Category Archives: investigations and investigation techniques

Research project issues report on wrongful arson convictions

The Arson Research Project says that 30 men and women have been exonerated from wrongful arson convictions since 1991. More than half of them were exonerated from life sentences or from death row. In the case of one Texas inmate, Cameron Todd Willingham, the research project says, such forensic error led to the execution of an innocent man.

To help prevent such tragedies in the future, the Arson Research Project, which is affiliated at Monterey College of Law, has published an excellent report, Anatomy of a Wrongful Arson Conviction, which you can download here.

The center’s director, Paul Bieber, presents a good video summary on wrongful arson convictions and the difficulty reversing them, here.

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

  • The Exonerated (the play) in ebook format
  • From the AP:  The Texas state fire marshal has volunteered to turn over more than a decade of his office’s casework to advocates so they can examine them for wrongful convictions.  Fire Marshal Chris Connealy has been working with the Innocence Project of Texas for more than a year to review old cases.  But now he’s sent 24 cases from 2002 to 2004 to the Innocence Project so the Lubbock-based group can vet his office’s work, with a pledge to turn over all of his more recent case files. He says it’s an important step for the public “to have confidence in the criminal justice system.” Several high-profile arson cases have come under scrutiny in Texas, including that of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed for the fire deaths of his three daughters.
  • Oscar nominated director to direct The Brian Banks Story
  • Two new books about wrongful conviction by Morrison Bonpasse
  • Summary of Amanda Knox appeal
  • The latest from the Innocence Project of Singapore

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.

Four decades later, Iceland confessions defy belief

“The methods of the Icelandic police weren’t unique. They convinced themselves that a group of petty criminals on the fringes of society were a gang of hardened killers. But they didn’t find the evidence to back up their hunch, they were left with just the confessions that were extracted after months of solitude and mental torture.”

That’s the conclusion of a remarkable BBC News multipedia presentation here about how six young people in Iceland confessed to two murders in the mid-’70s despite a total lack of evidence or memory of the crimes.

Forcing forensic-science reforms hasn’t been easy

When the National Academy of Sciences issued a seminal report on the sad state of forensic science five years ago, many hoped it would quickly lead to reforms and fewer wrongful convictions. That hasn’t happened — at least so far.

In a comprehensive review here, Chemical & Engineering News reports that ”little has been done to shore up the discipline’s scientific base or to make sure that its methods don’t result in wrongful convictions. Quality standards for forensic laboratories remain inconsistent. And funding to implement improvements is scarce.”

Even worse, the journal says, some are beginning to wonder if much will be done in the new future without continued advocacy from reform-minded scientist and their allies. The fight is far from over.

New Scholarship Spotlight: Relying on Demeanour Evidence to Assess Credibility during Trial – A Critical Examination

Amna M. Qureshi from the U of Ottawa has posted the above-titled article on SSRN.  Download here.  The abstract states:

Demeanour evidence is relied on by the justice system in one of the most important assessments at a trial, namely to assess the credibility of witnesses including complainants and accuseds. This use has also been the source of recent controversy in the case of R v NS where a sexual assault complainant was ordered to remove her niqab before she would be allowed to testify. This paper examines the common law assumption that witnesses in common law criminal courts are required to testify with their faces visible and the origins of this assumption. This paper argues that based on strong social science research the reliance on demeanour cues can be a distracting and unreliable method to assess credibility and increases the potential for wrongful prosecutions and convictions, reduced access to justice for marginalized groups and has a detrimental effect on the truth-seeking function of a trial as whole.

Thanks to courts, police perjury remains major problem

According to an old lawyer joke, the best way to tell when a lawyer is lying is to look to see if his lips are moving. That rule seems to apply to cops on the witness stand, too. But “testilying” is no laughing matter. It is undoubtedly a significant factor in many wrongful convictions.

Proving it to the courts’ satisfaction, though, is another matter. As Radley Balko notes here, “The problem isn’t that cops aren’t capable of telling the truth. The problem is that the courts have treated cops as if they’re incapable of lying.”

Alan M. Dershowitz said the same thing in an op-ed in 1994. “Some judges refuse to close their eyes to perjury,” he wrote, “but they are the rare exception to the rule of blindness, deafness and muteness that guides the vast majority of judges and prosecutors.”

Balko argues that this could be changing, thanks to increasing prevalence of video cameras that catch cops in lies, as happened recently in a Chicago-area case. But until video cameras are everywhere, some cops will probably continue to lie as long as the courts allow them to get away with it.