Category Archives: Forensic controls

A Blog on Junk Science Forensics – At Last!

cropped-bowers_capitol-small1

Here at the WCB, we’ve posted many, many articles dealing with the highly questionable scientific validity of most all forensic disciplines.  I’m very happy to report that there is now a blog dedicated to that issue.

Dr. Michael Bowers is a practicing dentist and forensic odontologist in Ventura, CA, and a long time forensic consultant in the US and international court systems. His newest book, “Forensic Testimony, Science, Law and Expert Evidence” with Elsevier/Academic Press is available on Amazon.

Dr. Bowers has some refreshing and insightful views on the validity of forensics, and maintains a blog addressing the “junk science” that so many in the justice system refer to as “forensic science.”  Please visit that blog here: Forensics in Focus.

[Editor's note:  I, personally, refuse to call them forensic sciences.  They are not sciences.  Technologies? Disciplines?  Perhaps, but they're not sciences.]

PS:  I have reviewed Dr. Bowers’ new book Forensic Testimony – Science, Law, and Expert Evidence, and you can read that review here.  I highly recommend it.

The FBI’s Can of Worms: Forensic review stalls, resumes on order of DOJ

The FBI’s massive review of criminal convictions with FBI forensic hair and fiber testimony, initiated in 2012, stalled in the face of widespread errors spanning two decades, but the review has resumed this month on order of the Justice Department. As reported by Spencer S. Hsu, an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, “Nearly every criminal case reviewed by the FBI and the Justice Department as part of a massive investigation started in 2012 of problems at the FBI lab has included flawed forensic testimony from the agency, government officials said.”

Read Hsu’s comprehensive article here. Highlights directly from the article: Continue reading

Kevin Martin Exonerated after 26 Years in Prison; FBI Forensic Hair Analysis in Error

The Washington Post has reported that Kevin Martin’s conviction of the 1982 murder of Ursula C. Brown was vacated on Monday. Brown had been abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered after her car was struck from behind during a rash of similar crimes that authorities had dubbed the “bump-and-rob” assaults in Washington, D.C. Martin had long contended his innocence in the killing.

Martin is the fifth person to have his conviction overturned as a result of a recognition of inaccurate FBI hair analysis. The FBI and Justice Department review of all convictions involving FBI hair matches in the 1980s and 1990s continues. Two comprehensive reports linked here provide an indication of the bumpy road to truth years and even decades after miscarriages were prompted by an unjustifiable trust in unreliable science presented by a highly credible source.

Highlights directly from the Washington Post: Continue reading

Court Reexamines Arson Murder Conviction In Fort Stockton, Texas

A so-called “Junk Science” law passed in 2013 in Texas has helped enable review of the case of Sonia Cacy, 66, of Fort Stockton. Cacy was convicted of the 1991 murder by arson of her uncle, William Richardson. She has claimed innocence in the fire that swept through the small home they shared. The Innocence Project of Texas has been fighting for several years for her exoneration.

Cacy was sentenced to 99 years in prison but was paroled in 1998 after serving six years. According to the Innocence Project, post-conviction review of the case that included testimony from several experts was successful in securing her release. She’s had difficulty finding employment and housing and has been working for more than 20 years for exoneration to clear her name and her record of the conviction.

Cacy’s lawyers this week presented evidence supporting her innocence in two hearings, Monday and Tuesday, in Fort Stockton. Judge Bert Richardson expects to take several months to release his ruling.

According to several media reports, at trial a Bexar County toxicologist testified to jurors that gasoline was found on Richardson’s clothes, but several fire experts Continue reading

Book Review – Forensic Testimony; Science, Law and Expert Evidence

 

Bowers book

There has been a recent addition to the literature regarding the validity of forensic evidence and the power that expert testimony has in court.  The book Forensic Testimony; Science, Law and Expert Evidence is written by C. Michael Bowers and published by Elsevier Academic Press.

Professor Jane Taylor, University of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia has reviewed the book, and you can read that review here.

I have had the opportunity to personally review this book, and can say without question that it is a must read for anyone who deals with the validity (or lack of) and the power of forensic evidence and expert testimony in a trial.

The book really resonates with me, because it emphasizes the problems with the “uniqueness principle” and the use of flawed inductive reasoning in the development of the forensic disciplines (I refuse to call them “sciences.”) that I have been preaching about for years.

I most highly recommend it.  The book is available on Amazon here.

