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Bodies, traces and spaces

August 17, 2011

Feature: The shifting landscape of forensic homicide investigation in 20th-century England – by Ian Burney

“When it is discovered that a murder has been committed, the scene of that murder should instantly become as the Palace of the Sleeping Beauty. Not a grain of dust should be moved, not a soul should be allowed to approach it, until the scientific observer has seen everything in situ and absolutely undisturbed.”

R Austin Freeman, ‘A Message from the Deep Sea’ (1909)

We are, by common consensus, living in a new paradigm in forensic investigation. Since the introduction of DNA profiling in the mid-1980s, the forensic landscape has altered dramatically. It has created new iconography (the white-suited and anonymous Scenes of Crime Officers, SOCOs), new challenges (hypervigilance against material contamination), new synergies (between academic biomedical research and applied forensic science) and a new set of spaces (especially the highly disciplined crime scene and its promise of yielding biotrace evidence).

This new forensic world has been the subject of a substantial body of critical scrutiny, which has drawn attention to the historical challenges facing the adoption of DNA profiling as a credible practicable forensic technology. Covering debates ranging from population genetics and abstruse probability theory to the processes of standardising laboratory protocols and agreeing universal thresholds of tolerance for accepting DNA matches as evidence, this literature has made DNA profiling the best- historicised forensic technique of the 20th century, perhaps of all time.

By contrast, we know very little about forensics in the decades preceding this genetic turn. This has resulted not merely in a gap in our historical knowledge but in a distorted understanding of the forensic era in which we now live – one that contrasts the scientifically advanced, mainstream discipline of contemporary biomedicine against earlier practices that are now dismissed as “untested assumptions and semi-informed guesswork” (Saks and Koehler, 2005). This is at best oversimplified and at worst dangerous, as it misrepresents the significance and complexity, in theory and in practice, of pre-DNA forensics, and obscures potential continuities between debates and difficulties in forensic practice across the ‘great divide’.

My current research project on homicide investigation in 20th-century England, funded by the Wellcome Trust Medical History and Humanities programme, seeks to redress this ahistorical picture. It focuses on the shifting relationship between two models of forensic investigation: a body-centred forensic medicine inherited from the 19th century, and a trace-oriented forensic science that supplemented the pathological investigation of the whole body with an interest in the analysis of matter found on and around the body (blood, hair, fibres, ‘dust’). The forensics of bodies and of traces both took on a new impetus at the start of the 20th century. The post-mortem encounter with the body, to be sure, has a long historical pedigree, but it was only in the first decades of the 20th century, in England, that the encounter between the body and the pathologist became a high-profile, celebrity- saturated practice – with Bernard Spilsbury (known as the ‘people’s pathologist’) as its most prominent exemplar. However, alongside this there was another, in some respects opposing, trend developing. First discernible in the writings of turn- of-the-century continental theorists such as Edmond Locard and Hans Gross, a ‘crime-scene’ approach to criminal detection emerged that drew upon the practices and ideas from a variety of scientific disciplines (archaeology, entomology, serology and other forms of biochemistry), and a newly disciplined regime of police investigation – constituting a regime of detection in which pathology was no longer the exclusive authority.

Body-centred forensics depended on pathologists’ success on two fronts, in two domains: first, securing the corpse as a source of forensic knowledge in the mortuary; second, gaining recognition for this knowledge in the courtroom. Both of these facets of forensic pathology entailed work on the part of its adherents, and both faced serious challenges. Pathologists, for instance, were forced to deal with the inherent instability of the corpse itself, which turned the problem of decomposition into a disciplinary concern in the forensic imagination, and which led to proposals such as specialised freezing chambers designed to suspend further decay of bodies and tissues. Furthermore, high-profile courtroom battles between Spilsbury and his contemporaries focused critical attention on the practices of pathology itself, which threatened to undermine the whole edifice of body-centred forensics and, at times, tarnish the reputation of its celebrity figurehead.

Searching for evidence in the Crippen murder case, 1910.

Searching for evidence in the Crippen murder case, 1910.

The ‘crime-scene’ approach to homicide investigation was grounded in a different set of imperatives: first, the need to suspend the crime scene in time and space, with the aim of constructing an analytical space in which the body and its physical context could be subjected to a sequential and differentiated set of investigative practices undisturbed by decay, degradation or contamination. Nowhere is this more strikingly evoked than in the passage in R Austin Freeman’s detective story that serves as the epigraph to this article. Freeman’s self-consciously ‘modern’ approach to crime scene investigation was echoed in an emergent textbook literature: guarding the “Palace of the Sleeping Beauty” entailed, in Hans Gross’s view, “the exclusion of everything happening after the moment when the crime is committed”. The suspension of the moment of crime in time and space enabled the second feature of the forensics of things: the analytical ‘excavation’ of crime scene as ‘archeological/ecological’ space. This can to some extent be characterised as a shift from the body of the victim to the trace body of the criminal, using reconstructive techniques drawn from other scientific disciplines. “The criminologist,” according to Locard, “re-creates the criminal from traces the latter leaves behind, just as the archaeologist reconstructs prehistoric beings from his finds.”

