Miniature Murder Scene a Teaching Tool

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This article, written by Kristi Evans, appeared on the Northern Michigan University website on July 13, 2018.

The first female police captain in the United States, Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962), was perhaps best known for her “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.” These exquisitely detailed, miniature reproductions of real-life crime scenes revolutionized the emerging field of homicide investigation in the first half of the 20th century, according to the Smithsonian. The state of Maryland still uses them to train forensic professionals. Northern Michigan University criminal justice students will benefit from exposure to a similar dollhouse-sized diorama this coming academic year. Marquette resident and NMU alumnus Dave Mastric (’05 BA) was commissioned to create his first nutshell study of a gruesome murder case he discovered online.

Glessner Lee wanted the nutshells to promote disciplined and accurate investigations by serving as “exercises in observing and evaluating indirect evidence.” An article about her sparked Mastric’s desire to embark on the project. He proposed the idea to NMU Professor Bob Hanson and found a scene to model: the Fort Bragg, N.C. home where a pregnant woman and her two daughters were brutally murdered in 1970. The husband and father, Jeffrey McDonald, maintains his innocence and continues to appeal while serving a life sentence without parole. Mastric found the entire case file online and presented it to students last fall, around the time he also began working on the nutshell.

“I’m trying to re-hatch an old idea that has continued to work for half a century,” Mastric said. “Investigators might have crime scene photos or the potential to digitally map an environment with a laser, but both are still likely to be two-dimensional. Re-creating a crime scene in 3D would be cost prohibitive with the required computer, hardware and printer. Shrinking it down to 1/12 size through a nutshell representation is an affordable way to help students develop an investigator’s eye. They can analyze an entire scene to see how things in each space relate to each other and play a role in the overall crime.”

Hanson said the nutshell is a valuable learning tool that offers a perspective that can’t be achieved any other way.

“It’s like a drone’s-eye view of the interior of a crime scene,” said Hanson. “It’s very helpful for students to see a crime scene in its entirety; photos offer one slice at a time. It’s also a good way to demonstrate observation principles and certain ways to approach a scene. The nutshell also lends itself to group observation and discussion.”

At first glance, the model Mastric crafted conveys a nostalgic, childlike innocence. But a closer look will reveal impeccably accurate attention to morbid details: tiny doll corpses positioned as the victims were at the time of their deaths; patterns of blood spatter on the walls and floor; and discarded murder weapons, including a knife and ice pick. He devotes the same attention to seemingly more innocuous elements, such as intricate furnishings and décor. It is a painstaking process requiring a great deal of time and patience—more than Mastric anticipated. He intentionally did not track his hours.

“I had worked on train sets, but this is my first time working in 1/12 scale,” he said. “The advantage is that it’s the recognized standard size for doll houses, so a lot of furniture is available pre-made. But I’ve had to construct several pieces when I couldn’t find anything close because their evidentiary value requires accurate representation. To re-create action in the living room, I needed to build a coffee table that not only looked as close to the original as possible, but behaved the same way—always flipping on its top. Most power tools are not designed for that level of precision. I have a tiny, adjustable machinist’s square calibrated to 1/64 of an inch and use an X-ACTO knife. I also work with tweezers a lot, which is helpful when installing door hinges 3/16 of an inch long.”

Mastric praised Frances Lee’s nutshells for their stunning detail, from the placement of dishes in the sink and cans on a shelf to furniture that reflected the victim’s socio-economic status.

“She was attentive to the smallest details you wouldn’t think were significant,” he said. “For example, she was known for sitting in a workroom with a pair of sewing pins and knitting to create socks for the victim. She had a really interesting way of assigning importance in the scene and reflecting the overall feeling. Everything would lead to one conclusion or another.”

Mastric graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and a criminal justice minor. In addition to unveiling the final model for use by an advanced criminal investigation class this fall, he and Hanson will give a presentation at the Midwest Criminal Justice meeting in September.

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