The chapter headings:

Chapter 1     The History of Experts in English Common Law, with Practice Advice for Beginning Experts

Chapter 2     Science and Forensic Science

Chapter 3     The Admissibility of Forensic Expert Evidence

Chapter 4     Professional Forensic Expert Practice

Chapter 5     Managing Your Forensic Case From Beginning to End

Chapter 6     Character Traits of Expert Witnesses: The Good and the Bad

Chapter 7     Voir Dire and Direct Examination of the Expert

Chapter 8     Cross Examination: The Expert’s Challenge and the Lawyer’s Strategies

Chapter 9     Uniqueness and Individualization in Forensic Science

Chapter 10   Forensic Failures

Chapter 11   Forensic Expert Ethics

Chapter 12   The Unparalleled Power of Expert Testimony

 

 

UK Supreme Court Rule on Access to Evidence Post-Appeal

400px-uk_supreme_court_badgeThe Supreme Court of England and Wales has today ruled in the case of Kevin Nunn, an important ruling concerning the right of a convicted prisoner to access evidence in his case after he has been tried, and lost an appeal. Nunn had applied to the CCRC, claiming to be innocent of the murder of his girlfriend in 2005. Nunn is serving a life sentence for the murder. The CCRC denied a request to DNA test fluids found on the victim’s body. Nunn then applied through the Courts to gain access to the evidence in his case to have it re-tested (at his own expense). The Supreme Court this morning were ruling on whether he had the right to demand this evidence from the police and Crown. The full ruling (of just over 9 minutes) can be watched on YouTube here…. There has been some reporting of this morning’s judgement here…

Supreme Court rejects Kevin Nunn’s evidence release plea

Kevin Nunn: Lifer loses forensic tests fight eight years after murder conviction

There has also been a blog post, expressing unease – particularly as it lays a heavy burden upon the CCRC, who have not been known in the past to always make the right decision with regard to the re-testing of evidence. see here….

Kevin Nunn Case – Supreme Court application dismissed

I have jotted down a very quick summary of the main points of the unanimous judgement (which was mercifully short).

This appeal concerns the extent of disclosure duty AFTER the close of the case and any appeal. Police declined to keep going back to the evidence. Were they allowed to take this stance? Were they under the same duty of disclosure?

Unanimous decision that duty of disclosure does NOT continue unaltered after the trial. Up until end of trial he is presumed innocent. Once convicted he is no longer presumed innocent, but rather is proven guilty.

There remains a public interest in any flaw in his conviction being exposed. No-one ought to remain convicted if the conviction is unsafe. BUT also an important public interest in the finality of the process, for the family, witnesses etc. but also because of resources. There should not be indefinite re-investigations take resources away from new investigations.

There is a duty of disclosure but it is now more limited after trial. Guidelines issued by AG set out rules. Police and prosecutors must provide defendant with anything new if it casts doubt on the safety of the conviction. They must cooperate in further inquiry if the new inquiry has a real prospect of casting doubt. Not speculative reinvestigation simply because the defendant does not accept the decision of the jury.

In England and Wales, and Scotland, there is a specialist body charged with investigating suspected miscarriages of justice (CCRC). The existence of this body is another reason why there is no occasion for the Crown’s duty of disclosure to continue unaltered after conviction. If there is a proper inquiry on a topic where these is a real prospect that the conviction might be shown to be unsafe, the police and prosecution ought not to wait for an approach from the CCRC, but should cooperate in the inquiry.

If DNA retesting had a real prospect of showing that someone else committed the crime, then the continuing duty of disclosure would apply to it. on the facts of this case, it would not. It was known at the trial that the fluid could not have come from the defendant. Retesting in this case would not eliminate the defendant. A request for DNA testing should be dealt with according to the principles set out under the AG Guidelines.

 

New technique may be able to date fingerprints

A key factor in the dubious conviction of Texan Kerry Max Cook in a 1977 rape and murder case was testimony of a police officer that the age of Cook’s fingerprints at the victim’s apartment near Cook’s put him there at the time of the murder. The officer later admitted that he knew his testimony was not supported by science but that the prosecutor pressured to make the statement anyway.

Now the prosecutorial science fiction of the 1970s may be on thee verge of becoming a scientific fact. As Discovery News reports here, Dutch scientists say they have discovered how to accurately date fingerprints. If true, the discovery could let police place a suspect at the scene at the time a crime was committed or help defense investigators prove that the prints were left there well before or after the event.

Flawed Forensics – Part of a TV Series from Al Jazeera America Examining the US Justice System

Al Jazeera America is running an eight part series called The System which examines the state of the justice system in the US.  This coming Sunday, June 1, the program will cover flawed forensics, and will highlight the case of Mississippi death row inmate Willie Manning.  Manning is a victim of the now-acknowledged faulty hair analysis practices of the FBI.

