My ten-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.
Chapter Five: Respect the Chain of Custody: Make Sure No One Has Tampered with the Evidence!
It’s the beginning of a new chapter, so, of course, we have the obligatory bit about the skateboard. Insert Character and Hannah examine the board further and discover that the school name sticker is covering the initials ‘LB’, which are scratched onto the board. They and Daniel decide to go and see the custodian that gave Daniel the board in the first place. Which… seems like something they should have done a lot earlier in the investigation, but, as usual, bits of skateboard investigation only happen at the point where they illustrate whatever apologetics point Wallace wants to make in the chapter in question.
Anyway, better late than never. The custodian – Mr Warren – turns out to know quite a lot about what’s happened to the skateboard:
- Lincoln gave the board to Mr Templeton, the first custodian of the school.
- Mr Templeton then retired and told the temporary custodian, Mr Jenkins, about it.
- Mr Warren took up the job, and Mr Jenkins passed board and backstory on to him.
- A ‘nice, polite girl’ asked Mr Warren if she could have it, and he passed it on.
- Some time after that, it appeared back in the shed again.
- The shed has not actually been used for years, as the school staff now keep their tools in a storage area in the new gym.
Which all strikes me as somewhat peculiar. Why would a child give his skateboard to someone on the brink of retirement, who, even allowing for the possibility of early retirement, probably doesn’t look much as though he’s still enjoying halcyon boarding days? Why would Mr Jenkins bother remembering and passing on this much detail, including the original owner’s name, and why would Mr Warren also remember it? Why was the skateboard left behind in the shed when the tools were moved; why not just give it to someone else or donate it to whatever the US has by way of charity shops? Why was the shed unlocked on the day Daniel was there? Why is the shed even still there if it’s no longer being used; shouldn’t someone get round to either repurposing it or tearing it down? Actually, I suppose that one does make sense; lack of funding and/or inertia. I do hope we get answers to all the rest before the book ends.
Also, Mr Warren doesn’t remember what the girl looked like, but does remember that the sticker wasn’t on the board when he first saw the board. Which seems like an extremely unlikely detail to be sure about this many years later, but Jeffries doesn’t question this at all when they tell him, assuring the cadets that ‘we even know when the sticker was added’. YOU DO NOT KNOW WHEN THE STICKER WAS ADDED, JEFFRIES. I could just about buy that someone might notice a sticker on a skateboard when they first saw it and that might stick in their mind years later, but the idea that someone would make a careful enough examination of the board to remember years later that it did not have a sticker on it, as opposed to ‘well, don’t remember it, but can’t swear it wasn’t there’? No, Jeffries, that did not happen. (Sheesh! You’re quick enough to remind people about the fallibility of human memory/observation when it comes to explaining the contradictions in the gospels! But now you’ve got a different point you want to make, all that goes out the window?)
I… I seriously worry about the quality of police investigation that’s getting done in whatever state Wallace works in. I sincerely hope all of this is just the result of him simplifying things for the age group this book is geared at and isn’t representative of the quality of his investigative work generally.
The point of all this, as far as the story is concerned, is to open the door for Jeffries to explain the concept of ‘chain of custody’ to the cadets:
“What’s that?” you ask.
“A record of who had the evidence and when. It’s like a chain. Each person in the chain is a link who handed the skateboard to the next person in the chain.”
An insert box adds the following:
We trace the “chain of custody” for each piece of evidence to see if it was changed over time. We ask two important questions:
1. Who handled it?
2. How did they describe it?
We can ask these same two questions about the Gospels to see if the information in the Bible has been changed over time.
Wallace is leaving out a key point here; the explanation of why the police use chains of custody.
I should point out here that I’m not a police officer (nor do I play one on TV) and that everything I know about this comes from some quick googling, so if there are any actual police officers reading this who feel I have drastically misunderstood things here then I am happy for them to point this out whereupon I will humbly apologise. However, my understanding from what I’ve read is that the purposes of a chain of custody are
- to preserve the evidence in an untampered state, and
- to be able to demonstrate in court that you have done so.
The former maximises the chances of getting useful and accurate information from it, and both the former and the latter are important when it comes to being able to build a court case against the guilty party.
Now, if this were an actual police academy cadet class and not a thinly-disguised Bible class, this topic could have made for a great lesson. Jeffries could have talked about what happens when they’re trying to use forensic evidence to link a suspect to a murder weapon, or evidence to a crime site, and a lawyer challenges them on it in court by pointing out that their flawed chain of custody has allowed for the possibility of contaminated or even planted evidence. He could have taught them about how to set up a good chain of custody, and about things the police might try to strengthen a flawed chain of custody. He could have shown them the evidence lab, the tamper-evident bags, the tape used to seal the bags after the times they have to be opened for the contents to be examined. Some of this is actually in the version of this book that Wallace wrote for adults, and it’s good reading.
