Will They EVER Fix Forensics ?

We (I) haven’t posted here about forensics for some time, and the pot is long overdue for a stir. This post was triggered by a recent piece in the NY Times – Fix the Flaws in Forensic Science – see that NY Times story here. The Times story was in turn triggered by the recent “announcement”  (admission) by the FBI that FBI agents had been giving scientifically unsupportable testimony regarding microscopic hair comparison in thousands of cases for decades.

Because of a belief and fear that much of forensics was flawed, the NAS Report (National Academy of Sciences), Forensic Science in the United States, A Path Forward, was commissioned by Congress in Fall of 2005. The report was published in 2009. The report issued a scathing condemnation of the current state of forensic “science.” It was, of course met, with a firestorm of resistance from the forensic and prosecutorial communities. Regardless, the US Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology announced the joint creation of a National Commission of Forensic Science (NCFS) in 2013 – see previous WCB posts here, and here.

The NCFS did not hold its first meeting until February, 2014. The Commission released its first nine drafts of policy statements for public comment in October, 2014. In January, 2015, it officially adopted three of those statements. The adopted policies are highlighted in the list below:

ncfs recs

While this has been going on, the sole federal judge on the commission, Jed Rakoff, resigned just last January in protest over the Justice Department’s position on an issue that would continue to favor prosecutors at the expense of full pretrial evidence exchange. There has since been an accommodation reached, but I suspect this is indicative of the Justice Department’s opposition to truly changing anything. This also causes me to wonder greatly about the objectivity of all the commission members.

Keep in mind also, that the commission is only empowered to make policy recommendations. It has no powers of oversight or enforcement, and no way to administer the adoption of its recommendations. My reading of the “tea leaves” here is that the advocates for the Justice Department and the existing forensic community have successfully kept the commission mired in politics and committees. So … there you have it. Six years after the publication of the NAS Report, a federal commission with no powers has adopted three policy recommendations.

In the meantime, the traditional forensic science community has been motoring along as if the NAS Report never happened. At the most recent American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting, there was an active session on forensic odontology (bite mark analysis); a discipline for which the NAS Report states there is absolutely no scientific basis.

Do you wonder why I ask, “Will they EVER fix forensics?”

Case highlights harmful impact of flawed FBI hair testimony

The Guardian has effectively put a human face here on the tragedy of the FBI’s admission this week that its agents presented flawed testimony in almost every trial in which they testified against criminal defendants for more than two decades before 2000.

The face is that of George Perrot, whose case was previously covered on the Wrongful Convictions Blog here and in which, it should be noted, this writer has played a small role.

Perrot was convicted as a teenager on rape charges in 1985 greatly on the testimony of FBI agent Wayne Oakes that a hair found on the victim’s bed was similar to a known sample of Perrot’s hair. It didn’t matter to the jury that the elderly victim said that the rape didn’t occur on the bed or that the long-haired, bearded Perrot didn’t resemble the short-haired, clean-shaven man who raped her. Oakes’ testimony was enough, an appeals court later ruled, to put Perrot behind bars, where he has languished for 30 years.

Thanks to the pro-bono work of the Ropes & Gray law firm, Perrot is back in court trying to clear his name, but Massachusetts prosecutors are still defending his conviction. They say Perrot did not file his claim in a timely manner and that there is other evidence of his guilt — a common refrain that many others convicted on the FBI’s hair-comparison testimony are sure to hear in the coming months and years as their cases make it into court.

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

  • State of Mississippi to make pay outs in more than a dozen wrongful conviction cases
  • Pennsylvania Innocence Project wins new trial for woman convicted 42 years ago on flawed arson science
  • Charges dropped against California Innocence Project client Michael Hanline, who is the longest serving wrongfully convicted Californian
  • Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson honored for courage by DOJ
  • Well-done video from British TV about Ohio Innocence Project’s recent new trial wins for Wheatt, Glover and Johnson based on flawed gun-shot residue evidence and Brady violations
  • New Yorker article on compensation for the wrongfully convicted
  • Exoneree Martin Tankleff mulls run for Congress

The Innocent Citizen’s Justice System Survival Guide

“Ours is a world in which justice is accidental, and innocence no protection.”     Euripedes, 400 BC.

