Microbiologist Arraigned on Murder Charges

At a California hearing, former Northwestern University Professor Wyndam Lathem stood formally accused of the murder of Trenton Cornell-Duranleau. The 26-year-old man was found stabbed to death in the 42-year-old professor’s Chicago apartment. Prof. Lathem’s counsel suggested that he will waive extradition back to Illinois, setting up a possible Chicago jury trial.

Shortly after they found the body, authorities issued arrest warrants for Prof. Lathem and 56-year-old Andrew Warren, who works in the accounting department at Oxford University. The two hastily travelled to California, where Prof. Lathem apparently has personal connections. During their flight, Prof. Lathem released a video in which, according to police, he admitted to making “the biggest mistake of his life.” In a possible preview of the defense strategy, Prof. Lathem’s counsel said the accusation against his client “is totally contrary to the way he has lived his entire life.”

Police theorize that Mr. Cornell-Duranleau and Prof. Lathem, who lived together, had a violent lover’s quarrel.

Physical Evidence in Criminal Cases

At first blush, the evidence against Prof. Lathem seems almost overwhelming, which probably explains why he fled the jurisdiction. However, with the glaring exception of the video, nearly all the evidence is circumstantial. In murder or any other criminal cases, circumstantial evidence is subject to interpretation.

The burden of proof is so high in criminal cases that the state’s attorney must essentially prove that the state’s theory of the case is the only possible interpretation that a rational person could have, and in many cases, that degree of evidence is simply not available.

Almost anyone who has ever seen a Columbo rerun goes by the following outline when examining circumstantial evidence, so this is the outline that prosecutors often use, even though it has little or nothing to do with the legal elements of a murder case.

  • Motive: At this point, there is no evidence of motive, as the law enforcement “lover’s quarrel” idea is only a police theory. Even if the two did have such a dispute, which would probably need verification from a third-party witness or at least several text messages, the O.J. Simpson murder trial reminded us that juries understand the difference between a domestic batterer and a murderer, even though both are utterly deplorable.
  • Means: Once again, unless the police can link Prof. Lathem to a knife, the stabbing idea is only a theory that will not hold up in court.
  • Opportunity: Although the incident took place in Prof. Lathem’s residence, prosecutors probably need more evidence, such as surveillance video indicating that he was probably home at the time, before they meet their burden of proof.

Many other criminal cases, most notably DUI test refusal prosecutions, involve circumstantial evidence and a similar analysis.

The Video

The actual footage is unavailable, so it is impossible to know exactly what Prof. Lathem said or did not say. However, if the police version is accurate and a jury sees the video, it could be tantamount to a confession.

Generally, out-of-court statements are inadmissible hearsay if they are used to prove the truth of the matter asserted. But a statement against interest is a well-recognized exception. Essentially, hearsay is inadmissible because it is not trustworthy, and the theory is that people who volunteer incriminating information about themselves are probably telling the truth. So, a hearsay objection would almost certainly fail.

A better approach would be to challenge relevance, specifically objecting that the video is unduly prejudicial. Although it is reasonable to assume that the alluded-to “mistake” was fleeing the jurisdiction, one or several jurors might well conclude that Prof. Lathem was talking about the murder, therefore inflaming the jury.

Count on Experienced Attorneys

Circumstantial evidence is almost always much weaker than it seems. For a confidential consultation with an experienced criminal law attorney in Schaumburg, contact Glasgow & Olsson.

(image courtesy of Antonina Bukowska)

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