Category Archives: Forensic controls

How the Courts Trap People Who Have Been Convicted by Bad Forensics

Radley Balko, investigative reporter for the Washington Post, has just published an article dealing with the justice system’s refusal/inability to deal appropriately with false, fake, unscientific, and discredited forensic evidence post conviction.

The focus is on a case that involves the infamous Dr. Steven Hayne, a now thoroughly discredited expert witness, who was sole medical examiner for the state of Mississippi for 20 years.  I urge you to read the entire article, but I’ve extracted a few particularly telling quotes:

•  “The courts and the people who operate in them seem to feel that the integrity of the system demands the preservation of verdicts.”

Addressing the fact that the body of scientific knowledge grows as a process, rather than an event; coupled with the legal time restrictions for introduction of new evidence  ————

•  “From the perspective of the wrongly convicted, you can see the trap here. File too soon, and the court may conclude that you haven’t presented enough evidence that the forensic theory upon which you were convicted has been discredited. If you then try to file more petitions as more evidence comes out to bolster your argument, you risk the court concluding that this is an  issue you’ve already raised, you lost, and you’re therefore barred from raising it again.”

•  “Koon was convicted due to testimony from an expert the court now admits isn’t credible. For the same court to nevertheless uphold his conviction because he missed a deadline is to keep him in prison on a technicality. It’s a cynical outcome that suggests the criminal justice system values process more than justice.”

Read the story by Radley Balko of the Washington Post here.

 

National Academy of Sciences Releases Landmark Report on Memory and Eyewitness Identification, Urges Reform of Police Identification Procedures

The Innocence Project has posted a notice on its website, with a link to a press release, about the recently released report by the Nation Academy of Sciences on memory and eyewitness identification.

From the report:  “the legal standard that most courts use regarding the admissibility of eyewitness testimony was established before most of the scientific research was conducted.”

The report endorses the following procedures for police lineups:

  • Blind Administration — Research shows that the risk of misidentification is sharply reduced if the police officer administering a photo or live lineup is not aware of who the suspect is. This prevents the witness from picking up intentional or unintentional clues from the officer conducting the lineup.
  • Confidence Statements — Immediately following a lineup, the eyewitness should be asked to describe in his or her own words how confident he or she is in the identification. As the report notes, the level of confidence a witness expresses at the time of trial is not a reliable predictor of accuracy. Having the witness describe their level of confidence at the time an identification is made will provide juries with a useful tool for judging the accuracy of the identification.
  • Instructions — The person viewing the lineup should be told that the perpetrator may not be in the lineup and that the investigation will continue regardless of whether the witness identifies a suspect.
  • Videotape the procedure — The report recommends that police electronically record the identification procedure to preserve a permanent record of the procedure.

Most recent data from the National Registry of Exonerations shows that for the 1,467 wrongful convictions currently in the registry, 35% had mistaken eyewitness identification as a contributing factor.

See the Innocence Project posting here.

Hundreds ‘convicted in error’ in Houston drug cases

The scandal-plagued Houston criminal-justice system has yet another scandal. The Houston Press reports that prosecutors have sent out hundreds of notices to people convicted of drug offenses that they were wrongly convicted.

The problem came about when evidence tested by the Houston Police Department crime lab came up negative for a controlled substance after the defendants had already taken plea deals. In some cases, the district attorney’s office knew about the negative results before the defendant pled guilty, but most test results were received after a conviction.

The district attorney’s office apparently knew about the problem for years, but only recently sent out the notices.

You can read more here.

Progress on the Road to Valid, Reliable Forensics

NASNCFS

The National Academy of Sciences of the United States published it’s Congressionally commissioned report,  “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States – A Path Forward,” in 2009.  This was in response to the realization that a lot of what goes on in forensics can be called “junk science.” That is, much of it is not scientifically proven, is not statistically valid, is not reliable, and is very subject to the biases of individual examiners. We have featured the NAS report previously on this blog here, here, and here.

Not surprisingly, the NAS report was met with “stonewall” and dismissive resistance from the extant forensics community, as well as the National Association of District Attorneys.  However, the report succeeded in bringing forensics under the scrutiny of scientific discipline, and made the public aware of its many shortcomings and failings.  Subsequently, it was announced in 2013 that the US Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would jointly form the National Commission on Forensic Science to provide guidelines and recommendations for the conduct and use of forensic technology.  The first meeting of the Commission was in February, 2014.

Continue reading

California Anti-Junk Science Forensics Bill Signed Into Law

Mike Bowers, on his blog Forensics in Focus, has posted the news that a new “anti-junk science forensics” bill has been signed into law in California.

The law permits post conviction defendants the ability to contest expert testimony that was presented against them at trial. In other words, convictions in which experts have either repudiated their past testimony, or used forensic “science” that is later deemed faulty by legitimate research, are subject to later proceedings reversing that conviction.

This is a huge deal, because it prevents prosecutors and judges from just using old case law as an excuse for ignoring habeas corpus appeals expressing new forensic research and attitudes.

New Scholarship Spotlight: Shaken Baby Syndrome, Wrongful Convictions, and the Dangers of Aversion to Changing Science in Criminal Law

Cassandra Ann Jenecke has posted the above-titled article on SSRN.  Download here.  The abstract states:

Shaken Baby Syndrome prosecutions are vulnerable to wrongful convictions because of the erosion of the science behind the diagnosis of SBS and because of the inflammatory nature of the charges. This paper evaluates the science behind the medical and legal diagnosis of SBS. It also explores international reforms related to the same developments in science and finds the American response lacking. The author concludes that without recognition of and reform related to the evolution of our scientific understanding of SBS, actors within the American criminal justice system will continue to contribute to the almost certain wrongful conviction of innocent caregivers and parents.

 

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