Accident or Murder: Can an Engineering Evaluation Help?

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Steven M. Schorr, PE ::::

Case Synopsis: A husband and wife were having a reportedly amorous “date” at the top of a Scenic Lookout location overlooking a wooded area and river.  The Scenic Lookout was roped off, but easily overcome for those intent on sitting by the edge of the cliff.  The 130 foot drop was nearly straight down, with the exception of a secondary ledge that projected out approximately 3 feet from the shear, rock face and approximately 10 feet below the top of the cliff.  After a few drinks, the husband allegedly went back to the car to get a blanket.  When he returned, the wife was no longer on the top of the cliff.  She had fallen approximately120 feet, and struck a tree approximately 10 feet above the base.  The tree was located approximately 50 feet away from the rock face. 

Analysis: The police investigation found no physical evidence on the top of the cliff, on the secondary face of the cliff, or on any other area except for the location where the body struck the tree and where the body ultimately came to rest at the base of the tree.  The police concluded that the body was “projected” off the cliff such that it did not strike any rocks or cliff faces prior to striking the tree.  The police charged the husband with murder, indicating that in order for the body to have reached the tree unimpeded, he had to push his wife off the cliff.  The defense requested that the police theory be evaluated by an engineer.  Basic physics calculations showed that in order for the wife to have left the cliff unimpeded, and reach the tree 50 feet out and 120 feet down, she needed to be traveling over 13 miles per hour when she left the cliff.  It was unreasonable that a 168-pound, 5’6” woman could attain such speed as a result of a push.  In fact, even sprinting off the cliff, the speed to reach the tree unimpeded was not attainable.  As such, the laws of physics ruled out the police theory that she was pushed.

Epilogue:  After receiving the engineering report, the prosecution abandoned their original theory that the body left the cliff and traveled “unimpeded” before impacting the tree.  The prosecution’s new theory was that despite the lack of physical evidence on the secondary cliff, the body left the cliff, struck the secondary cliff, then projected away from the rock face towards, and into the tree.  The prosecution explained the lack of physical evidence as being a result of the difficulty in the police accessing the secondary cliff to collect data.  This new theory was consistent with the applicable laws of physics, but did not allow the prosecution to scientifically argue that she had to have been pushed.  The same body dynamics could have occurred if she intentionally left the cliff, accidentally fell from the cliff, or was pushed.  The jury, despite not having physical evidence nor initial scientifically sound theory, and unlike the recently Orlando-based Caylee Anthony case, found the husband guilty based on circumstantial evidence not related to the specifics of the fall.  

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