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By Gerry Boyle '78
Sonia Cacy could have used Associate Professor of Chemistry Julie Millard and her Jan Plan students in Chemistry for Life, a course for non-science majors.
Cacy was convicted of murder in the arson death of her uncle in Texas in 1991. The elderly man was found dead in the burned ruins of his home and a forensic lab reported detecting gasoline residue on his clothing. Cacy, the only other person in the house when the blaze broke out, maintained her innocence, but the jury went with the expert. Cacy was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
The case was reenacted in Millard's Jan Plan this year. Students, trained in the use of a gas chromatograph and interpretation of its analysis, acted as prosecution and defense - and as jurors. They listened as the "expert," played by Chemistry Professor D. Whitney King, presented his findings.
The verdict on Mayflower Hill? Not guilty.
In Millard's class, students didn't believe that the forensic evidence was enough to prove Cacy's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That's what should have been done in the Texas court, students learned later.
An employee of the forensic laboratory where the analysis was done blew the whistle on the slipshod procedures there, including false results delivered at the request of prosecutors. In the Cacy case, the results were analyzed by forensic experts brought in years after the Texas woman went to prison. The results showed no evidence of gasoline at all, and Cacy was pardoned in 1998.
A clue for future students: trust your own judgment and question the "experts."
Millard says her students have the scientific background to do just that - in real cases where chemistry is a matter of life or death. "I'm not really watering down the chemistry," she said. "I'm just putting it in context."
And the lessons aren't lost on her students.
"It's interesting," said Leigh Cummings '05, a government major who served as jury foreman and said he's considering pursuing a career in criminal law. "It's not just a bunch of random reactions. You can see the relevance to daily life."
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