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I come from a legal family, so even though I did not go into law, I’ve had a closeup view of the justice system my entire life, which is, I think, one of the reasons I decided to devote my post-corporate life to innocence work. I saw too many things happening that were not congruent with my view of what a fair and just system should, and must, be. For the past seven years, I’ve been deeply involved in innocence work, and have become knowledgeable about the details of many, many cases (100’s) of wrongful conviction and wrongful imprisonment. Consequently, I’ve seen many ways in which actually innocent people become tragic victims of what we call “justice.” There are just so many ways the justice system can get it wrong. This has caused me to think about what it is that an innocent person can (and should) do when accusatorially confronted by this thing we call the justice system. [You might want to also read my previous post Why I Think the US Justice System is Broken, and Why It’s Not Getting Fixed.]

If you think being wrongfully charged, indicted, convicted, and imprisoned can’t happen to you, think again. It can happen to anybody. Just ask Debra Milke. The ways this can happen are countless, and despite the system’s best efforts, there are just too many ways the system can possibly get it wrong. I could give you lots of examples, but we won’t try to detail them here – just take a look at the National Registry of Exonerations, and keep in mind these are only the ones that have been so far successfully overturned within the system – there are magnitudes more. This article will try to give you some “suggestions” for what you might do if you find you’re being wrongfully suspected or charged with a crime. For those of you who have had no close interaction with the justice system, you might well think that I’m being radical and that I must come from somewhere in outer space … and you can think that right up until you get scooped into the meat grinder. Let me me just say, “Forewarned is forearmed.”

This article will be in six sections:

I.  Have a Lawyer You Can Call

II. Don’t Talk to the Police

III. The Plea Bargain

IV. Be Ready for Trial

V. Shaken Baby/Child Abuse (Abusive Head Trauma)  [This requires special attention and treatment.]

VI. If You Are Wrongfully Convicted

DISCLAIMER: I am not an attorney, and so cannot give you legal advice. These suggestions are only my personal opinion, and are solely the result of my exposure to the justice system and wrongful convictions over a period of years. They come with no guarantee. Every situation is unique, and you must always exercise your own judgment given the circumstances. They are just intended to get you thinking about how you would handle the situation of being wrongfully accused, and to give you some information about how the system works. I am certain that they cannot cover every possible situation, but hopefully, they will provide an overall, general guide for how you might deal with this. 

Continue reading

FBI Admits Flaws in Hair Forensics

From the Washington Post:

The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.

The cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison, the groups said under an agreement with the government to release results after the review of the first 200 convictions.

The FBI errors alone do not mean there was not other evidence of a convict’s guilt. Defendants and federal and state prosecutors in 46 states and the District are being notified to determine whether there are grounds for appeals. Four defendants were previously exonerated.

The admissions mark a watershed in one of the country’s largest forensic scandals, highlighting the failure of the nation’s courts for decades to keep bogus scientific information from juries, legal analysts said. The question now, they said, is how state authorities and the courts will respond to findings that confirm long-suspected problems with subjective, pattern-based forensic techniques — like hair and bite-mark comparisons — that have contributed to wrongful convictions in more than one-quarter of 329 DNA-exoneration cases since 1989.

In a statement, the FBI and Justice Department vowed to continue to devote resources to address all cases and said they “are committed to ensuring that affected defendants are notified of past errors and that justice is done in every instance. The Department and the FBI are also committed to ensuring the accuracy of future hair analysis testimony, as well as the application of all disciplines of forensic science.”

Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, commended the FBI and department for the collaboration but said, “The FBI’s three-decade use of microscopic hair analysis to incriminate defendants was a complete disaster.”

“We need an exhaustive investigation that looks at how the FBI, state governments that relied on examiners trained by the FBI and the courts allowed this to happen and why it wasn’t stopped much sooner,” Neufeld said.

Norman L. Reimer, the NACDL’s executive director, said, “Hopefully, this project establishes a precedent so that in future situations it will not take years to remediate the injustice.”

While unnamed federal officials previously acknowledged widespread problems, the FBI until now has withheld comment because findings might not be representative.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a former prosecutor, called on the FBI and Justice Department to notify defendants in all 2,500 targeted cases involving an FBI hair match about the problem even if their case has not been completed, and to redouble efforts in the three-year-old review to retrieve information on each case.

