FORENSICS 138: FORENSIC ASTRONOMY

This essay could be of special interest to writers of stories that involve crimes where specific times and places are important factors. It could also be of general and historic interest to many other readers, even those who are not particularly interested in forensics..

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As many young men did and do, William Armstrong attended a camp meeting apparently attended by some to drink and have a good time. Late one night, he got involved in a fight with a man named James Metzger. Reports vary considerably about who did what and when, but Metzger died two days later. Armstrong was subsequently charged with murder, for which he was tried. A lawyer friend of his father and family volunteered to defend him. Years before, when the lawyer had been down on his luck, the Armstrong family had treated him like a member. He would often spend time with them and reportedly even rocked William Armstrong in his cradle. In return for such kindness, he refused to charge for his legal services.

During the trial, a particularly tough obstacle for the lawyer to overcome was the testimony of a person named Charles Allen, who said that he had witnessed the fight and had seen Armstrong strike Metzger with an object. It was late and dark, but the witness said that, although he was some 150 feet from the fight, he could see clearly what had happened by the light of the Moon overhead. In what must have been an early application of what more recently came to be known as forensic astronomy, the lawyer employed a rarely used tactic known as “judicial notice” to prove that Allen could not have seen what he claimed to have seen from a distance of 150 feet.

Judicial notice is a rule in the law of evidence permitting a fact to be introduced as evidence if that fact is so well known that it cannot be refuted. What was introduced was an almanac that showed that, on the night of the fight, the Moon could not have provided sufficient light for anyone to see clearly what happened from 150 feet away. The lawyer concluded with an impassioned speech that included a heart-rending description of how the defendant’s family had always been so kind to him. The jury promptly returned a verdict of not guilty after but one ballot.

The foregoing narrative is only one example of how astronomy can be helpful in legal situations. Another example involved a location that had been determined from two pictures taken of it at different but known times. This was accomplished using spherical astronomy by comparing the changed positions of shadows during the time lapsed between the pictures and considering the height of the object casting the shadows and the length of the shadows. The location of a picture that included the Moon was also determined from the position of the Moon and the time the picture had been taken.

The owner of a solar house in Iowa sought legal action to prevent a potential neighbor from building a house next door because it would cast a shadow on his house. Upon a request by the defendant, the director of a planetarium set its “sun” in the location at which the real Sun would cast the longest shadow of the year (on December 21) and proved, by reference to maps and architectural drawings of the proposed house, that it would not cast a shadow upon the solar house at any time.

By the way, William Armstrong subsequently joined the armed forces. Before the end of his enlistment, William’s widowed mother requested the lawyer to try to get him back home. Once again, the lawyer came to William’s aid and arranged for his discharge from the army. It wasn’t as difficult as defending him in court had been years before. By this time, the lawyer had risen to a somewhat higher position of influence. The position gave him considerable say in army affairs. The date was 1863. His office was now in Washington D.C. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

ADDITIONAL FACTS:

The meaning of the word “forensic” has been broadened by common use to generally include any detailed analysis of past events.

Camera location techniques have also been applied to find the locations from which a number of masterpieces were painted.

Ansel Adams sometimes could not recall just when he took some of his beautiful pictures. With the aid of forensic astronomy, it was determined when he took his famous picture of the Moon as it rose above Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome. It was taken on December 28, 1960 at 4:14 p.m.

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