But we don’t get any of this. And, of course, if we did – if the readers of this book learned enough about what’s needed to make a good chain of custody – it would become immediately apparent that what we have here is a terrible chain of custody. We have no idea what happened to the skateboard between the (unknown) time that Mr Warren gives it to this nameless girl and the (unknown) time it shows up again in the shed. We know, from the fact that it did show up in the shed, that at least one person other than the custodian has access to that shed; we therefore can’t exclude the possibility that someone tampered with the skateboard while it was in the shed. We have no written corroboration of any of this; we’re entirely dependent on the memories of one person, who wasn’t even an eyewitness to much of what happened. It worked for introducing the general idea of a chain of custody to the cadets, but there’s no way this particular chain would be considered valid in a court case.
The funny thing is that the chapter subheading – ‘Make Sure No One Has Tampered with the Evidence’ – does tell us what a chain of custody is for, but that excellent principle is nowhere to be seen in the text. Instead, Jeffries assures his cadets ‘Now we know everyone who had contact with the skateboard’ when in fact we know nothing of the sort. Once again, Wallace is presenting his case to his readers in such a way as to make it sound as though he is working towards rigorous police-level standards of investigation… while not, in fact, doing so.
In this case I can kinda see it, since the sticker covered the initials. It’s not impossible that he noticed the sticker when it appeared because previously he’d remembered seeing Lincoln B’s initials (which reminded him fondly of all his custodial predecessors who reverently handed down the lore of the original owner). Not being able to see those initials now tells him the sticker was not there before, and rules out the possibility that he’d merely never noticed something he wasn’t looking for back then. It still doesn’t tell them when it was added, but it does narrow the window a bit.
Anyway, I’m enjoying this series greatly. Keep up the good work. Looking forward to hearing more of Katie’s takes on it.
“because previously he’d remembered” should probably be “if he previously remembered,” since I don’t know if he said he remembered seeing the initials or not. Given the hand-me-down + origin-story situation though, it seems likely that Jenkins would have pointed out LB’s initials to him during the hand-off. Does the book give such testimony?
Dr Sarah says
@ridana: OK, fair point. I suppose that could have happened (although still really stretching it, as it would have required Mr Warren to examine the board carefully enough to see initials small enough that a school name sticker would have covered them, and then remember that detail several years later). But… it can’t be assumed. There should have been questions about how, or whether, Mr Warren could be sure of this. Wallace/Jeffries doesn’t raise that at all.
I love the idea of custodians reverently handing down the lore of the original owner (“Gather round the fire, my successor, and listen well, for some day you too will be called upon to pass this story to the custodian who succeeds you…”) but, in practice, the skateboard info would have been at most a passing comment. I mean, in job handovers, you’re talking about all the details of the job that the new person’s going to need to know. It’s plausible that Mr Warren might have made some comment about the skateboard when he saw it in the shed and that Mr Jenkins, if he was a particularly chatty type, might have passed on the full story; but it’s a lot less plausible that Mr Warren would have considered it important enough to remember every detail years later. (We know from a previous chapter that the school name sticker had the name of the school from nine years ago, which means the sticker is likely to be at least that old and probably older – which, in turn, means that the point at which Mr Warren saw the initials would have been before that again.)
No, the book makes no mention of Mr Warren saying anything at all about the initials.
Small point: they weren’t Lincoln’s initials, as his surname was Singleton. (The book also mentions this when the initials are found, so that clearly is part of the Skateboard Plot and not a continuity error by Wallace.)
I don’t think I have any comments at all from Katie on this chapter, unfortunately, other than a general one at the end about Jeffries twisting what he tells the cadets. I miss being able to include them! I hope I get through this quickly and she can think of more to say about subsequent chapters.
Ah, since Lincoln seemed to come out of nowhere, I assumed he was the L of LB. Clearly we need to find this fellow to learn why he was giving away a skateboard with someone else’s initials on it!
My theory right now is that the board is cursed. This is why the custodians were so carefully handing it down. Mr. Warren committed a grave error in giving it away to the girl, but it came back despite the room being locked. He did not learn his lesson, and has now doomed them all…
Dr Sarah says
@ridana: I now really want that to turn out to be the plot.
I have to agree that it’s odd for there to be such a purportedly careful pedigree for what is basically an ordinary child’s toy.
I suspect that Wallace might be trying to argue, or imply, that if a child’s toy can have such care taken about who owned it, then a fortiori, the Gospel, clearly more important, would have a trustworthy pedigree (since everyone involved would be even more likely to have been careful and trustworthy with transmitting it).
But the general implausibility of providing a careful pedigree for a child’s toy just makes the whole thing look contrived.
There’s also a reasonable counterargument: Surely Wallace is aware of religious traditions that he doesn’t believe in, like Hinduism, and Islam, and Yazidism, and perhaps Mormonism. The adherents of those religions might well make an argument similar to the one he’s trying here: the chain of transmission from their ancestors is trustworthy! Wallace might dispute the trustworthiness of those different chains, but the trustworthiness of the chain of transmission of Christianity is similarly vulnerable to attack.