There is a zip code box on the Al Jazeera America home page to help you find their programming in your area:

AlJazeera3

Here is the schedule for the entire series, The System:

Episode 1: False Confessions, Sunday May 18th at 9E/6P

Episode 2: Mandatory Sentencing, Sunday May 25th at 9E/6P

Episode 3: Flawed Forensics, Sunday June 1st at 9E/6P

Episode 4: Eyewitness Identification, Sunday June 8th at 9E/6P

Episode 5: Parole: High Risks, High Stakes, Sunday June 15th at 9E/6P

Episode 6: Juvenile Justice, Sunday June 22nd at 9E/6P

Episode 7: Geography of Punishment, Sunday June 29th at 9E/6P

Episode 8: Prosecutorial Misconduct, Sunday July 6th at 9E/6P
 

 

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

  • Man exonerated of rape charges in Sweden after 10 years in prison; now Sweden’s long-serving exoneree
  • In China, a long road to justice in recent double exoneration case
  • Rob Warden writes that the death April 20 of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, middleweight prizefighter, heavyweight champion of the wrongfully convicted, is a vivid reminder of a plague that has long corrupted the criminal justice system — perjury by prosecution witnesses who have ulterior motives to lie.  Article….
  • Alaska Innocence Project gearing up for May hearing in the Fairbanks Four case
  • Article on how bad science leads to wrongful convictions
  • New judges’ training program in Bangladesh warns new judges to be vigilante against wrongful convictions
  • More strange twists and turns in the Montana case of Cody Marble

Fingerprint identification based on flawed assumptions

From The (London) Telegraph

By Sarah Knapton, Science Correspondent

Fingerprint evidence linking criminals to crime scenes has played a fundamental role in convictions in Britain since the first forensic laboratory was set up in Scotland Yard in 1901.

But the basic assumption that everyone has a unique fingerprint from which they can be quickly identified through a computer database is flawed, an expert has claimed.
Mike Silverman, who introduced the first automated fingerprint detection system to the Metropolitan Police, claims that human error, partial prints and false positives mean that fingerprints evidence is not as reliable as is widely believed.

Nobody has yet proved that fingerprints are unique and families can share elements of the same pattern.

And there are other problems, such as scanning fingerprints of the elderly as their skin loses elasticity and in rare conditions leaves some people with smooth, featureless fingertips.

Mr Silverman, who was the Home Office’s first Forensic Science Regulator, said: “Essentially you can’t prove that no two fingerprints are the same. It’s improbable, but so is winning the lottery, and people do that every week.

“No two fingerprints are ever exactly alike in every detail, even two impressions recorded immediately after each other from the same finger.

“It requires an expert examiner to determine whether a print taken from crime scene and one taken from a subject are likely to have originated from the same finger.”
However there are numerous cases in which innocent people have been wrongly singled out by means of fingerprint evidence.

In 2004, Brandon Mayfield, was wrongly linked to the Madrid train bombings by FBI fingerprint experts in the United States.

Shirley McKie, a Scottish police officer, was wrongly accused of having been at a murder scene in 1997 after a print supposedly matching hers was found near the body.
“What both cases clearly demonstrate is that, despite the way fingerprint evidence is portrayed in the media, all comparisons ultimately involve some human element and, as a result, they are vulnerable to human error,” said Mr Silverman who has recently published his memoirs ‘Written in Blood’ and now works as a private forensic consultant.

“And the fingerprint often isn’t perfect, particularly at a crime scene. It might be dirty or smudged. There are all sorts of things that reduce the accuracy.
“I think it is important that juries are aware of this. Too often they see programmes like CSI and that raises their expectations. What you see on CSI or Silent Witness simply doesn’t exist.”

Unlike other forensic fields, such as DNA analysis, which give a statistical probability of a match, fingerprint examiners traditionally testify that the evidence constitutes either a 100 per cent certain match or a 100 per cent exclusion.
Previous studies have shown that that experts do not always make the same judgment on whether a print matches a mark at a crime scene, when presented with the same evidence twice.

A study by Southampton University found that two thirds of experts, who were unknowingly given the same sets of prints twice, came to a different conclusion on the second occasion.

It was Scottish surgeon Dr Henry Faulds who first discovered that fingerprints might be useful for identification purposes. He published a paper in the journal Nature in 1880 and offered the idea to the Met Police, but at the time the force was not interested.
Undeterred, Dr Faulds approached Charles Darwin who passed the concept on to his cousin Francis Galton. Galton published a book on the forensic science of fingerprints and claimed that the chance of two people having the same prints was about one in 64 million.
On the back of his work and later research Fingerprint Bureau was founded at Scotland Yard in 1901 and eventually the national Forensic Science Service (FSS) was founded with provided services to all UK forces.

