Above is a picture I found on the internet of the crime scene. There is enough information presented in this picture to get an investigator asking all kinds of questions. I’ve found many pictures and even more photos of this crime scene. It’s daunting to be presented with this information; it’s horrible. It’s violent. It’s graphic and disturbing.
The case information is thousands of pages of details on the scene. The investigators documented so much that the research for this project took months. Without reading everything, I still spent countless hours pouring over these details looking for significance and illumination. And, when I found things, I discussed them with my partner in crime solving: Professor Robert Hanson from Northern Michigan University’s Criminal Justice Department.
We began this foray with an idea that was not our own: A model of a crime scene presents more information than a picture ever will. Professor Hanson and I began our discussions after reading an article about Frances Glessner Lee and her Crimes in a Nutshell. Google her. It’s worth it if you haven’t already. I’m guessing if you’re reading my blog, you already know about the work she did.
What Mrs. Lee did was taking concepts in investigation and presented them in three dimensions for investigators to learn from. She worked with police investigators and medical examiners to identify these concepts and design the Nutshells to present them to teach investigation to other investigators.
Professor Hanson and I thought that this idea is not something that should be relegated to history. It’s not something new. It’s not high-tech. It’s basic. It’s fundamental. If you’re teaching investigation to law enforcement, you have to teach them how to view a scene. There are resources available if you want to digitally represent a scene: laser scanners and rendering software that cost well into six digits. These are great items to record information and save it for posterity, particularly if you have no budgetary concerns. But can you teach an investigator how to view a scene? It’s still a two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional real world.
If you’re teaching investigative professionals to view a scene in three dimensions, present them information in three dimensions. Teach them how to look. This is the impetus that sent us running into the world of miniature crime. An instructor can show examples of where evidence was found until the end of the world and they can be excellent examples. They won’t develop an investigative “eye,” though. The “eye” is developed by knowing when they need to look behind this chair, above that picture. Spatial relations, organic flow of rooms and how design elements play into a crime scene are intuitive elements that can be experienced when in a space, even a small space.
I can’t say enough about the Criminal Justice Department at Northern Michigan University, and not just because they commissioned the construction of this Nutshell. Check out their website for some of the cutting edge programs they are developing. It’s a very exciting time to have any involvement in Criminal Justice in Marquette and with the Nutshell, I get to be a little part of it.
As a part of this project, I got to be a guest presenter to the Fall ’17 Criminal Investigations class taught by Professor Hanson. This case, the MacDonald family murders in 1970, was the case I presented to the students in the class. Since the work on the Nutshell had just begun, there wasn’t a model for the students to explore at that point. Even with just photographs and evidence reports, it was a daunting experience to be presenting this case. The class was prepared with the most basic information: that a case would be presented for their consideration. They were instructed to investigate the evidence and ask questions and form an opinion. To say their questions were probing would be a serious understatement. I’d done months of research and went in feeling very prepared. Several of their questions required me to consult my notes and even the case file.
http://www.nmu.edu/criminaljustice/home-page – this is your portal to the CJ department
https://www.nmu.edu/northernmagazine/cold-case – read about NMU’s new FROST program in forensic anthropology
I’m a graduate of NMU, too, by the way. Class of ’04. Go Cats.
Photos coming soon. The work lately has been painting and is really boring looking. Assembly of the crime scene will begin as soon as the paint is dry and promises to be much more visually interesting!