Two Penn Undergraduates Study ‘Crimes That Changed Our World’

This summer, two undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania are examining crimes throughout history and how those events resulted in controversial legislative changes. 

Rising juniors, Aaron Wolff and Taryn MacKinney have known each other since meeting in a creative writing class their freshman year. Through the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program, or PURM, Wolff, a humanistic philosophy major from Great Neck, N.Y., and MacKinney, an anthropology and English major from Fort Collins, Colo., are teaming up with Law students to study crimes that have resulted in social, legal or institutional reform. 

“Our project zeroes in on those cases that have had the biggest effect, influencing laws that exist today,” MacKinney says, citing the Watts Riots, which led to SWAT teams, as an example, or the murder of Polly Klaas, which led to three strikes’ laws. “We research these cases and write up compelling summaries that introduce the crime, its immediate effect on the public and on the law and the long-term impact of the legislation it sparked.” 

She says that it is important for people know about the origins of some of the nation’s most controversial and noteworthy laws and policies.

“The laws that define our world today have incredible histories. Before the Kitty Genovese murder in 1964, the 911 line did not exist. Before the 1979 abduction of 6-year-old Ethan Patz, there was no database of missing children,” MacKinney says. “Public outrage over crimes has immense power. It’s shaped our current laws and will continue to do so in the future.” 

Wolff, who enjoys studying American history through this lens, says what’s fascinated him about his research so far is that “spectacular cases make bad laws.” 

“One of the most interesting patterns that I’ve seen in many cases is the way public opinion, the media and political grandstanding intertwine to blow certain cases out of proportion and ultimately, pass awful laws,” Wolff says. He suggests the Leonard Bias case as an example. Bias, a college basketball star, overdosed on cocaine. 

“As a result of public panic, misrepresentation in the media and everyone in Washington falling over each other to seem tough on crime, we get mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, which are based more on a mix of public paranoia and political posturing than hard facts,” Wolff says. “Mandatory drug sentencing was eliminated in 1970 because it was a bad idea. After Bias died, lawmakers brought it back in 1986, forgetting why they got rid of it in the first place.” 

One case in particular has really stuck with MacKinney. It was a grisly tale from the early 1980s of teenage girls who were both raped and murdered in Leicestershire, England, three years apart. It served as the first case to successfully use DNA samples to identify the criminal through science. 

“Around that time, a geneticist named Alec Jeffreys invented genetic fingerprinting. The police force launched an enormous investigation using the new technique, taking DNA samples from 5,000 men before finding the killer,” MacKinney says. “Since then, DNA evidence has become critical in courtrooms. The case is a perfect demonstration of how terrible crimes and scientific advances can cross paths and influence legislation; and the story is incredible, too.” 

Both students had multiple reasons for wanting to participate in the summer research program. 

MacKinney wanted to learn the research process in an academic setting. She says that the level of academic prestige among the researchers at Penn felt a little daunting and inaccessible when she was an incoming freshman, but that PURM was an avenue to curb that fear through exciting, relevant undergraduate research. 

But, for Wolff, it was an opportunity to work with one of the leading scholars in the field of criminal law, referring to their advisor, Penn Law professor Paul Robinson. A former federal prosecutor and counsel for the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Criminal Laws and Procedures, Robinson oversees their research and will use the materials produced this summer to help teach his “Seminar in Criminal Law Theory” this fall. 

“It’s giving me exposure to the world of academic research, which I might not have otherwise,” Wolff says. “And, it’s giving me a taste of academic life, so I’m better positioned to know whether or not this is something I might like to pursue.” 

As soon as Wolff and MacKinney have finished their portion of the research with each assigned case, two students from Penn Law pick up the baton, writing about the long-term legal changes that followed public reaction, whether the laws have been proven effective and the current ramifications of those legislative decisions. The research will serve as the foundation of a book being written by Robinson about how sensational crimes have shaped the criminal justice system. 

Wolff says he hopes their work will help to frame important debates and raise public awareness about legal challenges in the United States. 

“Awareness is always important in a democracy,” says Wolff. “Always treat public opinion, the media and politicians with a healthy skepticism. If we can get more people to internalize that message, we’ll have a more civil and responsible citizenry.”

Story Photo