Category Archives: Junk science

Criminal Law 2.0, by The Hon. Alex Kozinski (Why the US Justice System Really Isn’t Just)

Alex Kozinski is a judge on the U.S. Ninth Circuit. He has recently authored an article for the Georgetown Law Journal, which he simply titles “Criminal Law 2.0.” It is a comprehensive review and critique of the flaws and shortcomings of the current US justice system. My opinion is that this article is a masterpiece, a classic. Here is an experienced, seasoned, knowledgable justice system “insider” who has “figured it out.” And not only has he figured it out, but he also has some very good ideas about fixing the problems, or at least some of them. You can see the full text here: Kozinski, Criminal Law 2. I strongly encourage reading the full article.

Here is a topical summary: (Please see the full article for Judge Kozinski’s discussion of each point.)

A. The myths that cause us to think that the justice system is fair and just, when it’s really not.

  1. Eyewitnesses are highly reliable.
  2. Fingerprint evidence is foolproof.
  3. Other types of forensic evidence are scientifically proven and therefore infallible.
  4. DNA evidence is infallible.
  5. Human memories are reliable.
  6. Confessions are infallible because innocent people never confess.
  7. Juries follow instructions.
  8. Prosecutors play fair.
  9. The prosecution is at a substantial disadvantage because it must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
  10. Police are objective in their investigations.
  11. Guilty pleas are conclusive proof of guilt.
  12. Long sentences deter crime.

B. Recommendations for reform – Juries

  1. Give jurors a written copy of the jury instructions.
  2. Allow jurors to take notes during trial and provide them with a full trial transcript.
  3. Allow jurors to discuss the case while the trial is ongoing.
  4. Allow jurors to ask questions during the trial.
  5. Tell jurors up-front what’s at stake in the case.
  6. Give jurors a say in sentencing.

C. Recommendations for reform – Prosecutors

  1. Require open file discovery.
  2. Adopt standardized, rigorous procedures for dealing with the government’s disclosure obligations.
  3. Adopt standardized, rigorous procedures for eyewitness identification.
  4. Video record all suspect interrogations.
  5. Impose strict limits on the use of jailhouse informants.
  6. Adopt rigorous, uniform procedures for certifying expert witnesses and preserving the integrity of the testing process.
  7. Keep adding conviction integrity units.
  8. Establish independent Prosecutorial Integrity Units.

D. Recommendations for reform – Judges

  1. Enter Brady compliance orders in every criminal case.
  2. Engage in a Brady colloquy.
  3. Adopt local rules that require the government to comply with its discovery obligations without the need for motions by the defense.
  4. Condition the admission of expert evidence in criminal cases on the presentation of a proper Daubert showing.
  5. When prosecutors misbehave, don’t keep it a secret.

E. Recommendations for reform – General

  1. Abandon judicial elections.
  2. Abrogate absolute prosecutorial immunity.
  3. Repeal AEDPA § 2254(d). (Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act)
  4. Treat prosecutorial misconduct as a civil rights violation.
  5. Give criminal defendants the choice of a jury or bench trial.
  6. Conduct in depth studies of exonerations.
  7. Repeal three felonies a day for three years. (Refers to the fact that there are too many vague, overlapping laws on the books.)

I would add two more to the General category:

•  Have all trial counsel, prosecution and defense, sworn in at the beginning of every trial.

•  Abandon political election of prosecutors.

Modern Forensics vs. Good Old-Fashioned Texas Justice: The Trials of Ed Graf

From: Slate.com

By Jeremy Stahl

Ed Graf was a bad employee. While working at Community Bank in Texas in the 1980s, he allegedly embezzled from his employer, eventually paying the bank more than $75,000 to avoid prosecution. Ed Graf was a bad husband. His ex-wife, Clare, would call him “the most possessive person I’ve ever known.” Clare’s best friend, Carol Schafer, said her husband, Earl, saw Graf having sex with another woman the night of Graf’s bachelor party. Ed Graf was, according to Clare and her family, a bad father. Two of Clare’s family members accused him of beating his adopted stepsons, Joby and Jason, with a board and belt.

In 1988, a Texas jury found that Ed Graf was also a murderer. Prosecutors argued that two years earlier, on Aug. 26, 1986, Graf had knocked out Joby, 9, and Jason, 8, and placed the boys in the back of their family shed. Graf had then spread gasoline, locked the shed, and set the boys ablaze. The two inseparable, athletic, blond-haired brothers died of smoke inhalation and severe burns in the backyard of their home. The address was 505 Angel Fire Drive.

On the day of the fire, Graf broke the news to his wife, telling Clare that both boys had been lost in the blaze. But Graf had been informed that the body of one child had been found, not both. It was one of many pieces of circumstantial evidence that prosecutors would pile up to present Graf as a calculating, greedy, and callous monster who murdered the children in a desperate attempt to keep his troubled marriage together.

Other small clues seemed to point to Graf’s guilt. Multiple witnesses say they saw a gasoline container on the porch, not far from the kids’ bikes. Graf also acted strangely after the fire. He suggested the boys be buried in one coffin, according to multiple witnesses. He didn’t offer his wife consolation, or apologize that they died in his care. A few weeks after the fire, Graf returned about $50 worth of Joby and Jason’s new school clothes that he had previously insisted they keep the tags on. There was more of what others saw as signs of foreknowledge. The normally meticulous Graf, who was said to keep lists for everything, neglected to buy the boys’ cereal or fill Jason’s Dimetapp prescription the week of their deaths.

In addition to the circumstantial evidence, prosecutors were able to present motive. Weeks before the fire, Graf had taken out $100,000 worth of combined life insurance on the boys if they were to die in an accident. The policies had been mailed out the day before the fire.

The real motive, prosecutors argued, was to get the boys—a source of regular bickering between Graf and his wife—out of their lives. His wife testified that shortly before the fire, she had threatened to leave him over his strict discipline of Joby and Jason, sons from a previous marriage, and to take their newborn third son, Edward III, with her.

The case was still largely circumstantial, though. The thing that likely clinched Graf’s conviction was the scientific testimony of a pair of forensic examiners. Joseph Porter, an investigator with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, testified that, based on his analysis of photos of the remains of the scene, the door of the shed must have been locked from the outside at the time of the fire, which would indicate foul play. He also said there were obvious charring patterns on the floor of the shed left by an accelerant. “The fire was definitely incendiary,” Porter declared. The prosecution’s other expert, a top fire investigator from New York known for his report on the Osage Avenue fire, a notorious fire set by Philadelphia officials that destroyed a primarily black neighborhood, was brought in to testify that there was “no doubt” that this was arson.

If the fire was intentionally set, then Graf was the only suspect with means, motives, and opportunity. Even if there was no direct evidence connecting him to the crime, the circumstantial evidence and the word of two arson experts was enough. The jury deliberated for four hours before pronouncing him guilty of capital murder.

The jurors then had to decide the punishment. The district attorney, Vic Feazell, said that the “facts of the case cry out” for the death penalty—two boys burned alive, murdered by a trusted parent.

Defense attorney Charles McDonald gave an impassioned plea that the jurors had convicted an innocent man and would make the injustice irreversible if they chose execution over life in prison. “I’m asking for this man’s life because if you did make a mistake there’s going to be some folks, somewhere down the line, it may be years … but maybe the mistake can be corrected,” McDonald argued. “If you take this man’s life, there ain’t no way to ever correct it.” The jurors must have found this argument compelling, because they spared Ed Graf’s life.

Twenty-five years later, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decided that a mistake had, in fact, been made. The investigators who testified the fire was arson used what in the years since has been discredited as junk science. A state review panel set up to examine bad forensic science in arson cases said that the evidence did not point to an incendiary fire. A top fire scientist in the field went one step further: The way the boys had died, from carbon monoxide inhalation rather than burns, proved the fire couldn’t have been set by Graf spreading an accelerant, and was thus likely accidental. The defense’s theory was that the boys, who multiple witnesses said had a history of playing with matches and cigarettes, had set the fire themselves, attempted to put it out, and been quickly overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning.

The reason Ed Graf’s case was reviewed a quarter of a century after he barely escaped the death chamber was because of one man: Cameron Todd Willingham. He was convicted, based on similarly faulty scientific evidence and the testimony of a jailhouse informant who later recanted and said he was bribed, of murdering his three children by setting their home on fire two days before Christmas in 1991. Willingham was executed 11 years ago. Only after Willingham’s death was it revealed publicly that the forensic evidence used to convict him was bunk. In 2009, the New Yorker’s David Grann wrote a groundbreaking article describing Texas’ flawed case against Willingham. The story sparked a national uproar over forensic science and the death penalty.

Then Texas did something surprising. While the state has not budged in its use of the death penalty—just last year topping 500 executions since the state brought back capital punishment in 1982—it has reinvented itself as a leader in arson science and investigation. A new fire marshal, Chris Connealy, revamped the state’s training and investigative standards. He also set up a panel comprised of some of the top fire scientists in the country to reconsider old cases that had been improperly handled by the original investigators.

Graf’s case was one of the first up for review, and it was determined that the original investigators had made critical mistakes. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, overturning the original conviction.

Graf’s successful appeal proved that Texas was serious about correcting past forensic errors, but his story was far from over. Prosecutors in Waco were not convinced of his innocence. They felt that they had enough evidence to reconvict. Just because the forensic science was flawed didn’t change the fact that, in the eyes of prosecutors, Ed Graf was a bad employee, a bad husband, and a bad father—a man capable of murdering his adopted children.

So there was a new trial, and Graf became the first man in Texas to be retried for an arson murder that had been overturned thanks to advances in fire science. His new trial set up a clash between modern forensics and the old way of pursuing criminal justice in Texas, a state where prosecutors have often gone to questionable lengths to win convictions against high profile murder defendants—including multiple men later proved innocent.

Prosecutors in Graf’s retrial spared no effort to win a second conviction in a strange and dramatic retrial last October. The trial’s surreal and unforeseeable conclusion would have a profound impact not just on the fate of Ed Graf, but on the lives of other prisoners who in the wake of the Willingham case held out new hope that their convictions might be overturned and their innocence acknowledged…

Continue reading on Slate.com at Chapter 2 New Memories

Documentary on Scientifically Flawed FBI Hair Comparison Evidence

We’ve reported here before about the fact that FBI agents have been giving scientifically unsupportable testimony regarding hair comparison evidence for decades. Please see  Hair Analysis Evidence About to Join CBLA as “Junk Science.”

This Monday, August 17th at 10pm ET/7p PT, Al Jazeera’s Emmy Award-winning “Fault Lines” investigates how the FBI used the flawed science of microscopic hair analysis to help convict thousands of criminal defendants.

In this new episode, “Under the Microscope: The FBI Hair Cases,” Fault Lines correspondent Josh Rushing and team travel to Savannah, Georgia to meet Joseph Sledge. In 1978, Sledge was convicted of murder, partly based on FBI testimony that his hair was “microscopically alike in all respects” to hairs found at the crime scene. He was released this January, after serving 37 years in prison, when DNA testing proved the hairs used at trial were not his.

As “Fault Lines” reveals, Sledge is among at least 74 Americans who were exonerated after being convicted of a crime involving the forensic science of microscopic hair analysis. “There was no physical evidence tying Joseph to the crime, and the microscopic hair comparison was the closest they could come,” attorney Christine Mumma of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence said of Sledge’s case.

Before the advent of DNA testing, the FBI used the technique of hair analysis for decades. Al Jazeera America interviewed former FBI hair examiner Morris Samuel Clark, who said he testified hundreds of times in court about hair evidence, and that FBI microscopic hair comparisons were based on “16 different characteristics.”  However, with no database with which to compare hairs, Clark conceded that the FBI could not account for how hair characteristics are distributed in the general population.

“The hairs on your head are quite different depending on where they’re selected,” said Dr. Terry Melton, founder of Mitotyping Technologies, a Pennsylvania-based DNA lab. “Microscopy is a very subjective science, and DNA is exactly the opposite.”

In 2012, Dr. Melton’s DNA lab helped overturn convictions for two Washington, D.C.-area men: Kirk Odom, arrested for rape when he was 18 years old, and Santae Tribble, arrested for murder when he was 17.  Sandra Levick, the public defender who represented both Odom and Tribble in their appeals, said, “We had all 13 of the hairs that the FBI had examined [in Tribble’s case] sent off [for DNA testing.]” DNA-testing revealed that one of the hairs used at trial belonged to a dog.

In 2012, these high-profile exonerations finally compelled the Department of Justice to conduct a thorough review. In cases reviewed thus far, they have found that 26 out of 28 FBI examiners made false claims at trial. “We can now say, based on a statistically sizable sample of cases they have reviewed, [the FBI] were wrong 95% of the time,” said David Colapinto, an attorney at the National Whistleblower’s Center.

As of April 2015, the Department of Justice says it has reviewed about 1,800 cases – but in 40% of them, it closed the review due to lack of documentation. Officials from Justice and FBI declined to speak on camera for “Fault Lines” but publicly, they say they will notify defense counsel in cases they have reviewed, while declining to release the names of the defendants to the public. But with at least 14 defendants in question already executed or deceased of old age, is justice working too slowly?

Fault Lines’ “Under the Microscope: the FBI Hair Cases” premieres on Al Jazeera America on Monday, August 17th at 10 p.m. Eastern time/7 p.m. Pacific.

Al Jazeera America can be seen around the U.S. on Comcast Channel 107, Time Warner Cable, Dish Channel 216, DirecTV Channel 347, Verizon Fios Channel 614 and AT&T U-Verse Channel 1219.

The Junk Science of Bite Marks Needs to Go Away

We’ve posted about bite mark junk science here before. See About Bite Mark Evidence – Forensic Odontology.

Now, a leading White House science advisor has exhorted the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to eliminate bite mark evidence, because there is, in fact, no science to it at all. See Radley Balko’s recent article in the Washington Post here.

Balko also correctly advocates in his article that we MUST get trial court judges out of the business of being the decision makers about what is, or is not, valid science. “If not a single court in the country to date has been able to rule against a self-evidently absurd field like bite mark matching, why should we continue to entrust the courts to arbitrate the scientific validity of other evidence?

Why so Many “Confessions” in Shaken Baby Syndrome Cases?

In suspected SBS cases, the child abuse pediatricians (CAP’s) and the police are perfectly willing to coerce a confession out of you, and they have circumstances on their side, because you are at your most vulnerable. You are terribly concerned about the condition of your child, or worse yet, your child has just died. (See our previous post on child abuse pediatricians here: The Child Abuse Pediatrician (CAP) – Just Another Term for Medical “Cop”)

We’ve posted about SBS “confessions” before. See Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) – A CBS Report: Blaming Melissa for the coerced “confession” of Melissa Calusinski. See Scenes of a Crime – A Documentary of a False Confession and Blatantly Coerced Confession Results in Conviction Reversal for the coerced “confession” of Adrian Thomas.

Washtenaw Watchdogs (Washtenaw County, MI) has just published an investigative report article on their website dealing with this very issue. It’s very powerful. See it HERE.

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

Police insider says a Chicago man’s false confession resulted from beatings inflicted by detectives…

A wrongfully convicted man who was released from prison last month after being locked up 27 years started work Tuesday at his new job as a paralegal

Alaska Newspaper calls for a change in shaken baby investigations…

In Wisconsin, a man convicted of murder seeks new trial on the basis that the murder was actually a suicide…

Georgia Supreme Court says DNA evidence suggesting a different perpetrator  not enough to get man convicted of sexual assault a new trial…

The Shifted Paradigm: Forensic Sciences’s Overdue Evolution from Magic to Law

Chris Fabricant and Tucker Carrington have posted the above-titled article on SSRN.  Download here.  The abstract states:

A decade ago a controversial article in Science Magazine predicted a coming “paradigm shift” that would push forensic sciences toward fundamental change as the result of “[l]egal and scientific forces . . . converging to drive an emerging skepticism about the claims of the traditional forensic individualization sciences.” This article argues that the predicted paradigm shift has occurred. We support our thesis through a deconstruction of the jurisprudence of two of the forensic disciplines implicated in numerous wrongful convictions – forensic odontology (bite mark analysis) and forensic hair microscopy – and an examination of a confluence of unprecedented events currently altering the landscape of forensic sciences. The empirical evidence and data gathered here demonstrates that traditional forensic identification techniques, as well as the doctrines supporting them, are ultimately no more than a house of cards built on unvalidated hypotheses and unsubstantiated or non-existent data. Several very serious consequences result, among them that state, and to some extent federal, jurisprudence that stands for the proposition that this type of evidence is admissible is objectively erroneous and must be reevaluated and effectively rejected as valid precedent; and that the long-overdue paradigm shift presents a unique ethical challenge to criminal justice professionals, one that current professional ethics regimes fail to adequately capture, even though fundamental due process norms compel the conclusion that prosecutors, defense attorneys, forensic experts and their respective governing bodies have an ethical, moral and legal duty to revisit affected cases and provide remedies. Put differently, the “path forward” for forensic sciences that the National Academy of Sciences identified in its seminal 2009 report must have a rear-view mirror.

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

New Doubts are Cast on Shaken-Baby Diagnoses

Here is a recent article from the Boston Globe on developments in the diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS/AHT), and their relation to the justice system. See the article here.

One more step on the road to scientific truth, but it’s going to be a long journey. To paraphrase Nobel physics laureate Max Planck, “Science advances one funeral at a time.”

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Weekend Quick Clicks…

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

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.

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

Is Shaken Baby Syndrome the New Satanic Panic?

LA Weekly has just published an article titled ‘Is Shaken Baby Syndrome the New Satanic Panic?‘ The article highlights many frightening parallels between today’s SBS prosecutions and those of so-called satanic ritual child abusers in the 1980’s.

The article also features information from the recent documentary film by Susan Goldsmith ‘The Syndrome.’

Having closely followed the satanic ritual abuse panic of the 80’s, I found reading this story to be downright creepy. If you follow the SBS situation at all, this is a must read.

See the LA Weekly story here.

Hannah Overton Capital Murder Case Dismissed

See our previous post on the Hannah Overton case here.

Hannah Overton was convicted for murdering her 4-year-old stepson by salt poisoning. Given the evidence that the prosecutor had early on, and did not disclose to the defense, Overton never should have been charged in the first place. This was a “crime” that never happened.

See the KRIS TV (Corpus Christi, TX) story here.

Thanks to Camille Tilley for passing this story along.