If you’re wondering whether Casey Anthony might qualify as a subclinical psychopath, Cyril Wecht makes a stunning case for it in his recent book, From Crime Scene to Courtroom. I was pleased to see that, like me, he compares her detailed deceptions to the slight-of-mind performed by “Verbal” Kint in The Usual Suspects. Casey Anthony told so many lies after her daughter Caylee went missing that people online made “top ten” lists. Few people know that this dubious talent was not just a response to an extreme circumstance; it was her style. Wecht, one of the world’s leading forensic pathologists, recounts Casey’s history of prevarication in detail, so you’ll get the story in its forceful entirety rather than the piecemeal fashion that news media have offered.
For a long time, Casey operated under the radar. Her brother Lee thought she liked to lie, and Casey expressed real pride in her inventive prowess. She was also a documented thief, taking money from relatives, friends, and even people she’d just met. She managed to blend a convincing pretence of sweetness into the darker life she led until it finally blew up in her face. Her attorney blamed her dysfunctional family, but there’s much more to such a developed ability than mere exposure to a secretive family.
It’s quite enlightening to get a perspective on this frustrating case from a renowned pathologist. Wecht was actually the first forensic expert whom Jose Baez called. It remains a mystery why he decided to look for another consulting pathologist. Wecht and his co-author Dawna Kaufman watched the case unfold and Wecht tells it like it is. The prosecution team made errors, yes, but so did the jury. Wecht finds it stunning that jurors could spend just eleven hours reviewing six weeks of scientific testimony.
“They short-changed the process,” he states. Many did not even take notes. In other words, they probably relied on the typical mental shortcuts that have thrown many other jurors off track, such as the CSI Effect, stereotyping, emotional reactions to witnesses or attorneys, and personal belief systems that cannot accommodate such things as a mother who kills her children. “Reasonable doubt,” Wecht says, “doesn’t mean finding a reason to doubt – it means using logic and evidence to create a plausible scenario.” He surmises that the Anthony jury did not take the time necessary to perform this task. It’s no surprise that most have refused to speak about their decision.
In this same tome, Wecht pulls no punches with the succession of errors that resulted in Michael Jackson’s untimely death at the age of 50, clearly from poorly managed “sleep aids.” Conrad Murray, who actually did not receive the big payday that Jackson had promised, was recently convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He claims he did nothing wrong, but Wecht shows us otherwise. He takes us through the autopsy report and describes the precautions that should have been taken for such an over-medicated person. In fact, the condition of Jackson’s lungs indicated a lingering death over the course of several hours.
“A more diligent doctor sitting at Jackson’s bedside, Wecht notes, “would have noticed Jackson’s downward spiral.” If you want to know just what the tox report means, Wecht’s analysis is a good source.
In addition, Wecht takes on the controversial drowning “accident” of former Rolling Stones member Brian Jones, as well as the manner of death in other cases that appear to have differed from official records. Among them are the strange cases of Col. Philip Michael Shue, Drew Peterson, Gabrielle Miranda Bechan, and Carol Anne Gotbaum.
Wecht offers the experienced eye of a longtime forensic pathologist who has performed many autopsies or death consultations on famous figures. He received his medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh and his law degree from the University of Maryland. He has been certified by the American Board of Pathology and is a Fellow of the College of American Pathologists and the American Society of Clinical Pathologists. He has served as president for both the American College of Legal Medicine and the American Academy of Forensics Sciences. Having organized seminars in more than fifty countries, he’s renowned for being among the country’s top expert witnesses in criminal trials. He loves a controversy and has no qualms about speaking his mind on what he sees.
“If there is one thing we hope you have gleaned from the cases in this book,” he says in an Afterword, “it is that forensic science is not black and white.” Thanks to the CSI Effect, which makes simplistic claims such as “the evidence never lies,” many viewers believe there is absolute certainty in cases that use scientific techniques. Wecht addresses this error by comparing forensic science to a “rainbow of color and light, with new hues constantly being discovered on a regular basis.” If juries better understood how it all works, they might be more vigilant than the OJ Simpson or Casey Anthony juries were to study the nuances. They might also refrain from defining reasonable doubt as the best response in the absence of absolute certainty.
Wecht and Kaufman tell a good story, but they also educate. That’s what often missing in true crime accounts.
Crimescape author Dr. Katherine Ramsland holds graduate degrees in forensic psychology, clinical psychology, and philosophy, and a master’s degree in criminal justice. Currently, she teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. She has published more than 1,000 articles and 38 books. Learn more about her work at and www.katherineramsland.com.