Murder fascinates most of us. Who better to take us through the facts, puzzling as they so often are in high-profile cases, than Pittsburgh's own world-famous forensic pathologist and lawyer, Cyril Wecht. With journalist Dawna Kaufmann, he has gathered the facts of seven famous cases and given each a chapter in "From Crime Scene to Courtroom."
The complex cases he chooses include two recent ones -- those of suspect Casey Anthony and victim Michael Jackson. Their stories frame the book and take a large portion of its space. In between are the lesser-known cases of Air Force Col. Philip Michael Shue and Carol Anne Gotbaum along with another three that have had substantial news coverage: Brian Jones, a founding member of the Rolling Stones; Drew Peterson, the Illinois police sergeant charged with killing two of his wives; and Gabrielle Miranda Bechen, the 12-year-old Greene County girl murdered in 2006.
It's part of the strategy of the book to lay out lots of facts in order to put the reader in a highly knowledgeable position, armed with both medical and legal details. Though Dr. Wecht writes from a first-person point of view, he is careful to avoid unwarranted partisanship.
Readers who didn't have time to watch the televised Casey Anthony trial, and only heard bits here and there, will be fascinated by the number and kinds of lies the young mother told. What is most interesting about the trial and the case itself is the murkiness of intent that seems to characterize the whole Anthony family. They must have driven investigators mad.
Drew Peterson's wife Stacey and his former wife Kathleen also got into wild physical fights, which reportedly amused him. He was no slouch himself at throwing punches. All of Mr. Peterson's wives suffered beatings. In their histories -- and in the history of genius rock star Brian Jones -- there is enough violence all along the way to make murder a highly likely possibility. And there's lots of sex, too --both men had plenty of women, multiple marriages and lots of offspring.
Dr. Wecht points out that several of the investigations and trials have been flawed. There should have been enough circumstantial evidence in the Casey Anthony case to win a conviction. And the 2003 death of Col. Shue is marked by mishandling and coverup. The military brass asserted Col. Shue's death was caused by a car accident. They ignored and deemed insignificant the slash down his chest, the duct tape around his wrists and ankles, the body damage, including nipples surgically excised. The pursuit of truth by Col. Shue's determined widow, along with Dr. Wecht, is compelling. They're saying, "Homicide, not accident."
Also the fans of Brian Jones want his death to be ruled a homicide. Books have been written about Jones' 1969 drowning death, and a film made, but perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the case is the emergence of mysterious informers and deathbed confessors years after the fact. They don't tell the same story. Whom should we believe? How much is each confession a wish to be touched by celebrity?
The questions in the case of Gabby Bechen are of a different sort -- not what happened, but why a child of 12 determinedly drove her ATV to a farm to supposedly confront Jeffrey Martin early one morning.
And whether Mr. Martin, who confessed to the killing (though not the rape) and then recanted, will be executed. Forensic evidence supports the confession and the rape.
The chapter on Carol Anne Gotbaum recounts the erratic behavior of a disturbed alcoholic woman and asks whether police brutality and insensitivity killed her. Could her 2007 death in the Phoenix airport have been averted?
Michael Jackson's death and the culpability of his doctor are items on the news just about every day. Somehow the litany of fact can still shock: the multiple prescription drugs in his bedroom, the sequence of phone calls made on the night of his death, a protracted insomnia that resisted repeated injections.
Dr. Wecht's book is fact-based and teacherly, not unlike a court testimony. He's a scientist, laying out in a colloquial and evenhanded way the ambiguities, lies, errors and uncertainties in seven shocking real-life mysteries.
Kathleen George is the author of five crime novels, set in Pittsburgh, the most recent of which is "Hideout" (kathleengeorgebooks.com).