Eugène Vidocq, the father of modern criminology and the inspiration for the Vidocq Society
Sherlock Holmes may claim to be the world’s first “consulting detective,” but he’s not the only one any longer. Enter the Vidocq Society.
Born in France in 1775, Eugène Vidocq, noted criminal-turned-detective, fell in and out of trouble (and prison) from the age of thirteen until thirty-four, when he offered up his services as an informant to the French police. After a couple years working undercover, Vidocq created France’s first undercover detective bureau, the Sûreté Nationale, the inspiration for both Scotland Yard and the F.B.I. Vidocq himself inspired several characters in works by Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, and Edgar Allen Poe.
The founders: William Fleisher, Richard Walter, and Frank Bender
Named in honor of Vidocq, the Society, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, consists of retired and current members of forensic and law enforcement professions. The founding members include former FBI and U.S. Customs Special Agent William Fleisher, pseudo-psychic forensic sculptor Frank Bender, and forensic psychologist and profiler Richard Walter. The three friends wanted to create a place where “like-minded persons, in and out of forensics, could gather to discuss and debate crimes and mysteries.” Since their first meeting in 1990, the organization has mushroomed into one hundred and fifty members, and found its final resting place in the Union League of Philadelphia, a Victorian brownstone built in the mid-1800s.
The Union League of Philadelphia, the current home of the Vidocq Society
A society of distinguished criminologists, the Vidocq Society offers its detective services free of charge, and even pays for the travel expenses of those who come to plead their case in Philadelphia. There are qualifications, though. The Vidocq Society will only consider unsolved murder cases more than two years old (and therefore a “cold case”) with non-criminal victims presented to them by the appropriate law enforcement agency. If a case is selected, the appropriate official will travel to Philadelphia to present their case at one of the Society’s monthly lunches. If one or more of the members are interested in the case, they can form a subcommittee for further investigation.
“When you bring all this expertise together…it’s one stop shopping.”
The Vidocq Society has an excellent track record when it comes to the cases it takes on–as one local police chief they helped enthused, “When you bring all this expertise together…it’s one stop shopping.” They’ve helped solve several high-profile cold cases, including that of the infamous John List. The religious List methodically murdered his mother, wife, daughter, and two sons in 1971 in New Jersey, explaining in a note that he was sending them to heaven, and disappeared without a trace. Eighteen years later, in 1989, Bender and Walter aided America’s Most Wanted in capturing List. Walter created a profile for him, claiming he would be remarried, wearing a suit, involved with the Lutheran Church, and within 300 miles of the crime scene. Using this information, Bender sculpted an “aged” bust of List. Police caught and arrested List almost immediately.
ABC’s 20/20 profiles the Vidocq Society’s investigation of Leah Freeman’s murder.
Recently, the society helped the miniscule town of Coquille, Oregon solve the decade-old murder of fifteen year old Leah Freeman. In 2010, Walter helped Coquille Police Chief Mark Dannels discover more evidence in the murder case, and Leah’s then-boyfriend, Nick McGuffin, was arrested for murder.
The Vidocq Society has been covered comprehensively in crime journalist Michael Capuzzo’s book, The Murder Room. Interspersing their most famous cases with in-depth character studies of the three enigmatic founders, Capuzzo brings the society to light almost as well as the Vidocq Society brings criminals to justice. Read an excerpt here.
Caylee Anthony, the deceased two-year old and inspiration for ‘Caylee’s Law’
Joining the ranks of AMBER Alert and Code Adam is another missing child system inspired by an infamous case: ‘Caylee’s Law’. Caylee Anthony, the deceased two-year-old whose trial captured the nation’s attention in 2011, inspired the law after her young mother, Casey Anthony, failed to report Caylee as missing for over a month. Although the jury acquitted Casey Anthony on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated child-abuse, and aggravated manslaughter of a child, they declared her guilty on four misdemeanor counts of providing false information to a law enforcement officer. Judge Belvin Perry sentenced her to one year and $1000 for each false information count to be served consecutively. Incorporating her time already served and credit for good behavior, Anthony was released from prison on July 17th, 2011, just a couple days after sentencing. America was outraged.
In response, Michelle Crowder of Oklahoma proposed ‘Caylee’s Law’ on Change.org, a petition-hosting website, suggesting increasing the penalty to a fourth-degree felony for failing to report a missing child within twenty-four hours of their disappearance or one hour of their death. The petition quickly went viral and garnered over 1,300,000 signatures, pressuring lawmakers across the country to design such a law.
