Saturday, April 4, 2020

Forensic files

MSU professor David Foran applies science to the real world of past and present

February 10, 2011

In 1910, Dr. Hawley Crippen of Coldwater, Mich., was found guilty of murdering his wife and hanged in an English penitentiary, where his body remains today.

But now, more than a century later, Crippen’s great-great-great-grandnephew, Patrick Crippen, is fighting to have the ruling overturned and the body exhumed so it can be buried in the family plot.

“I am the closest living male relative and it is my responsibility to see that he is buried in his proper grave in Coldwater next to his grandfather,” Patrick Crippen said.

But in the decades since, the case has been forgotten in the U.S. — until now.

A recent report published by David Foran, the director of the forensic biology program at MSU, might put Patrick Crippen one step closer to his goal of clearing his ancestor’s name.

Foran has investigated several historic cold cases including that of the Boston Strangler and the disappearance of the Lindbergh baby in 1932.

The Crippen case was the O.J. Simpson trial of its time, with coverage in all major U.S. and European newspapers, Foran said. Droves of people turned out for the trial.

“It’s very well known (in Europe),” Foran said. “At the time, (the case) was famous on both sides of the Atlantic because Dr. Crippen, when he was arrested, was actually fleeing England and coming back to North America, and he was identified by the ship captain as being on that ship.”

Foran’s most recent report, “The Conviction of Dr. Crippen: New Forensic Finding in a Century-Old Murder” was published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences in 2010 and called into question evidence used in 1910 to indict Hawley Crippen.

For Foran, the story behind the science makes all of the difference.
“If someone gave me a slide and said do DNA testing on this, that would just be boring, that would be work,” Foran said. “With this historical stuff, the background is what makes it interesting.”

Convicting Crippen
The Crippen case is one of the most well-known murders in England’s history, second only to Jack the Ripper, Foran said.

Dr. Crippen’s wife, Cora Crippen, was last seen Feb. 1, 1910, at a party she and her husband hosted at their home just north of London.

After no one heard from her for several months, her friends began to get suspicious and informed Scotland Yard, the London police force, of her disappearance.

Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Walter Dew interrogated Dr. Crippen on the whereabouts of his wife July 9, and by July 11, Dr. Crippen and his mistress had boarded a transatlantic ship back to North America.

When Dr. Crippen fled, Dew and his men began investigating the Crippen residence where they discovered the remains of a body under the cellar floor.

The body had no head, limbs or bones; it was merely a torso and the remnants of internal organs, Foran said.

When the ship’s captain discovered Dr. Crippen and his mistress — who was dressed as a boy — were on board, he wired back to Scotland Yard, alerting them that Dr. Crippen was on the ship.

“Everyone knew Crippen was on that boat, except Crippen,” Foran said. “He and his mistress thought they were getting away, whereas on both sides of the Atlantic everybody knew that he was on there and there were daily reports on it.”

Dew took a faster ship and met the ship Dr. Crippen was on when it landed in Canada. He arrested Dr. Crippen and brought him right back to London where he immediately was tried for the murder of his wife.

The crucial part of convicting Dr. Crippen was identifying the remains from the cellar as his wife.

This was no easy task considering the limits of forensic science at the time, Foran said.

However, the pathologist for the case, Bernard Spilsbury, testified that a mark on the remaining tissue was consistent with a scar Cora Crippen had on her stomach from a childhood surgery.

“(Spilsbury) identified a whole body based on what he said
was a scar,” Foran said.

“Today, that wouldn’t stand up in court at all. There’s no science that says you can identify a person by a scar,
especially something as vague as that (alleged scar).”

Even so, it was enough for a jury. After a five-day trial and 27 minutes of deliberation, jury members found Dr. Crippen guilty of poisoning his wife.

He was hanged in Pentonville Prison, the case was closed and to this day is considered the top arrest in Scotland Yard’s history, Foran said.

History rewritten
Nearly a century later, Grand Rapids-based poison expert John Trestrail approached Foran to look into the Crippen case.

The case initially caught Trestrail’s attention because the state of the body did not match the type of murder, Foran said.