“These findings are appalling and chilling in their indictment of our criminal justice system, not only for potentially innocent defendants who have been wrongly imprisoned and even executed, but for prosecutors who have relied on fabricated and false evidence despite their intentions to faithfully enforce the law,” Blumenthal said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), urged the bureau to conduct “a root-cause analysis” to prevent future breakdowns.

“It is critical that the Bureau identify and address the systemic factors that allowed this far-reaching problem to occur and continue for more than a decade,” the lawmakers wrote FBI Director James B. Comey on March 27, as findings were being finalized.

The FBI is waiting to complete all reviews to assess causes but has acknowledged that hair examiners until 2012 lacked written standards defining scientifically appropriate and erroneous ways to explain results in court. The bureau expects this year to complete similar standards for testimony and lab reports for 19 forensic disciplines.

Federal authorities launched the investigation in 2012 after The Washington Post reported that flawed forensic hair matches might have led to the convictions of hundreds of potentially innocent people since at least the 1970s, typically for murder, rape and other violent crimes nationwide.

The review confirmed that FBI experts systematically testified to the near-certainty of “matches” of crime-scene hairs to defendants, backing their claims by citing incomplete or misleading statistics drawn from their case work.

In reality, there is no accepted research on how often hair from different people may appear the same. Since 2000, the lab has used visual hair comparison to rule out someone as a possible source of hair or in combination with more accurate DNA testing.

Warnings about the problem have been mounting. In 2002, the FBI reported that its own DNA testing found that examiners reported false hair matches more than 11 percent of the time. In the District, the only jurisdiction where defenders and prosecutors have re-investigated all FBI hair convictions, three of seven defendants whose trials included flawed FBI testimony have been exonerated through DNA testing since 2009, and courts have exonerated two more men. All five served 20 to 30 years in prison for rape or murder.

University of Virginia law professor Brandon L. Garrett said the results reveal a “mass disaster” inside the criminal justice system, one that it has been unable to self-correct because courts rely on outdated precedents admitting scientifically invalid testimony at trial and, under the legal doctrine of finality, make it difficult for convicts to challenge old evidence.

“The tools don’t exist to handle systematic errors in our criminal justice system,” Garrett said. “The FBI deserves every recognition for doing something really remarkable here. The problem is there may be few judges, prosecutors or defense lawyers who are able or willing to do anything about it.”

Federal authorities are offering new DNA testing in cases with errors, if sought by a judge or prosecutor, and agreeing to drop procedural objections to appeals in federal cases.

However, biological evidence in the cases often is lost or unavailable. Among states, only California and Texas specifically allow appeals when experts recant or scientific advances undermine forensic evidence at trial.

Defense attorneys say scientifically invalid forensic testimony should be considered as violations of due process, as courts have held with false or misleading testimony.

The FBI searched more than 21,000 federal and state requests to its hair comparison unit from 1972 through 1999, identifying for review roughly 2,500 cases where examiners declared hair matches.

Reviews of 342 defendants’ convictions were completed as of early March, the NACDL and Innocence Project reported. In addition to the 268 trials in which FBI hair evidence was used against defendants, the review found cases in which defendants pleaded guilty, FBI examiners did not testify, did not assert a match or gave exculpatory testimony.

When such cases are included, by the FBI’s count examiners made statements exceeding the limits of science in about 90 percent of testimonies, including 34 death-penalty cases.

The findings likely scratch the surface. The FBI said as of mid-April that reviews of about 350 trial testimonies and 900 lab reports are nearly complete, with about 1,200 cases remaining.

The bureau said it is difficult to check cases before 1985, when files were computerized. It has been unable to review 700 cases because police or prosecutors did not respond to requests for information.

Also, the same FBI examiners whose work is under review taught 500 to 1,000 state and local crime lab analysts to testify in the same ways.

Texas, New York and North Carolina authorities are reviewing their hair examiner cases, with ad hoc efforts underway in about 15 other states.

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

  • A prosecutor in Virgnia says the right things and appears to “get it”
  • Great editorial on eyewitness ID reform in Missouri by Rebecca Brown
  • In Ohio, Ricky Jackson and five other death row exonerees speak at State House against capital punishment