By the 1930s–40s, trace investigation had become a standard and routine part of forensic investigation, and this in turn entailed changes in professional expertise and practice. The new emphasis on trace collection and analysis enabled criminal investigators to forge new evidentiary links between the victim’s body, the perpetrator and the crime scene, and in this to assess the operation of a new analytic gaze, one that decentred the traditional forensic authority associated with the pathologist’s autopsy. Homicide investigation was no longer oriented by the focused medical gaze of one medical authority; instead, a dispersed and multifaceted analytical gaze operated across several sites (crime scene, mortuary slab and laboratory), and belonged to a multidisciplinary structure that interrogated the visible and invisible traces of inorganic and organic matter swabbed from clothing, fluids, suspect weapons and the body (of both the victim and the accused).

The increasing complexity of trace analysis, then, demanded specialised knowledge and equipment beyond the conventional autopsy practices at the mortuary slab, and this imposed strategic and logistical demands that would transform the role and responsibilities of the forensic pathologist. In principle, forensic pathologists were relegated to the role of harvesting trace material from the body for analysis by other experts in other domains that might call into doubt the results of their own autopsy findings. However, in practice, pathologists still maintained overall command of the expanding forensic investigative matrix. For example, they were commonly put in charge of the new Home Office-sponsored police laboratories, which were themselves a core means of institutionalising a trace- oriented forensic model. This in turn presented sources of potential tension – between the forensic pathologist’s established role as a custodian of a time-honoured medical practice, and the newer role as manager of routine, and tedious, laboratory work.

This new forensic enterprise also required new kinds of disciplinary framework that regulated and managed the crime scene, and these were tested and challenged by the practical exigencies of forensic murder investigation. The 1953 investigation of John Christie’s serial murders provided one such test. Christie’s home at 10 Rillington Place rapidly gained public notoriety as a ‘chamber of horrors’, and attending to the rhetorical and practical levels of this description will provide insight into the ways that murder investigation had been reshaped by new approaches to the crime scene, and by developments in trace detection (hair/semen analysis, body reconstruction, scene excavation). The forensic investigation – led, significantly, by a modern ‘celebrity’ pathologist, Francis Camps (1905–72) – transformed Rillington Place into a macabre archaeological site, the stage for a prolonged, meticulous and multidisciplinary search for and analysis of bioevidence. The Christie case shows how the new emphasis on trace collection and analysis enabled criminal investigators to forge new evidentiary links between the vicvtim’s body, the perpetrator and the crime scene.

From the 1960s onwards, forensic pathologists grew increasingly vocal about their waning authority in murder investigations. The context for these laments was primarily structural: during this period many university forensic departments in England closed, with remaining academic appointments often funded by contracted-out services, leaving little time or incentive for conducting research. Another feature of this ‘declinism’ was the sustained critique of pathologists’ working conditions (fees, career structure, etc.) and of the poorly resourced post-mortem theatres within which they worked. Such conditions, pathologists argued, not only impoverished their claims to forensic expertise but also impinged on their capacity to retrieve and deliver vital courtroom evidence.

Arguably, this ‘declinism’ feeds directly into the state of current thinking from across the DNA divide: that is, how difficulties, real and perceived, of forensic practice in the 1960s and 1970s presented a cleared stage for Alec Jeffrey’s ‘eureka’ moment – a useful backdrop of stagnation that serves to enhance the new forensic paradigm. In order to disrupt this logic, it is important to dig beneath the narrative of decline to view postwar developments in forensic techniques and practices as they appeared to actors beyond laments about professional structures and resources. Doing so makes it clear that many of the icons of post-DNA forensics – the white-suited SOCOs, concerns about ‘chain of custody’ and the management of the gap between crime scene and laboratory, questions about standards and thresholds for interpreting trace evidence, and the implications of a probabilistic model of forensic evidence based on statistical projections of the distribution of biocharacteristics among a given population (e.g. hair subjected to neutron activation analysis) – were all live concerns before the 1980s. Bringing the analysis up to the purported forensic watershed, then, invites reflection on past forensic practices, reflection that is not bound by – and might even place into historically informed analytical perspective – the imperialising allure of our own contemporary forensic imagination.

Dr Ian Burney is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester.

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