“Nobody understands DNA, Maurice.”
– American Crime Story : The People vs O.J. Simpson
Over the last few decades, the reliance on forensic evidence in criminal convictions have vastly increased, especially in the West. This solely cannot be attributed towards the growth and progress of forensic science but must also be attributed towards the general awareness of the public at large to rely on scientific evidence when deciding on criminal matters. While this standard is expected of a reasonable judge, this factor is particularly important in jurisdictions that follow a jury system wherein the appointed jury must not be swayed by emotions but instead place their decision on scientifically accurate information, and facts submitted to them during the course of the trial.
In comparing two crimes on wives that may have been committed by their husbands, I try to highlight the limitations of forensic evidence, while also highlighting the equally important fact that grave injustice will be deemed to be carried out if no reliance is placed on the forensic evidence presented at all. Although based in different timelines and realities, these crimes bring forth the limitations of forensic science that have unfortunately remained constant and will continue to do so, because they happen not only because of the limits of the science but also, of human accuracy.
The first case study we will first look at is the highly public trial of the People of State of California v. O.J. Simpson. The second case study is the fictional case of People of State of Missouri v. Nick Dunne based on the facts presented in the 2014 psychological thriller film Gone Girl, which is based on the book with the same title by Gillian Flynn. In each of these cases, post an understanding of the facts and evidence presented, there will be an analysis of the evidence through the lens of a forensic scientist to highlight the weaknesses and the strengths of forensic evidence in most criminal cases.
Case 1 : People of State of California versus O.J. Simpson
FACTS OF THE CASE: On 13 June 1994 at 12:30 am, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were found brutally murdered in Los Angeles. Nicole was the former wife of Orenthal James Simpson (O.J.), a star American football player. Ronald Goldman was a waiter and a friend of Nicole’s. Nicole was a waitress when she first met O. J. and they were married for seven years and had two children together. O. J. also had three other children from a previous wife. During the seven years of their marriage, Nicole and O. J. had a tumultuous relationship. There were numerous occasions when Nicole had made calls to 911 emergency services on counts of domestic violence. O. J. was reputed as a man with a short temper and would often physically harm Nicole. Eventually, not much was done of these complaints and mostly because O. J. enjoyed celebrity status. After their divorce, there was some speculation that Nicole and O. J. tried to reconcile but not much came out of it. Both Nicole and O. J., were seeing other people at the time of Nicole’s death, however mutual friends do claim that the two were, at the same time, attempting to get back together. Not much was known about Ronald Goldman, except that he was a waiter and a friend of Nicole’s. Again, there was speculation that the two may have been romantically involved and hence he was at Nicole’s house at that hour of the morning.
On that unfortunate night, it was alleged that O. J. came into Nicole’s house, found Nicole and Ronald together and brutally stabbed both to death. O. J. then ran back to his own house and eventually took his scheduled flight to Chicago. Eventually, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) arrived at the crime scene and examined the scene. Recognizing Nicole as the former wife of one of America’s greatest footballers, they immediately went to O. J.’s house. At his place, the LAPD found blood stains on O. J.’s door, a blood stained glove, and blood stains in O. J.’s white car; evidences which led to him becoming the primary suspect on the double homicide. What followed was the trial of the century that lasted over a year and is considered one of the biggest media trials of the century.
While a lot of what happened in the case of People v. O. J. Simpson, was due to the highly public trial that influenced the jury, the case was not helped by the fact that the LAPD has a track record of being racist towards young African American youths and categorically targeting them for crimes, regardless of their involvement, which made matters more difficult for the State to make their case. During the course of this article, we will attempt to limit our understanding to why the forensic evidence against O. J. was eventually not considered by the jury.
The material forensic evidence to be considered during the course of this trial are listed below.
From Nicole’s house:
- There was a bloody glove found next to the dead bodies.
- There were bloody shoe prints leading down the path of the house.
- Nothing noticeable was stolen from Nicole’s place.
- A sample of O. J.’s hair was found in Nicole’s house.
- There was a partial finger print and blood spot on the knob of the gate to Nicole’s house.
From O. J.’s house:
- There were blood stains on O. J.’s car handle and on the dashboard inside the car.
- The LAPD found the other glove in O. J.’s backyard and the blood stains on the glove matched the blood of both victims.
- There were blood drops leading to O. J.’s house.
- Nicole’s blood was on O. J.’s socks that were found in his bedroom.
Taking into consideration each of these evidences available, the case looked easy to prove in court. All that was needed was a control sample of O. J.’s blood to compare with the blood evidence found – which was exactly what the LAPD did. The blood test results came back from each of the above evidences, and they matched all three – Nicole, Ronald and O. J.. This gave the LAPD enough reason to arrest O. J., and thus began the glorified trial.
