Category Archives: Junk science

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

New Treatise on SBS (Shaken Baby Syndrome)

Sue Luttner maintains the blog OnSBS.  She is a long time observer and reporter of the state of SBS in the justice system.  We  have reblogged many of her articles here on the WCB.

Ms. Luttner has recently had published a definitive, scholarly work that traces the origins of SBS, and explains why the hypothesis of SBS is scientifically questionable.

If you are student of SBS at all, this is a must read.

For me, the most cogent point the paper makes is that SBS evolved into being through massively flawed inductive reasoning, driven by statistically invalid anecdotal observations of extremely small populations.  SBS is just a collection of guesses and speculations canonized into a “diagnosis,” which Prof. Deborah Tuerkheimer has so aptly stated is a “medical diagnosis of murder.”

Access the paper here.

 

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

 

 

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
 

 

Challenges to ‘Shaken Baby’ Convictions Mounting

There is an excellent (and brief) article on the current state of post-conviction SBS challenges that appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal.

You can read that story here.

Thanks to Keith Findley, co-founder of the Wisconsin Innocence Project and current president of the National Innocence Network, for passing this along.

Acquittal in California SBS Case

There was an acquittal in an SBS case in California this past Wednesday.

Quentin Stone was found not guilty of inflicting abusive head trauma (the current “official” term for SBS) on his infant son, who, days before, had accidentally fallen off the bed.

Sue Luttner, in her blog OnSBS.com, has done an excellent job of summarizing the case, and you can read her post here.

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.

Finally, a Judge Calls Shaken Baby Diagnosis an “Article of Faith”

Now for the first time, a federal judge has condemned the standard SBS diagnosis itself.”

Jennifer Del Prete has been released from prison after 10 years, pending a new trial.  She was convicted in 2005 of killing 14-month-old Isabella Zielinski by shaking when she was working at a suburban Chicago day care facility.  She was convicted solely on the basis of SBS “triad” symptoms present in the child.  She has steadfastly maintained her innocence.

Deborah Tuerkheimer is a professor of law at DePaul University and author of the recently published book Flawed Convictions, ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome’ and the Inertia of Injustice.  Prof. Tuerkheimer has studied the Del Prete case, among many others, and has written about it.  She recently authored an article on the case for online Slate magazine.  Read Prof. Deborah Tuerkheimer’s story here.

You can also read the ABC News, Chicago story about the case here.

 

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.”

The Changing Face of Exonerations….

From Time Magazine, by Deborah Tuerkheimer:

For all the understandable weight we give DNA evidence, it is of little if any use for the vast majority of the wrongfully convicted.

These figures point to a hard truth: For all the understandable weight we give DNA evidence, it is of little if any use for the vast majority of the wrongfully convicted. While DNA remains the focus of exoneration efforts around the country, and all states have passed laws that provide for post-conviction access to testing, experts estimate that only 5% to 10% of all criminal cases involve such evidence. If we are to make meaningful progress towards freeing innocent people now serving time—a population some now place at more than 100,000—we need new laws designed to target miscarriages of justice that lack DNA evidence.

Taking such steps is especially critical for women, who make up a fast-growing segment of the nation’s prison population. Women’s alleged crimes of violence—often involving children or romantic partners—do not typically hinge on the whodunit question of identity that DNA is so useful in resolving. To the contrary in such cases, the more common question is whether a crime was even committed, with one salient example being the increasingly discredited diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome. (Notably, “no crime” cases comprise another category on the increase, accounting for a whopping 22% of this year’s exonerations.)

Happily, recent years have seen the beginnings of a movement to grapple with these issues. In a curious twist, it is Texas—not a state generally associated with progressive criminal justice reform—that is leading the way. Last fall, the state passed the nation’s first law recognizing faulty forensic evidence (aka junk science) as a basis for post-conviction relief. The underlying logic is simple: as science evolves and past scientific testimony is seen in new light, we ought to revisit those convictions that have been cast in doubt.

The first to successfully invoke the Texas junk science law werethree women convicted in 1998 of sexually abusing a child. Days later, another woman was separately released after serving 21 years for sexually abusing multiple children–one of the many satanic ritual day care scandals of the 1990s, often rightly compared to the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century. Without the new legislation, these women would still be behind bars.

Another sign of this trend came last month, when a federal judge in Chicago issued a ruling finding “actual innocence” in a case based on shaken baby syndrome. Even without DNA to prove her innocence, 43-year-old Jennifer Del Prete was able to show that, based on current science, no reasonable jury could possibly find her guilty of murdering the baby in her care. As U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly wrote in his 97-page opinion, it’s now apparent that the diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome is arguably “more an article of faith than a proposition of science.”

