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Jewish World Review Dec. 3, 2002 / 28 Kislev, 5763

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Patricia Cornwell spent $6 Mil on 'Ripper' case and proved nothing


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- Best-selling novelist Patricia Cornwell has received much attention for her book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed. She says she has solved the 114-year-old mystery that has kept other experts guessing and has identified the man who committed the Whitechapel murders: British artist Walter Richard Sickert.

Would her evidence hold up in a court? Not by a long shot. While Sickert may be a viable candidate, Cornwell's "definitive" interpretation has many holes.

Jack the Ripper's true identity has been for crime enthusiasts what the authorship of Shakespeare's plays is for literary buffs. "The truth about Red Jack" comes out nearly every decade, and then slips away. The killer, never caught, left tantalizing clues, and his way of eluding apprehension gave him the aura of a cunning criminal who could best even the brightest cop.

Ripperologists have offered numerous candidates, including Sickert (some say yes, some say no), but none has been tied conclusively to the crimes... until now. Or so Cornwell claims. She spent $6 million on evidence analysis, using a team of experts to interpret the findings. She bought Sickert's desk and 45 of his paintings to examine for clues.

She had an expert compare writing on the numerous "Ripper" letters sent to Scotland Yard during the murder spree. Cornwell believes that a watermark on two Ripper letters matches a watermark on two of Sickert's letters. Three problems: (1) We don't even know if any of the "Ripper" letters were sent by the murderer. (2) That stationery was in wide use in London; and (3) It's also possible that Sickert hoaxed some Ripper letters (a sort of fad in those days).

Cornwell had a specialist compare DNA from saliva on stamps and envelopes from Ripper letters to DNA from items that Sickert owned. She claims to have a near-match between the two that rules out all but one percent of London's population at that time. She used mitochondrial DNA, however, which is less precise than nuclear DNA, and some experts say that this one percent estimate may be as inclusive as 10 percent - that is, the matching DNA sequences could be found in from 400,000 to four million people. In addition, Sickert's letter bore DNA from several people, and since he was cremated, his cannot be clearly distinguished. Cornwell's own expert doubts that the "match" amounts to much.

So the new "evidence" is less than impressive. Marilyn Bardsley, executive editor at CourtTV's Crime Library, has concluded that "while Ms. Cornwell distinguishes herself from the myriad of other Ripper finders in the scope of her expenditures, the result of all this effort is little better than the more modest budgets of the average Ripper finder."

What would close the case? The very kinds of evidence we, 114 years later, are unlikely ever to discover: DNA, reliable eyewitness, fingerprints, and an unforced confession that offers details about the crimes that only the investigators know. To make a DNA case, we need a sample for comparison, which means we need to have a letter that contains DNA of some kind that is genuinely Jack's. In fact, we don't know that we have a single thing linked to Jack. The records are incomplete, the remains are all gone, the crime scenes have long since been contaminated, and evidence is missing or wiped away. I don't see how forensics alone can solve this case convincingly. If it could, I think Cornwell's team would have done it.

Whenever the facts are so equivocal, and where physical evidence is lacking, a definitive answer in a case this old is highly unlikely. Thanks to Cornwell, Sickert can be restored among the usual suspects, but she offers no scientific basis for tapping him as the infamous Red Jack.



Katherine Ramsland teaches a course on serial killers at DeSales University and has published 20 books, including "The Forensic Science of CSI" and "The Criminal Mind." Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Katherine Ramsland. This column originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer