Forensic Evidence in Gun-related Homicide: A Case Study of Craigslist Murders
When Julissa Brisman advertised her services on Craigslist as a masseuse, no one would have predicted that it would lead to her murder. Instead of attracting customers, she became a victim of a serial killer and kidnapper, Philip Haynes Markoff who left her bleeding to death in her hotel room with three fatal gunshot wounds. Her body was found on April 14, 2009 lying limp in a pool of blood at Copley Marriott. From the email exchanges with her eventual killer, investigators who pieced together the computer forensic evidence gathered revealed that the two had arranged so that the second year medical student could receive the massage services Ms. Brisman had advertised on the popular website for online advertisements (Kaye, 2009).
To zero in on their prime suspect, the authorities tracked Markoff’s cyber footprint he was leaving while chatting with his victim. They also worked with the internet service provider that provided the internet services he was using. The hotel surveillance cameras that captured Markoff within the hotel further confirmed as their prime suspect. Despite these exhibits, the investigators could not trace the murder weapon; the gun which was used to shoot Julissa Brisman at close range (Kaye, 2009).
Six days after Brisman’s gruesome murder, Markoff was arrested while driving together with her fiancée Megan McAllister. Police later raided their home and recovered a 9mm semi-automatic handgun. Through forensic and ballistic analyses, the bullets and spent cartridges at the crime scene with those found hidden and Markoff’s apartment. They also matched his fingerprints to those found at the crime scene and the victim’s blood found on his shoes (Kaye, 2009). The evidence collected during the investigations provided the authorities with clues that also saw him charged and convicted of one count first degree murder. He was also convicted of robbery with violence, attempted murder and kidnapping in two other cases. He later committed suicide after several failed attempts while at Nashua Street Jail on 15 August 2010 by slitting major blood arteries on his body (LaRosa, 2010).
Forensic Firearms Investigations in the Case
Forensics is a critical part of investigations that has been used to convict murders decades after the crime took place. Without forensic evidence, a murderer could easily escape justice. It is based on scientific evidence arrived through critical analysis of unique characteristics and signatures of not only individuals but also weapons such as guns. The basis of forensic investigations is to use their unique identifiers left behind at the scene of the crime including ballistic evidences, DNA materials or fingerprints to compare with the existing database or those gathered from suspects already in custody. For the innocent, sometimes suspected based on circumstantial evidence, forensic evidence can be used to exonerate them.
Philip Haynes Markoff’s culpability in the murder of Julissa Brisman was the culmination of forensic investigations on three different yet interlinked fronts. The investigators used cyber forensics to trace him and zero in on him as a possible suspect. They tracked the source of the emails he exchanged with his would-be victim and managed to identify him as a possible suspect. The video surveillance placed him at the hotel but not exactly in Copley Marriott room where Brisman was murdered. This was confirmed by DNA fingerprint forensic analysis. His fingerprints, which are unique to every individual, were found in the room where Ms. Brisman was murdered. This was furthered corroborated by Brisman’s blood which was found on his leather shoes found in the apartment he shared with his fiancé. Forensic analysis of the two samples of blood showed a perfect match and further implicated 23-year old Boston University School of Medicine student at the scene of murder and made him a prime suspect in the ongoing murder investigations (Kaye, 2009).
Forensic firearms investigations played a key role in putting the murder weapon found hidden in his apartment in his hands. When fired, each gun leaves a unique signature that can be equated to the uniqueness of human fingerprints. These unique markings that forensic investigators use during their ballistic analysis are normally left on the bullets. They are also found on the cartage casings of the bullets. Like all firearms, Markoff’s 9mm semi-automatic pistol, found hidden in his apartment, left unique markings on the bullets extracted from the victim’s bottom during autopsy and the cartridge casings collected at the crime scene (Kaye, 2009).
