61 | Case Files

[T]he field of forensic science has come a very long way since its recorded beginning in the 700s, when the Chinese used fingerprints to establish the identity of documents and clay sculptures….  

In 1248, a book, Hsi Duan Yu (the Washing Away of Wrongs), published by the Chinese, described how to distinguish drowning from strangulation. It was the first recorded application of medical knowledge to the solution of crime. In 1609, the first treatise on systematic document examination was published in France. Then in 1784, one of the first documented uses of physical matching saw an Englishman convicted of murder based on the torn edge of a wad of newspaper in a pistol that matched a piece remaining in his pocket.

New York State Police Crime Laboratory System: Forensic Science History - LINK

As forensic science has evolved, case files have too.

Just decades ago, a file might be a few typed or handwritten pages and a half-dozen photos of the victim at the scene and the morgue. Physical evidence was a gun, a bludgeon or a knife. Blood found at a distance wasn’t collected, just photographed. In 1973, Sendle wrote few reports because his job was putting the pieces together, not pounding the pavement. Negative observations—noting that something you’d expect to find was missing, say a nine-iron from a golf bag—weren’t reported. Today’s case files are encyclopedias.

In September 2012, after wrangling with the DA for a year and filing a request under the Colorado Open Records Act, I got the Frye file. Thousands of pages of investigatory and crime lab reports, raw unfiltered notes, timelines, witness statements and transcripts. Dozens of crime scene photos. Hours of audiotapes. Two-thirds in, I had to stop. I didn’t return to the file for five months. In May 2012, DA Tomsic let me to sift through her file, from which work product, confidential medical records, and grand jury transcripts not attached to defense pleadings had been removed.

Each turn had a painful surprise.

Phone numbers, achingly familiar. The karate studio’s sign-in sheets the day of the murder—kids like us, whose kicks and punches I could picture. Jim Blake’s obsession with Duane’s clothes; he’d asked every witness but said my description—the most damaging to Duane—was most accurate. Eighteen-year-old Doug leaving the grand jury room to consult Leonard Davies on every question asked. Jan’s boyfriend in Sunshine Canyon, whom Betty hated and where Jan spent the night before the murder, had a phone and Betty had the number. Betty on the autopsy table with her scalp peeled back and furrows plowed into her skull. Black spatters on the table saw and pools on the garage floor. But the audiotapes instantly erased forty years.

Jan’s voice throaty and hesitant, her heartbreaking pauses and inability to complete a sentence when asked about Betty’s murder turning to desperation and then rage as she realized Duane was whom they were after. Doug so guarded and robotic he was scarcely audible, his voice lifting at the very end when he asked if his dad would be arrested and the cop confirmed Duane was the only suspect. Lynn’s ex-boyfriend Don recalling the crime scene like yesterday and the precise date Lynn walked out on him twelve years later. For each of us, it was as if time had stopped.

But the one for whom time had truly stopped was curiously absent from the file. In life and death, there was no place for Betty. In 1973 and the cold case, guilt and rage were aimed not at her killer, but at whoever did this to them. In the name of family, Betty’s family redefined her right out of it.

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