(A CLEWS note: Edgar-winning author E.J. Wagner reminds us with this essay alluding to the Phil Spector verdict that some things never change.... If you haven't read her compelling history of forensic science, The Science of Sherlock Holmes, you're in for a treat. Art via All Posters.)
Sherlock Holmes kept extensive files of old crimes, finding the insight they gave useful in solving his current cases. As usual, the Great Detective made an excellent point we might find of interest.
The similarities between the Lizzie Borden Case of 1892 and the O.J. Simpson Case of 1992, for instance, are striking. In each case there were two victims, a man and a woman, who were killed in extremely violent fashion, by a weapon never clearly identified, and in a domestic setting. Both trials were marked by strong prosecutorial evidence withheld from the jury. Both defendants were acquitted, only to be viewed ever after as guilty pariahs by most of society.
In 1926 Edinburgh Scotland, the Merrett case of mysterious death by firearm compellingly reminds us of a recent unpleasantness in California. The earlier crime involved a man and a woman, alone in a room, with a single domestic servant in the next room the only soul within hearing. A shot suddenly rang out. The woman fell, a bullet in her head.
The man insisted she had shot herself. There was no note, and the victim's friends insisted she was not depressed. The man, who had a history of bad behavior, and who owned the gun, was charged with murder.
The trial featured the famous pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury testifying for the defense. He based his testimony on experiments that were inadequate but compellingly stated. The confused jury made use of the equivical Scottish verdict "Not Proven".
Sir Sydney Smith, the pathologist who had consulted for the prosecution, remarked "This is not the last we'll hear of young Merrett".
Sir Sydney was, to the distress of two future victims, quite correct.
Certainly one cannot decide on the solution to a modern crime simply because of a similarity to an historic one. That would be reasoning from insufficient data, anathema to Mr. Holmes.
But an acute awareness of criminal history may provide very useful insights to investigators, just as it might suggest convenient methods to the perpetrators.
"There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before."
-Sherlock Holmes, in A Study in Scarlet
For more of E.J.'s essays on forensic science, see The Crime Lab Project, where she blogs with Jan Burke and Sandra Ruttan. The Crime Lab Project is an effort to draw attention to the fact that Hollywood seems to spend more money on fictional crime labs than the government does on real ones.