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The Murder Of John Orner

On 01 March 1961 in Columbia South Carolina the taxi of local taxi driver, John Orner, was found empty but with blood found in the inside the vehicle. There was no sign of Mr. Orner and where he might possibly be. Later on 3 March 1961 they found Mr. Orner body along the side of the road killed by a gunshot to the head. The bullet had travel through the brain and appeared to have originated from the back seat passenger side of the taxi. Through further forensics they determined it was a. 32 caliber bullet fired from a Harrington and Richardson (H & R) revolver. (State v Freiburger, 2005) At the same time Edward Freiburger had went Absent Without Leave (AWOL) from Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. He was later found hitchhiking along the highway in Tennessee. Since it was night the police officer patted down Mr. Freiburger and found a. 32 H&R revolver. He arrested Freiburger due to the hitchhiking. Since Mr. Orner’s last taxi stop was to the NCO club on Fort Jackson and Mr. Freiburger disappeared at the same time they continued to investigate. They discovered he had just bought a. 32 H&R with the serial number 9948, at a local pawnshop. The police conducted ballistic test on the firearm but they came back inconclusive and no one was charged. Thirty-nine years later when looking at cold cases the department conducted new ballistic test on the bullet fragments found at the scene and a bullet fired from Mr. Freiburger’s revolver and found a match in striations. He was arrested and charged with murder. Mr. Freiburger was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

The reason ballistic forensics played such a major role in this case is the lack of anything but circumstantial evidence. Due to the body not being found immediately and then the suspect not being arrest almost 3 weeks later. Then finally the actual prosecution of the case was almost 40 years later so the only evidence they had was the evidence they had collected and saved from the crime scene. When examining the facts about the case some normal forensics couldn’t be used because the earlier stated mitigating factors. They didn’t find Mr. Freiburger right after the murder so there was no blood on him or his clothes. They couldn’t test him for GSR because all that would show is he had been in contact with a gun, which was obvious since he was found with a firearm in his possession. This made it where they needed to tie that specific firearm to the murder and then to Mr. Freiburger himself.

In this particular case fire forensics had a major factor in this case going to trial and the perpetrator being send to prison for life. There were two major ways that forensics were utilized in this case. The first was utilizing the serial number as a form of identification to tie the firearm to Mr. Freiburger. Serial numbers are stamped into the weapon throughout the manufacturing process, which makes the firearm traceable. (Heard, 2008) In this case the serial number was not obstructed in any way so the investigator did not need to apply restoration methods to be able to correctly read it. However, later in the case when Mr. Freiburger appealed his conviction one of his points was the chain of custody of the weapon due to the amount of time that had past since the crime was committed and he was convicted. However, the investigators were able to point to the serial number on the revolver matched the serial number of the revolver he bought from the pawnshop a few days prior to the murder of Mr. Orner. This is important as it showed it was the same revolver, the court denied Mr. Freiburger’s 2005 appeal. Step one tying the firearm to Mr. Freiburger was established.

The second method where firearm forensics was a major point of the case, was the ballistic testing of the bullet fragments from the crime scene and comparing them to Mr. Freiburger’s firearm. All firearms have ballistics that can be tested due to their unique nature to that specific firearm. When the investigators first conducted the test on the bullet fragments they were able to determine that the weapon used was a. 32 caliber firearm. This is important as it allowed the investigators to narrow down what type of firearm they were looking for. When they accomplished the first ballistic test of the fragments it was 1961 and testing was different just due to the different technology that was around during that time frame. Due to the inclusive nature of the results the investigators had no choice but to release Mr. Freiburger and not charge him with a crime. When the ballistic forensics was conducted again in 2002 there was found a match in the striations found on one of the bullet fragments and the firearm owned by Mr. Freiburger. Striations are basically a fingerprint of the firearm used and are generated by the imperfections of the firearm. (Warlow, 2012) The imperfections on the bore, and barrel will leave marks, striations, on the bullet as it leaves the barrel. Due to this an investigator can compare the striations on the bullet fragments found at the crime scene to a bullet fired from the same firearm in a controlled environment. Due to the terminal ballistics however, the bullet fragments that are recovered investigators aren’t always able to be conclusive on whether a bullet came from a specific firearm. If the bullet hit something soft then it is more likely to be able to be examined and the striations match than a bullet that goes through the victim and then hits a metal surface where it is further deformed from its original state.

The police department had the three bullet fragments tested; First from their department where they received inconclusive results. Later four other investigators also conducted forensic testing on the bullet fragments and came to inconclusive results. They stated that the bullets could have came through any. 32 caliber weapon not necessarily Mr. Freiburger’s firearm. Finally a private ballistics expert was hired and he found striations on one of the fragments that match the test case fired from Mr. Freiburger’s firearm. It was off of this ballistic testing that the police department filed charges against Mr. Freiburger and he was ultimately sentenced to life in prison.

Up to this point the case seemed pretty clear cut with a person finally being charged with a crime they committed 40 years earlier, based on forensic science advancements. However, in 2016 Mr. Freiburger was paroled and his case through out, not due necessarily to bad forensic science but for how the prosecution and presented the case and the evidence that the defense didn’t use as a way to defend his client. The prosecutors had left out that they had tested another. 32 revolver at the same time they were testing Mr. Freiburger’s revolver. This was for the same case, and the ballistic tests, minus the private expert all showed inconclusive. Since the prosecution didn’t present this evidence, the jury didn’t know that there were some inconclusive results and thought that the results were all conclusive. (State v Freiburger, 2015)This is a great example at just how hard it is for an investigator to conduct forensic research. The bullet is very seldom in the best shape to make the conclusiveness on the striations easy. All the investigator can do is follow the correct methods when conducting a test so that they can repeat the results when needed and show how they determined their findings. It wasn’t the findings that the court through out the verdict and ordered a retrial but the presentation of those findings.

In the end all an investigator can do is provide sound forensics to the prosecutor for the court case. In this particular case they provided the evidence and Mr. Freiburger was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Mr. Freiburger appealed in 2005 and his appeal was rejected with no merit on the reason he appealed. Then his appeal in 2016 (14 years after conviction) the Appellate Court agreed that his conviction was wrong and he had bad defense an ordered a re-trial. The state did not choose to re-trial due to his already 14 years served and his sterling record while in prison. Considering him still guilty but no reason to re-convict due also to his age. In the end the ballistic science did it was supposed to do and was able to show that a specific firearm had been used in the crime.

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