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Archive for Wednesday, October 25, 2006

In the end, no grave certainty

Colorado professors say ID stands at Lawrence cemetery

October 25, 2006

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DNA analysis may have failed, but University of Colorado researchers believe they've solved a century-old murder mystery simply by examining old photographs.

"This evidence can never be as strong as DNA," CU anthropology professor Dennis Van Gerven said. "It can never be as strong as the evidence would be if we had a preserved skull to compare to the photos."

But Van Gerven said in-depth study of old photographs is leading him to conclude that the man buried in Lawrence is exactly who it was supposed to be: John Hillmon.

"I'm saying we're 80 percent there," Van Gerven said. "What we're doing now is we're being our own worst skeptics."

Van Gerven and CU law professor Mimi Wesson led an expedition to Lawrence in May to unearth the remains of an unmarked grave in Oak Hill Cemetery.

Their aim was to conduct DNA analysis on the bones to determine whether the grave held John Hillmon or Frederick A. Walters.

Scam or truth?

A long dispute about the identity of the dead man led to a lengthy court battle that was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court two times and led to the creation of an important piece of federal evidence law.

In 1879, Hillmon bought a $25,000 life insurance policy and headed west from Lawrence to find ranch land. He met companion John Brown in Wichita. But something happened on the journey.

Not long later, Brown showed up at a house near Medicine Lodge and reported he'd accidentally shot Hillmon.

A crew from the University of Colorado exhumed remains this summer from a grave at Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence in hopes of solving a century-old mystery. The researchers now think that the body buried there was indeed that of John Hillmon.

A crew from the University of Colorado exhumed remains this summer from a grave at Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence in hopes of solving a century-old mystery. The researchers now think that the body buried there was indeed that of John Hillmon.

Suspecting insurance fraud, insurance companies pointed to Walters and said they believed the men had killed Walters and passed him for Hillmon to collect on the $25,000.

A court battle ensued. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court created an exception to the hearsay rule, permitting as evidence a letter from Walters' fiancee stating his intentions to travel with Hillmon.

Solving the mystery

After years of teaching students about the case, Wesson decided the mystery was too interesting to ignore. So she set out to solve it.

The researchers had hoped to find an intact skull - a plus when attempting to accurately identify the corpse.

But when crews dug into the grave, they uncovered only tiny bits of bone and teeth. With the aid of other CU faculty, the researchers attempted to extract human DNA from the bones, to no avail.

Comparing photographs of the corpse and the two men - items the researchers had all along - was a final effort to use when DNA analysis failed.

"These photographs are old," Van Gerven said. "They were not taken for scientific purposes."

Still, Van Gerven and others have attempted to scale and rotate the images and conduct point-by-point comparisons of standard anatomical features.

They measure the distance between the base of the nose and the upper lip, for example, and study the bridge of the nose.

"We're getting an appreciatively stronger match with Hillmon than with Walters," Van Gerven said.

Legal ramifications

Wesson, who has researched the cases for a book she is writing on the topic, said her research has led her to believe that the corpse was indeed Hillmon.

One of the more convincing elements, she said, was testimony from a man who owned a cigar factory in Leavenworth. He testified in the last trial that he had employed Walters in his factory two months after the body was found.

"If this man's testimony was true, the corpse could not have been Frederick Adolph Walters," Wesson said. "And there was no reason that I could discern why this man who had no apparent relation to Sallie Hillmon (Hillmon's wife) or anyone else in the case should have lied for her. He also had documentary evidence."

Wesson said the most convincing evidence to the contrary was the letter to Walters' fiancee. Up to the time of the case, such letters would not be admissible in court. But the Supreme Court made an exception to the hearsay rule to permit the letter as evidence.

Wesson said she believes the court invented the exception to the rule to make the case come out right as the court saw it - for the jury to determine that Hillmon had killed Walters to collect on insurance money.

"I now have come to believe that court got the story wrong - that the dead guy was Hillmon, which leads me to wonder whether this rule ought to be re-examined," Wesson said.

But as Van Gerven continues work on analyzing the photographs, he said he understands that the conclusions will not be as durable as those arrived at by DNA analysis.

"There's always going to be room for doubt, but I'm trying to reach reasonable professional certainty," he said. "I think we're going to be able to reach some degree of closure."

Comments

Angela Heili 8 years, 2 months ago

How do you identify "only tiny bits of bone and teeth" with an 1800's photograph. I could understand it if they had a skull, to be able to compare cheek bone placement, etc. But only bits of bone and teeth. That seems a little far fetched to me. IMHO

Shardwurm 8 years, 2 months ago

"How do you identify "only tiny bits of bone and teeth" with an 1800's photograph. I could understand it if they had a skull, to be able to compare cheek bone placement, etc. But only bits of bone and teeth. That seems a little far fetched to me. IMHO"

I think you misunderstood what they did.

They took photographs of the guy while he was alive and compared them to the picture of the guy lying in a casket. That's right - they had this capability all the time, but they still chose to dig him up anyway.

So the big announcement was:

"Hey! We looked at a picture of this guy while he was alive and one of him in the casket...and after seconds of analysis we decided THEY WERE THE SAME GUY!!!"

Shardwurm 8 years, 2 months ago

Well, perhaps we can all look forward to the fact that one day our graves may be desecrated and our remains exhumed for no real good reason.

After all of this it came down to comparing photographs. Modern technology vs. mid-19th Century pictures.

One wonders why they just didn't do this back when the controversy was raging. I guess it was out of respect for the dead...

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