EUREKA – Lizzie Borden may or may not have given her father and stepmother numerous whacks with an ax in the infamous 1892 murder in Fall River, Mass.
But William Lally, associate professor of criminal justice at Eureka College, thinks a sloppy investigation and lack of sophisticated testing procedures were the reasons she was acquitted by a jury.
“With today's technology, there's no doubt in my mind they'd be able to convict her,” said Lally as he stood in a guest house on campus where the Borden murder scene was recreated in gruesome detail for the benefit of two courses at the college.
The scene was recreated in three rooms of the former home of the college president through the efforts of the college's theater and prop departments, as well as students in associate professor Marty Lynch's stage design class.
On Sunday, students in Lally's crime scene class used 21st Century forensic tools and procedures to investigate the infamous 19th century crime. Lally likes giving his students hands-on experiences.
According to Cameron Lucas, a sophomore in criminal justice from Canton, knowing their final class project was based on an actual unsolved crime “makes it more interesting. It makes you actually want to figure out what happened.”
The team with which Lucas worked found something the original investigators overlooked: a dress with red stains hidden under a dresser in Lizzie Borden's room.
According to accounts of the original case, investigators did not do a thorough search of her room the day of the murder, Aug. 4, 1892, because she was not feeling well.
The next day, Borden was seen attempting to tear up a dress which she mentioned she was planning to burn because it was covered in paint, according to accounts of the case.
Lally's students had something that 19th Century investigators did not have: a chemical called luminol that can be used to detect trace amounts of bloodstains.
As part of the class project, they used the luminol, also known as Blue Star forensic bloodstain reagent, to field test the dress that, after they they took it into a darkened closet, the areas containing blood glowed light blue.
The students also found a letter from a druggist in the drawer of a bedside table, turning down Borden's request to purchase a particular poison. That letter was not allowed at the trial, but Lally thinks it should have been permitted as evidence of prior planning.
The students found an ax with a broken handle, as did the original investigators. The blade had been wiped clean then dust was added, apparently to make it look like it had been in place before the murders. According to Lally, if the original investigators had had luminol available, it could have detected traces of blood even after the blade had been cleaned.
Students followed all the procedures they would at an actual crime scene, which is what the course is training them to do. They took pictures and measurements of the scene while also searching for and collecting evidence, carefully documenting each step. They dusted for fingerprints.
Lally, a former police officer, told his students, “When I was an investigator, I walked through the crime scene pretending I did the crime” to figure out where important evidence might be found.
“You've got to change the way your brain thinks,” he told them. “You're not a civilian now. You've got to see the world in details.”
According to junior Trey Behn of Bartonville, it was stressful to put together everything learned in class and to not miss anything.
“You learn about it in the classroom, but transferring it to the field is different,” he said.
Lynch added creating the scene also was a good experience for his theater students.
“They researched the crime, the house and the specific details,” he said. “They looked at what the rooms were like. … They had to adapt” as they would in theater.
Lally has used crime scene simulations before to give his students hands-on experience. He has worked with high school students, too.
He even had the theater department build a plywood room that was set on fire in a parking lot so students could work first-hand on an arson investigation.
But this was the first time Lally used a real unsolved crime for the final class project. It probably will not be the last.
“There are a lot of unsolved murders,” he said.