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Forensic Science Communications July 2002 — Volume 4 — Number 3

red bar graphic Book Review

Cracking Cases: The Science of Solving Crimes

Henry C. Lee
with Thomas W. O'Neil
Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York
ISBN 1-57392-985-9

Reviewed by:

Kirk E. Yeager
Physical Scientist
Explosives Unit
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Washington, DC

Four years ago I was fortunate enough to hear Dr. Henry Lee lecture on forensics at an international conference where we were both speakers. Five minutes into his presentation, all I kept thinking was "Thank God I don't have to follow this act." He was dynamic, funny, intelligent, and insightful. He held the rapt attention of approximately 600 bomb technicians for well over an hour (not an easy feat). It was with this experience that I eagerly agreed to review his new book, Cracking Cases: The Science of Solving Crimes.

On the back jacket, notables such as Johnnie Cochran and Alan Dershowitz tout Dr. Lee's book as a "must read" and the product of a "master mystery writer." With this high praise, it was a daunting task to conduct an unbiased review. I enjoyed Cracking Cases. I felt it was a good book, but not a great book. Perhaps I was expecting too much. Overall, I felt the book fell slightly short of what seemed reasonable to expect from a giant in the forensics field.

The basic premise of the book was to provide an overview of the role forensic science played in the investigation of five major homicide cases. Each case was presented separately and was divided into five areas: the facts of the case, investigation, trial, scientific facts, and a summary. This organization highlighted Dr. Lee's contributions. All cases revolved around the central theme of spousal abuse, and throughout the text Dr. Lee took random asides to decry the heinous nature of the crime, almost to the point of being distracting.

The book's organization worked well for the O.J. Simpson and the Woodchipper murder cases. However, at times the analyses was tedious, such as five pages describing bloodstain patterns found on the interior of a van. Especially disappointing were the sections detailing the scientific facts of each case. The explanations of the science of DNA matching and bloodstain pattern analysis were murky, even to someone with only a basic working knowledge of the techniques.

Dr. Lee incorporated photographs throughout the text, but they seem to have little to do with the subject matter. The lack of relevant illustrations to support the forensic science seemed to be the book's most notable flaw.

In general, only the O.J. Simpson and Woodchipper cases were highly interesting. The Sherman case had many interesting attributes, but the Mathison and the MacArthur cases were only mildly interesting. Those cases seem to have been added because they supported the spousal abuse theme. With the thousands of cases that Dr. Lee has worked on, it was surprising that the last two cases survived the final cut.

Overall, I feel that Cracking Cases is a good book. For those interested in the field of forensic science, it will no doubt hold a strong attraction. I feel, however, if the explanations behind the science had been developed more fully and the photographs and diagrams had been more instructive, it could have been a better book. Throughout the text Dr. Lee reminds us that he is an extremely busy man with many people in need of his attention and expertise. The fact that he was able to find time to write a book is amazing, and what he has delivered is well worth the time to read.

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Forensic Science Communications July 2002 — Volume 4 — Number 3