February 2020

American Sherlock

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We live in an era that feels awash in crime case forensic evidence. Every day, news comes of DNA tests that have exonerated long-imprisoned innocents or nabbed villains in cold cases. An entire generation has grown up watching the CSI franchise on television, and jurors tend to expect some Gil Grissom-like savant to testify, even when that’s not realistic.

That was hardly the case a century ago. Police relied on third-degree interrogations, and science just wasn’t in the picture. But slowly, a handful of forensic pioneers changed the criminal justice landscape. One of the most prominent was Edward Oscar Heinrich, a largely forgotten figure whose riveting story is revived in Kate Winkler Dawson’s American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI.

After finishing her well-regarded Death in the Air, Dawson was looking for a follow-up project when she stumbled on the voluminous Heinrich papers at the University of California at Berkeley. She literally had to persuade the university to catalog the neglected collection so she could do her research. It produced archival gold.

Heinrich was a headline name in the 1920s and ’30s as a key criminologist in high-profile murder cases. Dawson structures her book around his most mysterious and sensational cases—among them, a bloody train robbery that netted almost no money, the killing of a priest solved in part through handwriting analysis and the multiple trials of a Stanford University employee who may or may not have bludgeoned his wife in her bathtub.

Heinrich forged the way in blood pattern analysis, ballistics, forensic photography, polygraphs and criminal profiling. Yet he was often frustrated by juries who were baffled by his work, and importantly, he wasn’t always right. He trusted forensic science too much; as Dawson reminds us, we now know that handwriting, blood and gun evidence is far from flawless. Like Heinrich himself, she argues, we need to continue pushing forward in the never-ending quest for true justice.

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