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.
Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation may have abolished slavery in the United States one hundred and fifty years ago, but slavery has by no means vanished from today’s world. Earlier this month, in their Trafficking in Persons report, the U.S. State Department estimated that there are currently about 20.9 million human trafficking victims. According to the State Department, labor exploitation is the largest source of slavery with an estimated 14,200,000 current victims. Sexual exploitation comes second with 4,500,000 victims, and state-imposed labor falls last with 2,200,000 victims. Of all these victims, government agencies and NGOs only managed to free 42,000 slaves in 2011.
State Department Human Trafficking Statistics
The State Department defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.” Individuals do not need to have been relocated—forced prostitution is one form of slavery. Estimations of human trafficking victims differ, however, based on the definition. While the State Department defines human trafficking more broadly and thus has a higher estimation, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that there are currently 2.4 million human trafficking victims. About 80% of them are victims of the sex slave trade.
How do we approach ending a global crisis like human trafficking? M. Cherif Bassiouni, a professor emeritus at DePaul University in Chicago, emphasizes the need to reassess the way we approach human trafficking. According to Bassiouni, we need to criminalize all people involved in the supply side as well as those on the demand side. Additionally, we need to re-prioritize human trafficking, which, he claims, suffers at the hands of male-dominated police forces all over the world. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked upon visiting a trafficking shelter while in Kolkata, India:
The young women and girls there had suffered terrible abuse. But with their own drive and determination and with the help of some remarkable women and men they were getting their lives back on track…I met one girl, about ten years old, who asked if I wanted to see the martial arts she had learned at the shelter. As she performed her routine, I was impressed with the skills she had learned; but more than that, I was moved by the pride in her eyes – her sense of accomplishment and strength.
Empowering women everywhere will be a major victory against human trafficking, whether through shelters, therapy, or education. In the case of sex slavery, we must be receptive of the victims and treat them as such: victims, not criminals. An anonymous sex victim told her trafficker at his sentencing, “I walk around and carry the physical scars of the torture you put me through. The cigarette burns, the knife carvings, the piercings … how a human being can see humor in the torture, manipulation, and brainwashing of another human being is beyond comprehension. You have given me a life sentence.”
San Francisco Giant Brandon Belt at bat
for Not For Sale’s Free2Play initiative
Outside of the government, other organizations exist to combat this scourge. Not For Sale is a Californian non-profit that provides ways to combat human trafficking through groups, apps, and information. Its app Free2Work scans barcodes to reveal how worker-friendly your favorite brands are. Partnered with Major League Baseball, their Free2Play app pledges donations for baseball statistics. San Francisco Giants pitcher Jeremy Affeldt, recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award for outstanding community dedication and baseball performance, promised $250 for every strike he pitches during the season. In a heartening display of solidarity, Giants first baseman Brandon Belt apologized to Not For Sale President Dave Batstone on June 18th for failing to hit any home-runs so far this season, after having pledge a donation for each one hit. Belt quickly turned his luck around, however, and hit three home runs in three games.
Dave Batstone, President of Not For Sale, on Eye to Eye with Katie Couric, discussing his book, Not For Sale
Dave Batstone, President of Not For Sale, created the organization when he discovered that one of his favorite Indian restaurants forced immigrant children into labor and made them live in deadly, unventilated apartments. When a woman forced to work in the restaurant died from a gas-leak in the apartment, Batstone snapped to attention. Shocked to learn that slavery existed right around the corner of him, Batstone dedicated his life to exposing it and ending it everywhere through Not For Sale.
Humantrafficking.org is another non-profit fighting modern human slavery. It combines non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government information and resources to expedite human trafficking’s elimination in Asia and the Pacific. With an extensive online database of laws, action-plans, and contact information, Humantrafficking.org is an excellent resource to learn more about country-specific slavery.
Government organizations like the State Department and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and NGOs like Not For Sale and Humantrafficking.org have completed a lot of good work towards the eradication of slavery, but it is not enough. With over twenty million people worldwide still imprisoned, the work is far from over.
Laura McKee is a graduate student in museum studies at Johns Hopkins University. She works as a curatorial and exhibitions intern at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment.
“Presided over almost 100 executions” would stand out on any résumé, but in the case of Jim Willett, it would also be true. As a 21-year-old business major at Sam Houston State University, Willett accepted what he thought would be a temporary position as a guard at the maximum-security “Walls Unit” in Huntsville, Texas. He was given a rifle and a fabric patch and told to relieve the man coming off his shift in a guard tower. Fearfully, he obeyed. That was in 1971. Five years later, Texas reinstated the death penalty and executions by lethal injection resumed in 1982. By then Willett had ascended up through the correctional officer ranks and even left Huntsville for a time to work at other units, but he returned in 1998 as warden of the 1,500 men incarcerated in Walls. At that point, his responsibilities took on a challenging new dimension, and he found himself escorting a total of 89 condemned persons (88 men and one woman) to the death chamber. He watched them struggle violently or go quietly as they were led out of their cells. He watched them eat their final meals and heard them say their final words. He watched them as they were infused with a cocktail of chemicals. He watched the expressions on the faces of their relatives and on the faces of their victims’ families. He watched them die on the gurney. He clocked a record 40 executions in 2000. That same year, he won the James H. Byrd, Jr. Memorial Award for top correctional administrators at the larger facilities run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. But he wondered about the morality of putting prisoners to death, leading to this penetrating observation and question: “In most cases, the people we see here are not at all the people they were when they came into the system … does that mean we rehabilitated them?” At the end of the day, however, he chalked it all up to just doing his part of the job, and was glad that he had not been the judge or had served on the jury that had decided their fates.
Mr. Willett helped to narrate the Peabody Award-winning documentary “Witness to an Execution” that aired on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” in 2000. After he retired from Huntsville, he co-wrote the autobiographical book Warden with his friend, the author Ron Rozelle. Willett’s exhibition case at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment holds these and other objects relating to his remarkable 30-year tenure in the Texas prison system.
Check out our entry on recent developments with the death penalty and some issues with it
On June 15, 2002, Elizabeth Smart was abducted at knifepoint from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah. Smart was only 14 years old at the time. Nine months after her abduction, Smart was found alive in March of 2003; 18 miles from her home, in Sandy, Utah. She was found with her abductors, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Eileen Barzee. It was later revealed in Smart’s testimony that she was raped by Mitchell on a daily basis; after Mitchell performed a “ceremony” on her that was to symbolize her marriage to him.
Knowing this, it comes as no surprise that emotions were high during a doctor’s testimony on Wednesday. Smart stormed out of the courtroom after forensic psychiatrist, Paul Whitehead testified that kidnapper Brian Mitchell abducted and raped Smart out of a desire to have children with her and create a new race. He then shared that the 57 year old homeless preacher and Smart had even discussed baby names; knowledge which he acquired from reading Barzee’s journals. The journals detailed how Smart was regularly chastised for not wanting to have children. It was at that point that Smart fled the courtroom, with her mother following. Both returned about 30 minutes later.
Whitehead was just one of many witnesses being questioned in order to prove that Mitchell is mentally ill and does not know right from wrong. If Mitchell is convicted, he could face life in prison. Barzee is currently serving 15 years in prison for her role in the kidnapping. Smart’s team believes that Mitchell is faking insanity in order to escape prosecution. The trial is currently in its fourth week and could last until December 10th.
For more information regarding the Smart case, please click hereor here.