During the course of the trial, the strategy of the defense was to throw out as much of the forensic evidence against O. J., if not all of it. A DNA expert was called in to help the defense. While the result of the evidence analysis itself remains scientifically sound and could not be challenged, the DNA expert could challenge the collection and handling of this DNA. The first successful attack comes with the handling of O. J.’s blood. The blood collected from O. J. was handed over to the on-scene forensic scientist when he was at the crime scene. The defense, successfully managed to establish that the inherent partiality of the LAPD, coupled with human error, could open grounds for a possibility that O. J.’s blood was intentionally spilled at both crime scenes to make him look like the only viable suspect. It did not help that 1/4th of O. J.’s blood that was reportedly collected was missing from evidence. While at the face of it, it seemed like a logical inference to make, what failed to be taken into consideration is the distance that existed between O. J.’s house and Nicole’s. Implying that the forensic scientist spilled the blood at Nicole’s, then ran to O. J.’s and spilled the blood around his house and car all within a short span of time sounds highly unlikely. While the details of the collection of O.J.’s blood remain unclear, it is reasonable to presume that his blood was collected after his return from Chicago which was on the day after the murder was discovered. Hence, the argument that the blood was collected the next day and spilled on a crime scene that had no blood previously is ridiculous.
The second evidence to be successfully challenged was O.J.’s hair sample found at Nicole’s place. This became easy for the defense to dismiss by just bringing to fore that Nicole and O. J. used to be married and lived together. Though they had not been married for 2 years before the murder, the defense relied on accounts of reconciliation between the two to successfully support this claim. Additionally, hair of O. J. was also found on Nicole’s body. The LAPD also took a blanket from inside Nicole’s house to cover Nicole’s body. Since O. J.’s DNA existed in Nicole’s house, this blanket further contaminated any evidence that may have come from Nicole’s body.
The third success for the defense was in challenging the bloody shoes that O. J. was supposedly wearing at the time of committing the murder. The officer in-charge of checking in the evidence had left the evidence in the trunk of his car after taking custody of it from the crime scene; leaving the evidence packaged but not in its appropriate place overnight. This careless handling of forensic evidence made it impossible establish that the evidence was not tampered with as it lay in the back of the trunk.
Eventually, with each of these minor procedural challenges, the defense successfully eliminated all key forensic evidence from the trial. Without them, it was next to impossible to establish O. J. as the culprit. If he were the culprit, he successfully got away with killing two people.
Case 2: Gone Girl (Hypothetically, People v. Nick Dunne)
This second case study is slightly different from the first in that it is a fictional case where a wife attempted to frame her husband for her murder. As a tool of revenge on her cheating husband, she plans her own murder to get away from him. However, even before the trial could begin, she eventually comes back. Not much emerges from the case after but this case study assumes that the wife never returned and the case eventually would go to trial. In this case, the collection of evidence was done keeping in mind the procedural requirements, unlike in the People v. O. J. Simpson. However, there was forensic evidence that was ignored by the investigating officers but would have eventually come up at the time of trial.
FACTS OF THE CASE: Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot had been married for a few years when their marriage began to disintegrate. With the loss of their jobs, them having to move from New York to Missouri because Nick’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, to the eventual death of Nick’s mother, their relationship suffered several blows. This resulted in Nick eventually cheating on Amy with one of his students. Amy, desperate to get out of this marriage but not wanting to spare Nick for putting her through everything that their relationship suffered, plotted an almost perfect murder – her own.
Taking time off to plan this, she first began with spreading news of her failing marriage amongst the cul-de-sac neighbours. This included false news of being in a physically abusive relationship. She also stole urine from her pregnant friend to make it look like she had been pregnant and was forced to go through an abortion due to her abusive husband. She then faked an entire journal where she traced their entire relationship – from when they first met to every last detail of what went wrong. She painted the perfect picture of a broken marriage with her as the victim. She even purchased a gun to make it look like she needed protection from her husband! Before she ran away from her house, she had to stage a crime scene to make it look like there has been a death without a body.
The material forensic evidence that she placed around the house are listed below:
- There was blood spatter on the kitchen cabinet concurrent to blunt force trauma.
- A pool of blood on the kitchen floor that was cleaned up but would show up under luminol.
- Signs of struggle in the living room – upturned and broken furniture.
- There were traces of blood found on Judy’s hammer – the alleged murder weapon.