“A poisoner doesn’t usually cut up the remains of the person they poison,” Foran said. “They want it to look like a natural death so they slip someone poison and then say, ‘Oh, they died of some cause, we don’t know what it is.’ But what they don’t do is chop up the remains like they were in the Crippen coal cellar.”

Foran and Trestrail set out to test whether the body found in the cellar was, in fact, Cora Crippen.

Spilsbury’s microscope slides containing the supposed scar from the remains still were intact at the Royal London Hospital Archives and preserved in near-perfect condition, Foran said.

After reassuring hospital personnel he would be able to get DNA from the slides, they allowed Foran to borrow one of the slides as a “museum loan.”

Foran then set to work determining if the DNA in the slide actually matched that of Cora Crippen.

“Forensics is comparing one thing to another, like a fingerprint,” he said. “You can leave your fingerprint on this desk, that doesn’t tell us anything unless we have a known fingerprint to compare it to. Same here, we can’t identify this tissue as Cora Crippen or not unless we have something to compare it to.”

Because Cora Crippen had no children of her own, there was no direct line of DNA to test, Foran said.

Instead, Foran used a specific type of DNA, mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down maternally from mother to child in order to determine if the slide was a match.

As it turned out, Cora Crippen’s niece had daughters, meaning Cora Crippen and her living grandnieces had the same mitochondrial DNA.

“We compared the grandniece’s DNA to the DNA of the scar — or the DNA on the slide — and they were completely different,” Foran said. “That tells us that tissue was not Cora Crippen’s, which is kind of a big deal because that’s what the conviction was based on.”

Foran, however, did not conduct all the research by himself. Much of the work that contributed to this discovery was done by his students at the time, such as Brianne Kiley.

Kiley assisted Foran in the reinvestigation by applying her research topic to the case — testing for gender on highly degraded remains.

Kiley’s tests proved the DNA in the scar on the slide that was supposed to have come from Cora Crippen was in fact from a male, something she thought was shocking.

“Determining that the scar was not from a female but from a male was big, eye opening really,” she said. “(But) the lineage of the DNA, that to me was more outstanding.”

Investigating historic cold cases such as the Crippen murder are one of the many hands-on research projects in which Foran leads his graduate students.

Cases such as the Crippen murder have become a major point of interest for students, such as forensic science graduate student Sarah Thomasma, when they are applying for the program.

Thomasma said when she first was considering MSU, one of the things Foran alerted her to were the historic cases students had worked on in the past.

She immediately was drawn to the Crippen case.

“The way forensics has changed in the past 20 years, let alone the past 100, is amazing,” she said. “The kind of work forensics can do and the kind of information you can get from 100-year-old cases, I think that’s really cool.”

Real-world implications
With Foran’s report officially being published, it becomes eligible to be used as evidence in Patrick Crippen’s appeal case.

Though Patrick Crippen’s case still might not be heard for quite some time, he commends Foran for all of the hard work he put into his research.

“Dr. Foran did a darn good job,” Patrick Crippen said. “It’s fantastic to see the work that he has done (and) we hope that his work should be strong evidence for our case.”

Foran’s latest publication is a testament to the quality of work he has been producing in his seven-plus years at MSU, said Ed McGarrel, the director of the MSU School of Criminal Justice.

McGarrel also praised the significance of this case to the world outside MSU.

“It’s very exciting, Dr. Foran is a world-class forensic biologist,” he said. “The Crippen case highlights the real world significance of his lab in society.”

Cases such as this also are a staple for drawing in new students, McGarrel said.

Kiley said one of the main reasons she decided to come to MSU for her master’s studies was because of hands-on case work experiences.

These experiences have proven to be advantageous for her in the professional world, she said.

“Because the program was so small, we got to practice on specific fields,” Kiley said.

Another aspect that separates MSU’s forensic program from others is the way it embraces interdisciplinary studies, Foran said.

Kiley said Foran and the program both helped her learn and grow as a scientist and she said she looks to continue that trend of growth throughout the rest of her career.

“The experience at Michigan State really helped prepare me for the real world,” she said. “Dr. Foran and that program instilled that passion in me and it’s something that I will continue pursuing.”

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