just looking at a room? Heck, one of the things I like about [i]NCIS[/i] is how they are shown taking lots of pictures of crime scenes and still sketching them out.
You will note that I said that there used to be twenty dioramas. Alas, there are now only eighteen. One was damaged irreparably in a move. It might be possible to reconstruct it, I suppose, but only if you had access to all the information Lee did in creating it in the first place. More curiously, the twentieth has just completely disappeared. No one is sure what happened to it. Someone somewhere just appears to have walked off with it. Given what they show in this documentary of the other eighteen, it seems unlikely that some guy just took it home to be played with by his kids; indeed, they have photos, and it's very obvious just from looking at it that this was something special. It, unlike the others, was two rooms--one as the room probably was when the crime occurred and one as it appeared when the police arrived, after someone cleaned it. This is also a valuable thing to learn how to see. The special features speculate that someone just has this sitting around in a garage or an attic, which is certainly better than its also having been destroyed. At any rate, I pass on their request--if you've seen it, contact the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.