During the course of this investigation, the crime scene investigation was conducted thoroughly and flawlessly. Every bit of forensic procedure, especially with regards to collection of evidence, was meticulously followed, nothing could be contested to challenge the admissibility of the evidence. As a primary suspect, Nick’s saliva and a cheek swab were taken at the police station to match with any DNA found on any potential weapons.
In the end, only two kinds of DNA evidence would be submitted in court. One would be the blood detected by the Luminol search which matched to Amy’s and the second would be the DNA evidence on the murder weapon that also matched to Amy’s. Any other DNA evidence found in the house may have been disregarded in court as Nick and Amy shared the house and his DNA was bound to be all around the house and its objects.
The murder weapon – a hammer that was part of a Punch and Judy doll set- was found in Nick’s fireplace and was one of the anniversary gifts seemingly bought for Nick by Amy on her credit card. The other gifts were found in Nick’s sister’s outhouse, and made him look rather suspicious of stowing away gifts bought by his wife after murdering her. A case was almost being build against Nick when Amy Dunne came out of the blue, safe and sound, and the police had to drop their investigation into the suspected murder of a missing woman.
While there might not have been much that Amy left to chance, however there was still half a chance for the defence attorneys to squeeze Nick out of the trap. What we know for sure is that the hammer ‘weapon’ had Amy’s blood on it, but there is no information on whether they have any evidence of Nick having handled it. If the argument was made that Nick may have cleaned his fingerprints on the weapon, then it begets the question of why would he have left the blood still on the weapon. Especially, since he did such a thorough job cleaning the rest of the house, especially all that blood in the kitchen. Even though it was found in the fireplace, an argument for fire having destroyed the DNA cannot be made because the fireplace was never lit but merely used as a hiding place. Any ash or dust in the fireplace may have however compromised the fingerprints, if any, on the weapon.
However, in the court of law, the absence of evidence is seldom cause for acquittal. It may however plan a seed of doubt in the minds of the jury. It would have been interesting to follow this criminal trial in real life. Anticipatedly, People v. Nick Dunne may have well run on the opposite track of People v. O.J. Simpson.
However, given the recent development of the case – the return of Amy and murder of Desi Collings, it could be argued that the tables could have easily been turned onto Amy if the police had investigated Collings’ murder with as much efficiency as Amy’s. For one, the surveillance tape at Desi’s cabin would provide evidence that she had walked in willingly with Desi, and showed no signs of distress. It is however not amiss that ‘victim’s’ body language can be subject to multiple interpretations. The timeline will also show them together only days before the murder, not a month back – as she claims to have been kidnapped. It could be argued that she may have be stashed elsewhere in the meantime but it is abundantly clear that he will have to visit her regularly to feed her and check on her. Tracing Desi’s social calendar, mobile phone and traffic footage of his vehicle, it can be proven that either he didn’t kidnap her in person, nor did he visit her regularly elsewhere where he may have kept her hostage before the cabin.
The assistance of hired help cannot be ruled out, but it would go against her version of the event where she claims he turned up in person at her doorstep. There is also the case where her clothes will have pools of Desi’s blood and maybe red wine still, but none of her own, which she intended and has portrayed in the surveillance tapes to claim she was being raped and tortured by her ex-boyfriend. There is also the absence of any mortal wound on her person, owing to which must have bled out copiously on the day of the abduction, as indicated by the pool of blood on the kitchen floor. A more detailed examination of the blood from the kitchen floor will show either signs of coagulation or presence of anti-coagulants and preservatives, both indicating that the blood was stored and not spilled fresh from a body. Nevertheless, she may be able to make a case for sexual assault, and consequently murder as self defense, as the presence of Desi’s semen on her person, as well as the lacerations caused by rough sex can mimic the evidence of assault. It would have been an interesting trial, whether we put Nick on the stand or Amy. But maybe that’s stuff for another sequel thriller.
What is worthy of notice here is that while the evidences and the science of analysis of these evidences remain true and undeterred, a case is often made or broken by the interpretation of such analysis in context to the case. Context, as the word is defined, is rarely objective and essentially subjective. It is cases like these, fictional and real, that force us to think of how much of the outcome of the trial is based on investigative bias, media influence, misplaced sympathies, circumstantial evidence and lack of understanding and interpretation of forensic evidence as much as on human fallacy, purposeful or not.
While the law is constantly reviewed to be fair in the deliverance of justice, the same cannot be said for its human bearers in court and police. Who’s to say then, how many guilty have been left scot-free while the innocent persecuted?
Written by Aishwarya Gupta (JGLS ’12)
Edited by Poulomi Bhadra