However in 2010, the service was closed and forensic work is now carried out by the private sector, although the Met Police recently re-established its own lab.
Mr Silverman, whose opinion was sought on the murder cases of Damilola Taylor and Rachel Nickel, believes the closure of the FSS could lead to miscarriages of justice in the future.

“Police forces have to slash their budgets and the easy thing not to spend money on is forensic services,” he said.

“You have to ask yourself what price you put on justice.”

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

Dog Scent Lineups – “The Worst of Junk Science”

pointerIt was just a year ago that we posted about dog scent lineups.  At the time, we called it “one of the junkiest of the junk sciences.”  This opinion is echoed in a law suit filed just this week by a Texas woman, Megan Winfrey.  Ms. Winfrey spent 6 years in prison before her murder conviction, based on a dog scent lineup, was overturned.  Her suit calls dog scent lineups “the worst of junk science.”

Interestingly, the primary defendant in Winfrey’s suit is former Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Deputy Keith Pickett.  Pickett was identified in our earlier post as being the most infamous and notorious dog handler performing bogus dog scent lineups.  Four other officers, including the San Jacinto County Sheriff, are also named in the suit as being complicit in her wrongful conviction.

You can read the NBC News story about the Winfrey suit here, which contains a link to the actual law suit.

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

  • Is forensic odontology too unreliable?
  • Exoneree Johnathan Montgomery takes it one day at a time
  • Missouri considers eyewitness identification reform and DNA preservation bill
  • Greg Wilhoit, a former Oklahoma death-row inmate from Tulsa and nationally-known anti-death penalty advocate whose story was included in author John Grisham’s “The Innocent Man,” died Feb. 14 in Sacramento, Calif., family members said. He was 59.  Full article here
  • Upcoming symposium at the Penn Quattrone Center:  A Systems Approach to Conviction Integrity

Interesting SCOTUS Forensics Case….

Today, in Hinton v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court found the trial attorney’s failure to request funding for a sufficient expert to challenge the State’s ballistics experts constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.  Opinion here.

Forensic Science Reform Bill Introduced in U.S. Congress

Press release:

Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV, Chairman

For Immediate Release
http://commerce.senate.gov                                              Contact: Kevin McAlister, 202-224-8374
February 12, 2014

ROCKEFELLER INTRODUCES BILL TO ADVANCE FORENSIC SCIENCE REFORM

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Chairman John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV today reintroduced legislation to strengthen the criminal justice system, by prioritizing scientific research and supporting the development of science-based standards in the forensic disciplines.

Rockefeller’s bill, The Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2014, aims to bolster forensic science reform efforts and to maintain long-term cooperation between scientists, the legal community, law enforcement, forensic practitioners, and advocacy groups.

“We’re making real progress toward strengthening forensic science, but more must be done,” said Rockefeller. “My bill would formalize collaboration between scientists and the criminal justice system, which is the only way to put our forensic evidence standards on a solid scientific footing. This important work will help convict the guilty and protect the innocent.”

The Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2014 continues Rockefeller’s work from a related 2012 bill introduced in response to the 2009 National Academies report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.  The report found that the interpretation of forensic evidence can be severely compromised by the lack of supporting science and standards.

Since the report’s release, Rockefeller has focused on supporting basic research in forensic science and on improving standards of practice. Rockefeller has convened three Commerce Committee hearings to highlight the need for scientific research, for enforceable national standards, and for Federal government leadership to validate and standardize forensic disciplines nationwide. The recently established National Commission on Forensic Science implements a provision in Rockefeller’s original bill, which calls for the creation of this entity.

A wide range of organizations have supported the need for basic research and standards development in the forensic sciences. Reform advocates have included the Innocence Project; the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME); the American Statistical Association (ASA); the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL); and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which is particularly concerned about the potential for bias in the criminal justice system.

A copy of the bill is available here.

To implement needed reforms, the Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2014 would:

         Require standards development: NIST would be directed to develop forensic science standards in consultation with standards development organizations and forensic science stakeholders. NIST would also be permitted to establish and solicit advice from discipline-specific expert working groups to identify standards development priorities and opportunities.

         Implement uniform standards: The bill would direct a national commission on forensic science – chaired by the Director of NIST and the Attorney General and comprised of research scientists, forensic science practitioners, and legal and law enforcement professionals – to recommend new science-based standards.  It would also require the Attorney General to implement these standards in Federal forensic science laboratories and to encourage standards adoption in non-Federal laboratories.

