Tuesday, April 25, 2023

GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER: Guest Post by Stephanie Kane

Stephanie Kane:

Is it harder to get away with murder now than, say, fifty years ago? Put another way, why are so many decades-old cold cases suddenly being solved? The most obvious answer is familial DNA, the gene-tracing tool that seems to have turned anyone with a computer and an ancestry.com subscription into a crime buster. But it’s not just genealogy. In the crime-solving arena, technological advances, from security cameras to surveillance videos to cellphone data, have been gamechangers too.
Forensic science has a long and colorful history. 
In the 700s in China, fingerprints were first used to verify the identity of documents. In 1248, a Chinese text described how to distinguish drowning from strangulation. In 1784, Englishman John Toms was convicted of murder based on physically matching the torn edge of a wad of newsprint in a pistol with a piece of newsprint in his pocket. In the next two centuries the microscope was invented, fingerprints were scanned into computers, and DNA databases were established. Each innovation made it harder to get away with crime.
In 2005, tracing metadata in a floppy disk that was sent to a news station back to a computer at a church was how Dennis Rader, the BTK killer, was caught. In 2020, Joseph DeAngelo, the Golden State Killer, was the first murderer to be nabbed through forensic genealogy. Genetic DNA, security cameras, surveillance videos and cellphone data all played roles in Bryan Kohberger’s arrest for murdering four Idaho college students in 2022. And who could forget the cellphone video Alex Murdaugh’s son Paul took of his dad moments before he killed Paul? Not the jury that convicted Murdaugh of murder in 2023.
Of the who, what, when, where and why required to prove a crime, some of the most dramatic changes have related to time. With implications for alibi and time of death, establishing when a murder occurred is crucial to identifying the killer and securing a conviction. But time is only as reliable as the means by which it is measured. As the case of Betty Frye illustrates, when was significantly harder to prove fifty years ago. Engaged (and later married) to Betty’s son, I had a front row seat to how those challenges played out then and in her cold case thirty years later. 
Betty, a Denver-area housewife, was bludgeoned to death in June 1973. Her body was found in her suburban garage, sprawled facedown near barrels of loot taken from the house. It looked like a burglary gone wrong, but attention soon turned to her husband Duane. The case against Duane turned on proving he was home when Betty was killed. It would pit wristwatches against alarm clocks and radio DJs, and ultimately turn on an unexpectedly unimpeachable source. 
The first challenge was proving Betty’s time of death. When she was attacked, she fell onto her left hand and the crystal face of her watch cracked. The watch stopped at 10:03. In 1973, a jeweler examined the watch and found no internal damage; because it needed to be cleaned, he thought it had been running intermittently, stopping and starting again, before she was killed. Ignoring the watch, and without measuring rigor or livor mortis, or taking Betty’s temperature at the crime scene or the morgue, in 1973 the coroner inexplicably concluded she died around noon. Luckily, there was other evidence. 
Betty had eaten breakfast around 8:30 a.m. She was last seen alive by Randy Peterson, a carpenter on a roof with a bird’s-eye view of the Frye backyard, who saw her shake out her mop. Randy thought it was 10:00 a.m. because, shortly after, he lost a contact lens. After scrambling around on the ground looking for it, he got his glasses from his car. The dashboard clock said 10:10 or 10:12 a.m.
Based on Randy’s sighting, and remnants of meat found in her stomach, in 2006 the cold case coroner concluded Betty died at 10:30 a.m. at latest. Digestion stops at death, and Betty died within minutes of being attacked. The meat in her stomach established she died an hour or two after breakfast.
Randy also saw a man who looked like Duane come out the back of the Frye garage, ten or twenty minutes before the DJ on Randy’s radio announced it was 11:30 a.m. This tallied with the most graphic and chilling evidence in the case: a clock-radio, an alarm clock and a kitchen clock found with the loot in the garage. Frozen at 11:22, 11:23 and 11:27 a.m. when the killer unplugged them to stash them in the barrels by Betty’s body, their GoPro-like documentary of the killer’s minute-by-minute trek through the house became a linchpin of the case. But the cops still needed to place Duane at the scene. 
Enter a thirteen-year-old kid. 
Bret Wacker was best friends with Duane’s youngest son, Greg. Bret lived on the next block, a three-minute walk. The morning Betty was killed, he wanted Greg to go with him to the 7-Eleven. He rang the Frye doorbell twice before Duane answered. Bret insisted this happened shortly after 11:30 a.m. If Bret was right, according to the clocks in the garage, Duane’s house was being burglarized while Duane was answering his own front door.
Bret was certain of the time because he’d been watching The Monkees on TV and switched the channel to Sherlock Holmes for his brother right before he left. Bret told his mother he’d be home in an hour, and she looked at the clock and thought, he better be back by 12:30. But to corroborate Bret’s testimony, the cops needed an unimpeachable source. They found one close at hand: that week’s T.V. GuideThe Monkees ran from 11:00 a.m. to 11:30 on local Channel 9, and Sherlock Holmes began at 11:30 on Channel 2.
Is it harder to get away with murder now? Technology has changed the landscape, but some things never change: Killers make mistakes, and dedicated cops work with whatever they have. Who needs a time-stamped cellphone video if you’ve got TV Guide?


Stephanie Kane
 is a lawyer and award-winning author of seven crime novels and one true crime memoir. After graduating from law school, she was a corporate partner at a top Denver law firm before becoming a criminal defense attorney. She has lectured on money laundering and white-collar crime in Eastern Europe and given workshops throughout the country on writing technique.

Her crime novels have won a Colorado Book Award for Mystery and two Colorado Authors League Awards for Genre Fiction. She belongs to the Mystery Writers of America, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, and the Colorado Authors League.

In True Crime Redux (May 2, 2023) Kane revists the murder of her then mother-in-law-to-be Betty Frye shortly before Kane and her fiancé’s wedding and how the dramatic events forever fractured the lives of the Frye family — and her own. 

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