These incisive words reflect the growing consensus among experts that the neurological symptoms once viewed as conclusive proof of a caregiver’s guilt may well have natural causes, including congenital defects, metabolic disorders, infectious diseases and autoimmune conditions. Such “mimics of abuse” have attracted growing attention in the five years since I began studying the criminal justice system’s treatment of shaken baby syndrome. But our law’s approach to unwinding injustice remains both far too fluky and far too delayed.

If Del Prete is ultimately exonerated—as appears not unlikely—her case will be in keeping with the demographic trend away from a reliance on DNA. Yet in so many ways, hers is also a cautionary tale. Del Prete is now almost a decade into a 20-year prison sentence. And, notwithstanding the finding of “actual innocence,” she will remain incarcerated, at least for now. Federal law allows state prisoners to challenge the constitutionality of their convictions, but the grounds are narrowly defined. In the Alice in Wonderland world of federal criminal procedure, the judge who found her claims of innocence entirely credible was not permitted to vacate her conviction, since innocence is not a basis for relief. The ruling simply means she can move forward to challenge her conviction on separate constitutional grounds.

Such troubling cases underscore the need to reform our laws to better address the realities of all wrongful convictions. We need new avenues for post-conviction relief that reflect what we now know about the common causes of false convictions: false confessions, lying informants, eyewitness misidentification, and invalid forensic science. And we owe it to those wrongly convicted to move far more quickly—to recognize the moral imperative of overcoming the inertia of injustice.

Deborah Tuerkheimer, a Professor of Law at DePaul University, is a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan who has written widely on rape and domestic violence. She is currently a Public Voices Faculty Fellow with the OpEd Project. Her bookFlawed Convictions: “Shaken Baby Syndrome” and the Inertia of Injustice (Oxford University Press) is forthcoming in April.

 

The Trouble With Shaken Baby Syndrome

Here is yet another heart-rending story about how a child abuse pediatrician’s blind dedication to the mistaken medical dogma of Shaken Baby Syndrome tore apart the lives of innocent parents and their children, and brought them to financial ruin.

Read the Seattle Met Magazine story here.

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

Swirls and Whorls: Litigating Post-Conviction Claims of Fingerprint Misidentification after the NAS Report

U of Washington Professor, and director the Innocence Project Northwest, Jackie McMurtry has posted the above-titled article on SSRN.  Download here.  The abstract states:

The National Research Council of the National Academies’ 2009 report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (“NAS Report”), noted that “[t]he number of exonerations resulting from the analysis of DNA has grown across the country in recent years, uncovering a disturbing number of wrongful convictions — some for capital crimes — and exposing serious limitations in some of the forensic science approaches commonly used in the United States.” The evidence can include the comparisons of bite marks, hairs, voiceprints, earprints, and fingerprints.

This article provides a brief outline of latent fingerprint evidence as it is currently presented in courts. Latent fingerprint individualization was rapidly accepted as forensic identification evidence, largely without question — and before being validated through scientific research. Legal challenges only began in the 1990s. Although the NAS Report’s discussion of fingerprint identification raises many questions, petitioners who claim to have been wrongly convicted because of it will still face substantial hurdles.

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

“Flawed Convictions – Shaken Baby Syndrome and the Inertia of Injustice”

flawed conv

Sue Luttner has posted an excellent piece on her blog OnSBS about the new book by Prof. Deborah Tuerkheimer to be released in April - Flawed Convictions – Shaken Baby Syndrome and the Inertia of Injustice.

Please see Sue’s post here.

This book will be a must read for any involved in the SBS debate.

Prosecutor Misconduct in the Todd Willingham Case

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 by the state of Texas for setting a fire that killed his three young children.

We’ve reported numerous times on this blog about the Cameron Todd Willingham case, and here is just one of those articles - Will Texas Admit It Executed an Innocent Man?

 It’s clear to even the casual observer of this case that Todd Wilingham was wrongfully convicted and wrongfully executed.  The State used now-debunked junk science in determining the fire that killed the Willingham children was arson.  The case is carefully documented in the award winning film Incendiary: The Willingham Case.

And now, another snake has just slithered out of the pit that the Texas justice system has made of this case.  It’s been revealed that the Willingham prosecutor, John Jackson, made a secret deal with jailhouse snitch, Johnny Webb, in return for his testimony that Willingham had confessed the crime to him in prison.  And further, that Jackson then concealed this deal from the Texas Board of Paroles and Pardons which was considering a stay of execution for Willingham.

Reported here by the Innocence Project - New Evidence Suggests Cameron Todd Willingham Prosecutor Deceived Board of Pardons and Paroles About Informant Testimony in Opposition to Stay of Execution.

Read the stories from the New York Times here, and the Manchester Guardian here.