         Promote research: A National Forensic Science Coordinating Office would be established to develop a forensic science research strategy and to support the implementation of that strategy across relevant Federal agencies. The National Science Foundation would be directed to support forensic science research and the creation of forensic science research centers. All agencies with equities in forensic science would be encouraged to stimulate innovative and creative solutions to satisfy the research needs and priorities identified in the research strategy.

New Scholarship Spotlight: Cognitive bias in forensic anthropology

Itiel Dror and others have posted the newest piece on the issue of confirmation bias in forensics.  If you haven’t been introduced to Dror’s body of work yet, check it out here.  The abstract of the newest paper, which can be downloaded in full here, states:

An experimental study was designed to examine cognitive biases within forensic anthropological non-metric methods in assessing sex, ancestry and age at death. To investigate examiner interpretation, forty-one non- novice participants were semi randomly divided into three groups. Prior to conducting the assessment of the skeletal remains, two of the groups were given different extraneous contextual information regarding the sex, ancestry and age at death of the individual. The third group acted as a control group with no extraneous contex- tual information. The experiment was designed to investigate if the interpretation and conclusions of the skeletal remains would differ amongst participants within the three groups, and to assess whether the examiners would confirm or disagree with the given extraneous context when establishing a biological profile. The results revealed a significant biasing effect within the three groups, demonstrating a strong confirmation bias in the assessment of sex, ancestry and age at death. In assessment of sex, 31% of the participants in the control group concluded that the skeleton remains were male. In contrast, in the group that received contextual information that the remains were male, 72% concluded that the remains were male, and in the participant group where the context was that the remains were of a female, 0% of the participants concluded that the remains were male. Comparable results showing bias were found in assessing ancestry and age at death. These data demonstrate that cognitive bias can impact forensic anthropological non-metric methods on skeletal remains and affects the interpretation and con- clusions of the forensic scientists. This empirical study is a step in establishing an evidence base approach for dealing with cognitive issues in forensic anthropological assessments, so as to enhance this valuable forensic sci- ence discipline.

Bite-Mark Evidence: Compelling Enough to Convict the Innocent

Bite-mark evidence proved to be both powerful and unreliable in more than two dozen known cases of wrongful conviction. An article by Kathleen Hopkins for Gannett on this issue includes these specific difficulties relating to bite marks as evidence (Source: The Innocence Project and Dr. John Demas, a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences): Continue reading

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

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Arson Exoneration in Michigan…

Release yesterday from the Michigan Innocence Clinic:

The Michigan Innocence Clinic is very pleased to announce that our client Victor Caminata was exonerated today at the Wexford County Courthouse in Cadillac, Michigan. Mr. Caminata had served 5 years and 2 weeks of wrongful imprisonment for arson before he was released on July 2, 2013, when the Michigan Attorney General’s Office agreed that his conviction should be vacated because its experts no longer stood by the arson determination that had sent Mr. Caminata to prison to serve 9 to 40 years. Today, the AG dismissed the case with prejudice.

Mr. Caminata was convicted after the house he shared with his then-girlfriend and their children burned in 2008. An initial fire investigation concluded that the fire originated in the chimney, which was connected to a wood stove. But after the police received an anonymous tip, investigators re-examined the wreckage and found supposed signs that the fire had been intentionally set to look like a chimney fire. Remarkably, the state’s investigators never examined the interior of the chimney, which is the most basic step a fire investigator is required to take before ruling out a chimney fire.

Today’s final dismissal came almost two years after we filed a motion for relief from judgment for Mr. Caminata based on the conclusion of our experts that the state’s fire investigators had committed fundamental errors in violation of NFPA 921, that the supposed signs of arson were spurious, and that the original determination that an accidental chimney fire had burned the house was, in fact, correct.

We are especially grateful to Jim Samuels of Big Rapids, Michigan, and Mike McKenzie of Atlanta, Georgia, both of whom co-counseled the case with the Clinic on a pro bono basis, and to experts Joe Filas and Tom May, who also lent their services pro bono. Staff attorney Imran Syed led our legal team, which included at various times former co-director (now Michigan Supreme Court justice) Bridget McCormack, clinical professor Kim Thomas, and former students Blase Schmid, Adam Thompson, Kate O’Connor, Rachel Burg, Zach Dembo, Nick Hambley, Laura Andrade, Jocelin Chang, and Marc Allen, and current students Lexi Bond, Emily Goebel, and Claire Madill.