Review 2 of Under the Trestle
by Eric S. Snow, Instructor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The murder trial of Stephen Epperly is a significant event in the history of Virginia’s court system. Prosecuting a defendant of murder without locating the victim’s body would seem to put the level of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” beyond the reach of the prosecutor, but that certainly was not the case in Commonwealth v. Epperly. The significant impact to the victim’s family of the body never being discovered should not be overshadowed by the legal significance of the case. Ron Peterson’s Under the Trestle brings the story of Gina Renee Hall’s death back to light after nearly forty years and attempts to answer some of the questions raised in the case. This article will evaluate the case from a forensic standpoint and highlight a few pieces of technology that would assist the investigators if the case were to have happened today.
Some of the most significant evidence in the case was the blood evidence recovered from the lake house, towel, and victim’s clothing. As noted by Peterson, the process for testing deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) was not used in the state lab or Virginia courts during the time of the trial. Blood testing was limited to blood type and the blood discovered in the lake house was determined to be type O, which is shared by nearly half of the population. Use of DNA testing would allow the contributor of the blood to be narrowed to a single individual rather than such a large sample of the population. Additionally, advances in technology for DNA analysis allow for a very small sample, or partial sample, to produce results. Testing of the stained carpet, towel, and clothing using 2019 DNA technology would very likely produce positive results. Even without DNA testing, the blood evidence collected, and the shared blood type with the victim, was sufficient to paint a story for the jury and lead to a conviction.
In addition to providing information about a victim, DNA analysis can provide information about a suspect. Trace DNA evidence, or touch DNA evidence, can be recovered when DNA is deposited after an individual comes in contact with an object, such as a towel or steering wheel. Trace DNA evidence could have been used to determine which objects in Gina Hall’s vehicle or items of clothing were touched by Epperly. This would have provided an additional link between Epperly and Hall, especially if his DNA was found on her bloody clothing or the bloody towel.
It is estimated that over 5 billion people in the world have a cellular phone and over half of them are smartphones. In the United States, 94% of the population has a cellular phone. In addition to being useful for communicating and using the internet, cellular phones are an excellent source of evidence for investigators. Even without having the suspect’s phone, a suspect’s location history can be documented using cell tower locations accessed by the device. Additionally, call, text, and email logs inform investigators with whom the suspect was communicating at any given time. The information available is compounded immensely when investigators have the suspect’s phone in hand and are able to download the data. Contents of text messages and emails, as well as pictures, video, and internet search histories, among many other items, become available and searchable with a download of the phone. During the investigation of the disappearance and murder of Nicole Lovell, a 13 year old middle school student, law enforcement officers in Blacksburg, Virginia used the internet search history and history on a GPS device of defendants on trial for murder. The internet search history showed the following searches: “Knock out drugs”; “How long does it take to burn a body”; and “How does the TV serial killer Dexter get rid of bodies”. David Eisenhauer and Natalie Keepers pled guilty to charges related to the abduction, murder, and body disposal of Lovell after Eisenhauer began a relationship with the child.
In addition to providing information about a suspect, cellular devices can also provide information about a victim. Had the technology existed and had Gina Hall been carrying a cell phone on June 28, 1980, the location of that cellphone, and presumably her location, would have been tracked and documented by the cellular provider. Information would show where the phone traveled after leaving the bar and after leaving the lake house.
Another significant technological difference between 1980 and today is the use of surveillance video. Many bars, banks, gas stations, ATMs, and other businesses utilize video cameras to document activities occurring at their locations. While the intent of these cameras may be to deter crime at that location or provide a record of those committing a crime against the business, they often capture evidence of crimes completely unrelated to the business. For example, Jesse Matthew was convicted in Charlottesville of murdering Hannah Graham. At trial, prosecutors offered surveillance video from nearby businesses that recorded Graham leaving a bar and being followed by Matthew. While today’s citizen might not give a second thought to surveillance cameras in public locations, it was not nearly as common in 1980. Furthermore, the video quality and preservation capabilities have vastly improved over the last 40 years.
While the technology available to investigators has improved since 1980, jurors have likely evolved as well. Primetime crime dramas and crime scene investigation television shows make terms like DNA, blood splatter, and alternate light source common terms among viewers. The “CSI Effect”, where jurors expect the prosecution to produce vast forensic evidence for every case, was not a concept familiar to prosecutors in 1980. Investigators and prosecutors have more technology at their disposal, but also have a higher expectation from jurors to produce that technology.
Comments on Under the Trestle
Overall, Under the Trestle is an interesting and well-written book. It seems to have been well received by the public and very popular based on the number of crowded public appearances that the author and those involved in the case have made. However, I concur with Dr. Call’s notations of the short comings of the book. I find the information in the book attributed to sources such as “a former Radford police officer” or “an acquaintance” to have questionable reliability. If the author has reason to not name the source that should be noted, otherwise it comes across as un-confirmable, questionable information. Additionally, the footnotes in the text get out of order from the source list at the rear of the book. As someone who frequently takes note of the information contained in footnotes and is curious about the sources, I found it frustrating that they did not align. Endnote 4 is listed in the reference list, but does not have a corresponding reference in the text. This omission throws the list off by one and makes it difficult to follow. Finally, the book would be greatly enhanced by maps of the area and documents from the case file. While many people reading the book are likely familiar with the areas mentioned, the author cannot be sure of that and could help the reader understand the geographic locations with maps. Including documents from the case file, assuming they are available, such as certificates of analysis from laboratory testing would also help illustrate points made by the author.