Category Archives: Forensic controls

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…