EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Cream City Chronicles: Episodes 3-4 of Unsolved & the Aphorism That a Criminal Always Returns to the Scene of the Crime

I've written two posts (here and here) about the Unsolved Podcast, a deep dive into the unsolved 1976 disappearance and death of fourteen year-old John Zera in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This post is about episodes 3-4, which deal with Daniel Acker, a swim coach who was viewed as a possible suspect in the case based in part upon a chilling tableau found in his basement which reminded me of a similar scene from the excellent/disturbing movie, "Prisoners."


Acker was also considered a suspect based upon the following facts:

The day after 14-year-old John Zera's body was found in Whitnall Park in February 1976, a police officer patrolling near the crime scene spotted a suspicious man and followed him. Leaving a yellow Schwinn outside the thicket, the man made his way through the trees and brush, not stopping until he reached the small clearing.

"What are you doing here?" the cop asked.

The man replied that he was looking for the place where Johnny Zera's body was found. Then he looked down at the spots of blood staining the ground.

"Apparently this is it."

The man's name was Daniel Acker.

This, of course, leads to some variation on a classic aphorism: A criminal always returns to the scene of his crime/a murderer always returns to the scene of his murder/a serial killer always returns to the scenes of his killings. To give you some sense of the antiquity of this saying, consider this language from the 1915 opinion of the Supreme Court of Tennessee in Dietzel v. State, 177 S.W. 47 (Tenn. 1915):

Why should he have visited this remote locality on the day after George Wehman's disappearance? Why should he have been there on Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday, and on other days thereafter? What could have drawn the plaintiff in error to this lonesome lane on the days following the crime, except that mysterious and proverbial force that impels a murderer to return to the scene of his iniquity, or to the place where he has hidden his victim? Why should the prisoner  have haunted this vicinity, as long as he was free, unless like that other murderer:

“All night he lay in agony,
From weary chime to chime,
With one besetting horrid hint,
That racked him all the time;
A mighty yearning like the first
Fierce impulse unto crime.
One stern, tyrranic thought, that made
All other thoughts its slave;
Stronger and stronger every pulse
Did that temptation crave,
Still urging him to go and see
The Dead Man in his grave.”

So, that's a 1915 opinion mentioning the aphorism, with the court citing verse from an 1837 edition of Knickerbacker Magazine, with the aphorism quite likely being around long before even that.

Interestingly enough, the Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee later revisited this language in its 1974 opinion(s) in Robinson v. State, 521 S.W.2d 236 (Ct.Crim.App. 1974). In that case, "[t]he defendant was seen in the vicinity of where the remains were found after the disappearance of the victim and admits to being there with his wife and having entered the woods to use the bathroom."* In arguing against the defendant's appeal on the ground that the evidence against him was insufficient, the State cited to the above language from Dietzel, prompting the court to respond,

This circumstance [of visiting the murder scene] by itself is that and that alone and conclusive of nothing but that fact. When, however, all the circumstances as narrated and a circumstance of this kind are gathered and considered together, we are satisfied the defendant has not shown here that the evidence is insufficient.

Justice Galbreath, however, filed a dissenting opinion, concluding that

The only proof connecting the defendant with the murder of the victim, Glen Buckner, is that a shell casing alleged to have been fired from a pistol said to have been loaned to the defendant by an informant and later found by a sheriff who, the record strongly suggests, was involved in illegal activities involving rival bootlegging factions, in Claiborne County balistically matched those found at the murder scene. It would be so simple for this type of evidence to be planted that a more than reasonably hypothesis other than guilt is suggested.

Justice Galbreath then dispensed with the aphorism, writing it off as a canard:

While appreciative of the majority's poetic reminder that some murderers do perhaps return to the scene of their crime, I would submit that in the experiences of this Court it is to be observed that far more often the modern-day killer voids the locale of his misdeed. Far from being a circumstance suggesting guilt, to me the fact that the defendant had no reluctance to be seen near the place where the body was concealed, is suggestive more of innocence.

So, what do readers think? I've searched in vain for any type of empirical basis for the claim that a murderer always or typically returns to the scene of his murder, and yet this aphorism seems to inform the way that the public and the police think. Is this another case where we should unwind homespun wisdom, or is there something objectively true about the aphorism?**


*Sounds like Mr. S.

**Something similar might be said for polygraph testing. Like Mr. S, Acker took two polygraph tests. "The report listed the results of the initial test as inconclusive due to breathing problems, as well as 'erratic and inconsistent emotional responses.' After a second test, the polygraph expert who interpreted the results determined Acker was telling the truth when he denied killing John." As a result, "[p]olice eliminated Acker as a likely suspect."



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It looks like returning to the scene of the crime happens often enough to make a 'questionable observer detector' worthwhile to design! But more for other crimes... http://news.nd.edu/news/26833-notre-dame-computer-vision-experts-develop-questionable-observer-detector/

Posted by: Cupcake | Dec 30, 2015 7:24:25 AM

Interesting. But it seems as if the technology is based on the assumption, right? It starts from the assumption that criminals return to the scene of the crime rather than proving it.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Dec 30, 2015 9:08:03 AM

It mentioned arson in the intro, and a quick google finds there's evidence for returning to the scene of the crime in just under 10% of cases, plus 7% involve returning to set a second fire https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Katarina_Fritzon/publication/39730315_Linking_arson_incidents_on_the_basis_of_crime_scene_behavior/links/0046352cce0e0c3695000000.pdf

Posted by: Cupcake | Dec 30, 2015 10:34:19 AM

Cupcake: Interesting. Those numbers are even lower than I would have expected.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Dec 30, 2015 10:37:08 AM

It would seem to depend on the motivation for a crime. Those who commit a crime to achieve a thrill, as with some arson and sex crimes, would seem to be more likely to revisit the scene to relive the crime (the same reason some offenders take souvenirs). If the motivation isn't a thrill (e.g., economic or heat of the moment passion) it wouldn't seem like they would want to revisit the scene (indeed, may want to avoid it entirely).

Posted by: FormerAgent | Dec 30, 2015 3:52:06 PM

If there is a link between returning to the scene and a small group of specific motives, I think it tends to pile on top of the type of gut feeling leads

there is too much of in these tricky cases already. In Adnans case you would say that him organizing the memorial makes a suspect, but only if he is a cold serial killer.

Posted by: Lars in Sweden | Dec 31, 2015 8:31:02 AM

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