Thursday, September 21, 2017

Criminalistic Junk Science

Cesare Lombroso
In the late nineteenth-century, Italian psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso advanced the idea of the "born criminal" based loosely on the work of naturalist Charles Darwin. Lombroso believed the criminal could be distinguished by "abnormalities" in the skull, face, and body. He compiled a list of criminal traits including receding hairline, forehead wrinkles, bumpy face, broad noses, fleshy lips, sloping shoulders, elongated arms, and pointed fingers.

In the Gilded Age of Queen Victoria, the belief there was a "face of evil" was an easy one in the era of Jack the Ripper. In the first half of the twentieth-century, this theory was strongly reinforced in American popular culture through radio mysteries, crime cinema, dime novels, and pulp-fiction detective magazines. This folklore reinforced the idea that criminals are easily identified because they look different from other people--loosely defined as "us".

Rather than scientific, these ideas broke along racial and ethnic lines. In nineteenth-century America, religion was also considered a prejudicial factor in determining guilt. It was generally believed by Anglo-Saxon Protestants--who made up the social and power elite--that Catholic and Jewish immigrants bore a greater responsibility for crime in cities like Boston and New York than law-abiding American folk. In Germany, the Nazis made great use of the pseudo-science of Social Darwinism against European Jews, which they documented to their shame in the last century.

In the early twentieth century, two new forms of pseudoscience gained popularity in law enforcement circles, the polygraph test--also known as a "lie detector" test--and the intravenous injection of truth serum. The polygraph machine measures and records several physiological indices such as blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity. The belief is that deceptive answers will record a different response that true responses. 

Sodium pentothal was invented in 1934 intended to be a pain killer, but it was found to relax subjects who would answer questions put to them in an unguarded and uninhibited fashion while under the influence of the sedative. During World War II, the drug was widely used as an anti-anxiety drug by psychiatrists for battle fatigue.

Polygraph printout.
Polygraph tests measure arousal and are inherently subjective. They can be affected by anxiety disorders and other factors. In 2002, the National Research Council noted "There is no specific physiological reaction associated with lying. The mechanisms associated with lying are unknown making it difficult to identify factors that separate liars from truth tellers." The National Academy of Sciences stated that polygraph tests "are simply unreliable, unscientific, biased, and inadmissible in the United States court system."

The belief that lie detectors are a useful forensic tool is generally discredited, but the myth is keep alive in the popular culture through fiction and film. Polygraph tests today are the subject of comedy as in Meet the Parents 3 where Robert De Niro straps a vintage polygraph machine to Ben Stiller for comic effect.

The idea of truth serum also has been the mainstay of pulp-fiction and true crime magazines. Its conceptual originator was Dr. Robert House in 1915. He gave the drug scopolamine to women during childbirth and noticed that they would speak spontaneously and respond to any questions put to them while under the influence. 

Sodium pentothal was invented in 1934 by Ernest H. Volwiler and Donalie L. Tabern as a sedative or painkiller, but it soon became what the public regarded as truth serum. Side effects included short-term memory loss, headache, nausea, agitation, drowsiness, and up to a three day hangover.

In 1963, the United States Supreme Court ruled that "barbiturate confessions" produced under the influence of truth serum were unconstitutionally coerced and therefore inadmissible. Truth serum results are not accepted by Western legal systems and legal experts as genuine investigative tools.

There is no drug proven to cause consistent or predictable enhancement of truth-telling. Studies have found that subjects questioned under the influence of truth serum are suggestible and their memories are subject to reconstruction and fabrication. Another problem is what the subject perceives as truth cannot be differentiated from unbiased, factual truth.

Unlike fingerprint and DNA science, Social Darwinism, polygraph tests, and truth serum are considered junk science and have no place in modern investigative forensics.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Ypsilanti's Historic Depot Town

Mark Norris (1796-1862)
Ypsilanti, Michigan was a ramshackle frontier town on the old Chicago Road in 1828 when pioneer Mark Norris and his family settled just east of the Huron River. Perhaps more than any other Ypsilanti citizen, Norris advanced the development of the city. He was an industrious and shrewd businessman. He owned a wool carding company, a dry goods store, the Western Hotel next to the railroad, the Norris Block building on River Street, and the Ypsilanti Flour Mill.

Original Ypsilanti Depot
It was Mark Norris who convinced the Michigan Central Railroad to make Ypsilanti a scheduled stop and construct a wooden loading dock and a freight warehouse giving birth to Depot Town. The first train arrived on February 2, 1838. Ypsilanti was no longer an isolated frontier town. It became an economic hub for the area's growing agricultural and manufacturing concerns.

The Depot Town businesses on the ground floor catered to the needs of weary travellers and light manufacturing. The upper floors were used for lodging, warehousing, or residential use. In 1864, the railroad built a lovely, three-story train depot said to be the nicest between Detroit and Chicago. Unfortunately, the upper floors were destroyed by fire in 1910--only the ground floor was rebuilt.

Depot Town became a staging area for the Underground Railroad from 1841 until the 1860s. Escaped slaves hid in safe houses or wherever they could during the day and traveled down the Huron River at night. During the Civil War, the 14th Michigan Infantry Regiment and the 27th Michigan Infantry Regiment shipped out from Depot Town heading for the South.

Cross Street Bridge is left--Depot Town is right.
A thriving two-block-long commercial district grew up along both sides of East Cross Street. Mark Norris built his flour mill on the northeast corner of Cross Street next to the Huron River sometime in the 1850s. A water canal raceway powered the waterwheel. The property changed hands several times. In 1874, William Deubel bought the mill and ran it with his sons. The mill was damaged by fire in 1915 and rebuilt. It became obsolete in the electrical age and was demolished in 1925.

Frog Island Bridge--March 8, 1935.
The old flour mill was gone, but the water raceway remained. During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built a footbridge north off the Cross Street Bridge over the raceway leading to Frog Island Park. The following year on March 8th, 1935, the body of seven-year-old Richard Streicher, Jr. was found stabbed and frozen to death beneath the footbridge.

Richard Streicher, Jr. post: 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Unexpected America: A Memoir by Wanjiru Warama

At the age of six, Wanjiru Warama [WAHN-jee-row Wa-RAH-Ma] had no knowledge of the world outside the Rift Valley in the East African British colony of Kenya. Her father was from the Kikuyu tribe, the largest ethnic group in the country and loyal to the British. He worked for a wealthy farm owner but only made enough money for his family to live in abject poverty. 

After World War II, it became increasingly difficult for European countries to maintain a colonial presence in Africa. Kenya was given its independence from the United Kingdom in 1963 after eight years of guerrilla warfare known as the Mau Mau Uprising from 1952 through 1960. Amidst this political and civil strife, Wanjiru was sent to Nairobi where she was fortunate enough to be enrolled in a school where she earned a high school diploma.

Realizing education and job training were her only avenues for social mobility and personal independence, Wanjiru was motivated to pursue a business degree from United States International University (USIU) in Naiorbi. Reasoning that opportunities were scarce in the capital city of Nairobi and wanting to expand her horizon, Wanjiru saved up enough money from her clerical job to finance the final year of her bachelor degree program and transfer to the USIU San Diego campus.

San Diego Festival of books--August 2017.
This is where Wanjiru Warama's memoir Unexpected America begins. Armed with a certified check made out to USIU for a year's expenses, a student visa, and a plane ticket, Wanjiru arrives to make her stake on the American Dream only to discover a culture shock beyond her imagination. Her naive view of America collides squarely with the harsh realities of being an immigrant, a minority, and a woman in America--compounded by being in one of the most competitive job markets in the United States, San Diego, California.

Told in straightforward prose with revealing candor, Wanjiru weaves her story of determination, hard work, and perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds to establish herself as an American citizen. May her story be an inspiration to others who come to this country seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

Amazon link: