Category Archives: Junk science

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.

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

Ohio Innocence Project Nets Another Triple Win; Defendants to Be Freed After 18 Years in Prison

From University of Cincinnati press release:

UPDATE:  All 3 inmates were released the same day as this press release

Legal advocacy from the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati has helped set three men wrongfully imprisoned for murder on the path to freedom.
Date: 3/26/2015 11:00:00 AM
By: Sherry English
Phone: (513) 556-0060

Photos By: Ohio Innocence Project and Mark Bealer

UC ingot   CINCINNATI — Today three men are one step closer to freedom after being wrongly incarcerated for 18 years. Derrick Wheatt, Laurese Glover and Eugene Johnson had their convictions for the 1995 murder of Clifton Hudson Jr. thrown out after nearly a decade of legal advocacy from the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP).

Derrick Wheatt in court
Derrick Wheatt, shown here, Laurese Glover and Eugene Johnson had their convictions thrown out with help from the Ohio Innocence Project at UC. (Mark Bealer photo)

Judge Nancy Margaret Russo, Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, threw out the conviction, granted a new trial and set bond. The OIP expects bond to be met today, which will result in their clients’ immediate release.

Their impending freedom comes after a key eyewitness recanted her testimony and the revelation that information from police reports that cast doubt on the defendants’ guilt had not been disclosed to the trial team years earlier. Today’s win marks the second triple exoneration for the Ohio Innocence Project, which operates out of the University of Cincinnati’s Rosenthal Institute for Justice in the College of Law. When the trio are released, the OIP will have freed 23 people on grounds of innocence, who together served more than 500 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.

“We’re excited about today’s event, but even more excited for our clients,” said Mark Godsey, the Daniel P. and Judith L. Carmichael Professor of Law and Director, Lois and Richard Rosenthal Institute for Justice/Ohio Innocence Project. “They have been fighting to prove their innocence for nearly 20 years. They had tried for exoneration twice before, and had come close in the past. OIP has worked on the case since 2006, and are happy to be with them as they finally taste their long-sought freedom.”

The OIP represented defendants Wheatt and Glover; Johnson was represented by attorneys Brett Murner and Jim Valentine. Additionally, co-counsel on this case was Carmen Naso, Senior Instructor of Law, and the law students at the Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic, Case Western Reserve School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio. The OIP at UC and Kramer Law Clinic partnered on this case and plan to work together on additional cases in the future.

“UC donors who contributed to the UC OIP’s tremendous success provided case workers with the funds needed to facilitate their pursuit of justice,” said UC Foundation President Rodney M. Grabowski. “Since its founding in 2003, more than 600 donors have contributed more than $5.3 million toward the OIP’s efforts. We are forever grateful for their generosity.”

supporters of longtime inmates gather in the courtroom
Supporters of Derrick Wheatt, Laurese Glover and Eugene Johnson gather in the courtroom after the news came that the trio’s convictions have been thrown out.

A Murder Many Years Ago
On Feb. 10, 1995, in East Cleveland, Ohio, 19-year-old Clifton Hudson Jr. was found murdered, shot multiple times. At the time, witnesses reported seeing a person wearing dark clothing and a dark hat at the scene. Three juveniles — Wheatt, Glover and Johnson — happened to be near the scene. But, they emphasized, when the shooting started, they sped off. All three later provided the police with descriptions of the shooter that matched the basic descriptions given by other witnesses. But in a twist of events, they were charged with the crime.

A year later in 1996, the three were convicted of Hudson’s murder, based on their presence at the scene and identification by Tamika Harris, then a 14-year-old. Harris originally reported to police that she saw the shooter get in and out of the defendants’ truck; but, she insisted, she never saw the shooter’s face. It was this tip, though, that led to the group’s initial arrest.

At the trial, Harris changed her story, admitting that she never saw the shooter actually get in or out of the truck. She testified, however, that she could positively identify Eugene Johnson as the shooter. Additionally, the prosecution found what it alleged to be gunshot residue on Wheatt and Johnson. They offered to completely drop charges against Glover if he testified against his friends and also offered Wheatt probation for his testimony. Both refused and continued to assert their innocence. Unfortunately, they were convicted; Wheatt and Johnson were sentenced to 18 years to life in prison; Glover was sentenced to 15 years to life.

Finding Grounds for a New Trial
Through the years the three men continued to maintain their innocence. Then in 2004, Johnson’s attorneys, Murner and Valentine, filed a motion for a new trial on the grounds that Harris had recanted her testimony. Now an adult and in nursing school, she admitted she could not see the shooter’s face from where she stood and that she never saw anyone get in or out of the truck.

three defendants enter the court room
From left, Eugene Johnson, Derrick Wheatt and Laurese Glover enter the courtroom at the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas in Cleveland. (Mark Bealer photo)

She relayed that when she went to the police station years earlier, the officers told her they had found the people responsible, showed her photos of the three defendants, and asked which of the three was the shooter. Harris said she picked the one whose jacket was closest to the one she saw: Johnson’s. Though the trial court granted a new trial on this basis, it was overturned on appeal, in part because of the alleged gunshot residue evidence.

Two years later in 2006, the OIP accepted the case. Attorneys and fellows spent hundreds of hours reviewing evidence, interviewing potential witnesses and filing motions. In fact, Brian Howe, now the attorney of record, previously worked on this case as an OIP fellow.

In 2009, OIP attorney David Laing filed another new trial motion based on advancements in knowledge about gunshot residue. Specifically, the type of testing used in 1995 is known to be particularly prone to false positives from other items, and is no longer used by the FBI.  Further, recent studies showed the high likelihood of gunshot residue contamination from police sources, especially when the tests are not performed on scene or immediately upon arrest. This motion, however, was denied.

Late in 2013 a break in the case came when the OIP received the police reports. The reports included information that was not raised at the original trial, including the existence of two witnesses who confirmed that the shooter came from a nearby post office lot, not the defendants’ truck.  One of those witnesses even claimed he recognized the shooter as a sibling of one of his classmates. The reports also showed that unknown people in a different car had shot at the victim’s brother just days before the crime, and that someone had threatened the victim himself the day before the murder. There was no known connection between any of those threats and the defendants.

The OIP, on behalf of the defendants, filed another new trial motion on the basis that this information was never disclosed to the defense. A hearing on the motion was held on Jan. 29, 2015, led by OIP attorney Brian Howe and the Kramer Clinic’s Carmen Naso. “The evidence at the hearing was overwhelming,” said Howe. “None of these men should have ever been convicted.”

three defendants and their defense team in court
The Ohio Innocence Project has worked for nearly a decade to show that Eugene Johnson, Derrick Wheatt and Laurese Glover were wrongfully convicted. (Mark Bealer photo)

A Day Worth Waiting For
“This has been a long day coming for Mr. Johnson, Mr. Wheatt and Mr. Glover,” said Howe. “I know it must be an incredible feeling. It is particularly important and gratifying for me because I worked on the gunshot residue motions as an OIP fellow. It’s incredible to see all of our hard work come to fruition.”

Special thanks to the many individuals who spent hundreds of hours working on this case over the years. The list includes attorneys: Brian Howe, David Laing, and Carrie Wood; and student fellows: Shabnam Allen, Nicole Billec, Amanda Bleiler, Scott Brenner, Chris Brinkman, Chris Brown, Eric Gooding, John Hill, Matt Katz, Eric Kmetz, Amanda Rieger, Bryant Strayer, Queenie Takougang, and Brandon Brown, Amanda Sanders and Shaun McPherron, who spent significant time in East Cleveland last summer canvassing the neighborhood speaking to witnesses.

PBS’s Recent Segment on SBS (Shaken Baby Syndrome)

A Disputed Diagnosis that Sends Parents to Prison for Abuse.

Last evening (3/23/15), PBS aired a segment that takes a critical look at the diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome. The story features Kate Judson, who is the Innocence Network SBS Litigation Fellow, and who has been doing phenomenal work in not only helping those wrongfully convicted of SBS, but also in trying to bring the medical and legal communities together to achieve a true scientific understanding of the causes and symptoms.

See the 10 minute video here.

Washington Post Article on SBS (Shaken Baby Syndrome)

A disputed diagnosis imprisons parents

Debbie Cenziper of the Washington Post, after a year-long investigation in conjunction with the Medill Justice Project, has written an article addressing the controversy surrounding the diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS).

This is the most comprehensive general publication article on the subject I have seen, and she interviewed people on both sides of the issue. I have extracted some selected quotes:

Dr. Patrick Lantz: “If doctors see retinal hemorrhages, they say it’s abuse, but it’s as scientific as a fortuneteller reading tea leaves.”

Dr. George Nichols: “Shaken Baby Syndrome is a belief system rather than an exercise in ­modern-day science.”  “My greatest worry is that I have deprived someone of justice because I have been overtly biased or just mistaken.”

Dr. Jonathon Arden: “A lot of people in this field, especially many of the pediatricians, make statements that are absolute and dogmatic and do not allow for the exceptions that we know exist. Do you want to be involved in somebody’s wrongful conviction because you had this dogmatic approach that it must be trauma, it must be shaking?”

Dr. Patrick Barnes: “All of the treating physicians simply assumed trauma and stopped looking for alternative explanations. That is not sound science and cannot be the basis of a reliable prosecution.”

Dr. Jan Leestma:  “The original papers that espoused Shaken Baby were basically opinion papers with essentially no science applied to them.”

Dr. Norman Guthkelch: “I am doing what I can so long as I have a breath to correct a grossly unjust situation. I think they’ve gone much too far.”

See the Washington Post article here.