Edward Mehnert covers his mouth with duct tape as he protests the verdict against Casey Anthony during her sentencing. Anthony’s trial provoked such a media circus that Time magazine called it the “social media trial of the century.” (AP Photos/Alan Diaz)
The backlash to the proposed law was almost as strong. Critics cited ineffective previous laws inspired by dead children and cautioned against making lasting legislature out of anger and fresh wounds. A Huffington Post article criticized the impracticality of the one hour and twenty four hour cut-offs, demonstrating the difficulty of determining time of death so precisely and offering complicating hypothetical situations. What happens if your child is at a sleepover and doesn’t call home? Under this law, would you have to call your child at summer camp every day? What happens if your infant dies in his or her sleep? You might discover the death several hours later. Do we really want to punish a grieving parent in that situation with a felony? Although common sense should guide judicial rulings in these situations, there are many current examples of gross and insensible violations of justice.
Critics also fear that the law will make cautious parents falsely report absent children as missing, clogging up the police department’s missing persons cases. The excess of false cases would obscure the real missing children cases and prevent them from being investigated in those first few crucial hours. Critics claim that the law will be unenforceable and ineffective in its goal of protecting children, merely entrapping innocent parents.
State Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport speaks out on House Bill 600, Louisiana’s proposed ‘Caylee’s Law,’ on June 25th
Despite these criticisms, several states have moved ahead with legislation. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie passed a ‘Caylee’s Law’ in January, 2012, making the failure to report a missing child age thirteen or younger after twenty-four hours a fourth-degree felony, punishable by up to eighteen months in prison and fines up to $10,000. Governor Rick Scott of Florida signed House Bill 37 into law in April, another variant of ‘Caylee’s Law.’ This law heightened to felony status the act of misleading a law enforcement official in a missing child case. Louisiana’s version of ‘Caylee’s Law’, House Bill 600, passed in early June, and declares that failure to report a missing child is punishable with up to 50 years in prison and $50,000. Overall, thirty-two states filed some form of legislature in the past year to criminalize the failure to report a missing child.
Sandy Williams, the defendant in a 2000 sexual assault case and the plaintiff in Williams v. Illinois No. 10-8505
On Monday, June 18th, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 that lab technicians do not need to appear for cross-examination, as long as their reports are “out-of-court statements.” This decision stems from sexual assault case in Chicago, now known as Williams v. Illinois No. 10-8505. In 2000, an unidentified man abducted a young woman, forcing her into his car, raping her, and robbing her. The woman then went to a nearby hospital, where doctors performed a rape kit on her, taking vaginal swabs. They sent the swabs to Cellmark Diagnostic Laboratories in Germantown, Maryland. The DNA results matched Sandy Williams, whose DNA sample came from an unrelated arrest. The forensic analyst who took the DNA sample from Williams testified at the trial on her methods and procedures. The prosecutors did not enter the Cellmark DNA report as evidence, and, as a result, no one from the lab testified in the trial. Instead, Sandra Lambatos, the state analyst who conducted the computer search, testified that the two DNA samples matched. In this case, the DNA expert’s testimony was evidence, not Cellmark’s DNA report.
Detail of a lab table in the Orchid Cellmark Laboratory, the forensic laboratory involved in the case
This ruling engages with the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause, which guarantees that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” The current legal interpretation traces back to the 2004 case Crawford v. Washington, where the Supreme Court ruled that defendants have the right to confront witnesses if the evidence provided is testimonial hearsay, not just if it has an indicia or sign of reliability. Williams v. Illinois casts several previous Supreme Court Confrontation Clause rulings into doubt, including Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts in 2007, which ruled the defendant has the right to cross-examine any analyst who prepares any DNA, blood, ballistic or other laboratory reports introduced at a trial. Later, in the 2011 Bullcoming v. New Mexico, Donald Bullcoming appealed his DUI charges, citing a Confrontation Clause violation because his attorneys were unable to cross-examine the exact analyst who performed the blood alcohol level test. The Supreme Court sided with Bullcoming and ruled that the defendant must be able to interrogate the exact lab technician who performed the test, not a colleague or supervisor familiar with the test. In the light of Williams v. Illinois, these rulings, previously clear, seem hazy.
The Williams v. Illinois ruling could have far-reaching consequences for prosecutors, law enforcement agencies, and crime labs nationwide, and many prosecutors and state lawyers consider it a victory. If the Supreme Court had ruled that all analysts and technicians could be called upon to testify, trials would have become even more costly for the government. Testifying would also pull technicians away from crime labs, which could slow down the already backlogged labs, further postponing trials. At the very least, Williams v. Illinois is a ruling of legal efficiency.