The ballistics evidence collected through forensic investigation played a critical role in helping the investigators reconstruct the crime scene. Crime scene reconstruction using such evidence is critical in helping the investigators and prosecutors understand the sequence of events that led to the fatal shooting of Julissa Brisman three times and left to bleed to death. Such reconstruction would important aspects of the investigations including the distance between Markoff and his victim as he pulled trigger. Brisman was shot at close range in her hotel room where she was give massage services she had advertised. This was confirmed through forensic analyses of the wounds on her body including their shape, edge and depth. Other aspects of the wounds including their width were also analyzed in relation to the bullets collected from Markoff’s apartment which matched those found in her body (DiMaio, 2015). The striations on the bullets and cartridge casings, all which were forensically analyzed, were used to convicting Markoff of Ms. Brisman’s murder. The evidence revealed that the bullets that fired from the gun found hidden in Markoff’s apartment. The forensic investigators analyzing the fingerprints lifted from the crime scene also found his fingerprints on the murder weapon. Additionally, it was revealed that the victim died because of the gun wounds (Kaye, 2009).
Use of Scientific Method: The Need for Remaining Objective
Scientific methods are increasingly becoming integral part of any investigation. They offer evidenced-based methods to deduce various exhibits found at a crime scene or elsewhere and help in recreating the events that took place. Since scientific methods such as forensic firearm investigation use unique markers associated with forearms, they significantly reduce chances of errors while offering investigators a deep insight into the case. In the case of Craigslist murder, it provided evidence that were used to solve cases that were not subject of the current investigation. It provided important clues that were used to charge Markoff in other violent robbery, kidnappings and attempted murder cases that had occurred in other locations. Scientific method helped investigators and prosecutors build a strong case against Markoff and ensured that he was rightly charged and convicted.
However, despite the seemingly foolproof evidence provided by scientific methods, it is imperative that investigators remain objective in their quest to unravel the various aspects of the case. Scientific methods are not substitutes for old-fashioned detective investigations. They only offer clues that can enable the investigators tie loose ends of their investigations. Successful crime reconstruction is dependent on the intuitive skills of the investigator. The ability to understand a crime scene even without reconstruction is dependent on the ability of the investigators to use their experience and skills. Additionally, the unique nature of the markings and signatures that are used during forensic investigations can blur the judgment of investigators in case the evidences are expertly planted.
In conclusion, technological advancements have significantly revolutionized crime investigation. Evidenced-based investigative tools and approaches developed through scientific methods are increasingly being used to catch criminals who would have otherwise gone scot free while exonerating the innocent. One such scientific method that has continued to revolutionize crime investigation involving firearms is forensic ballistic investigation. Primarily targeting the unique signatures or striations left by firearms on cartridge casings and bullets, this scientific method has played a key role in solving many homicides involving firearms.
One such homicide case where it was successfully used in identifying and convicting a suspect was in the gruesome murder of Julissa Brisman in her Copley Marriott hotel room on April 14, 2009. She was shot three times at close range by Philip Haynes Markoff, a 23-year old second year student medical student. As she bled to death after being lured by a would-be customer for her massage services she had advertised on Craigslist, Markoff was at work trying to cover his track from the authorities. However, through forensic investigations involving forensically tracking his internet footprint, fingerprints at the crime scene, surveillance video from hotel’s camera’s, blood analysis and ballistics analysis of the casings and bullets, he was convicted of the murders and other violent robberies, attempted murder and kidnappings.
DiMaio, V. J. (2015). Gunshot wounds: practical aspects of firearms, ballistics, and forensic techniques (Vol. 62). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Houck, M. M. (2003). Trace Evidence Analysis: More Cases in Forensic Microscopy and Mute Witnesses. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press.
Kaye, R. (2009 Sept. 24). How they caught the alleged Craigslist killer. CNN. Retrieved from: http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2009/09/24/how-they-caught-the-alleged-craigslist-killer/
LaRosa, P. (2010 August 20). “”Craigslist Killer” Philip Markoff: Written in Blood”. CBS News. Retrieved from: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-20014310-504083.html