Elena Kagen, lead dissenting Supreme Court justice on Williams v. Illinois No. 10-8505
But is legal efficiency what should matter? Four justices on the Court said no. Dissenters on the Supreme Court included Justices Elena Kagan, Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Kagan explained in her dissent: “Before today’s decision, a prosecutor wishing to admit the results of forensic testing had to produce the technician responsible for the analysis. But that clear rule is clear no longer.” Kagan cited a previous case, The People of the State of California v. John Ivan Kocak, where a Cellmark technician, after being cross-examined, admitted to mislabeling samples which wrongly implicated a defendant. With Williams v. Illinois as precedent, in future cases that mistake might not come to light. Kagan also asserted that the splintered majority decision is barely a decision at all, and has “left significant confusion” over whether lab technicians can be called in to testify. With such confusion, can Williams v. Illinois really be called a decision at all?
On May 25, 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz disappeared while walking to a bus stop two blocks from his home in lower Manhattan, New York. Etan’s body was never recovered and no one was ever officially convicted of the crime.
Many people might remember Etan as the first child to be pictured on the side of a milk carton. This was one of the first methods used to stimulate public awareness and would later set the Missing Children Movement in motion. In addition to Etan’s disappearance, other incidents during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s mobilized the missing child movement, including the Atlanta Child Murders and the murder of six-year old Adam Walsh.
The movement focused on improving the spread of information throughout the nation and community to spread awareness and help locate the child. Broadcasting alerts through an Emergency Alert System notified the public of a missing or abducted child and was at risk of serious injury or death. This method was strongly advocated and further developed into the AMBER alert, after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted and murdered in 1996.
In addition, the introduction of new legislation, such as the Missing Children Act (1982) and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (2006), also improve child protections and inform the public about these types of crimes and how they could be prevented. Specialized agencies and units within police departments were also developed to focus on the specific nature of these crimes so response was quick. A notable agency created is the National center for Missing and Exploited Children (1984) which helped spread information and protection through methods such as creating a registry of known sex offenders.
Etan Patz was legally declared dead in 2001. The case was reopened in 2010 by the New York District Attorney’s office. In April of 2012, FBI excavated the basement floor of a nearby home in the Patz neighborhood after cadaver dogs detected human remains. At the time of Patz’s disappearance, the owner put in new concrete floors. There was some evidence retrieved after the excavation, including a stain, some possible hairs, and a piece of paper that are currently being analyzed at the FBI laboratory in Quantico, VA.
On July 26, 2009, a minivan going the wrong way on Taconic State Parkway collided head-on with a Chevrolet TrailBlazer, killing eight people. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the driver of the minivan was Diane Schuler, a successful mother with her children and nieces in the car, so at first, confusion and sympathy characterized the public’s view of the tragic incident. It wasn’t until the toxicology results from Schuler’s autopsy came through that the truth became known.
Diane Schuler was both drunk and high. Her blood alcohol content—the amount of alcohol in her bloodstream, and therefore affecting her at the time of the collision—was found to be .19 percent, equal to about ten shots of hard liquor, and still more alcohol was found in her stomach, not yet digested. Enough THC—a chemical found in marijuana—was also found to suggest she used the drug less than an hour before her death. Further inspection of the wreckage of the minivan also revealed a broken vodka bottle.
The dangers of alcohol use when combined with driving are obviously well-known, and have been very thoroughly researched. Studies have been conducted to find toxicological methods of determining whether someone was impaired by alcohol while driving. This means we know that a certain amount of alcohol in the system—particularly the blood—impairs a person’s ability to drive safely. The effect on driving ability of other drugs, including marijuana, is less well known and less thoroughly studied. Whether someone was impaired by drugs before death often requires more than just a report showing its presence in the body, or even how much was present. Thus the presence of marijuana in Diane Schuler’s system says more about her lifestyle than her state during the crash, while the amount of alcohol most easily explains why she drove for over a mile the wrong way on a highway.
Friends and family were shocked at the findings, saying they had no idea she had a drinking problem. She appeared to be a devoted mother, which only highlights the tragedy that her 2-year-old daughter was killed in the crash. Mothers everywhere questioned the state of mind of a woman who would get behind the wheel so heavily intoxicated when children were in the back seat.
A documentary about Diane Schuler was made last year, including interviews with those close to her and a forensic psychologist, exploring the outwardly successful life that came to such a tragic end.