Category Archives: Technological breakthroughs

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.

Pre-requisites for a safe Criminal Justice System I: GOOD Science.

Junk_Science_zps5ca255edTime and again, we are reminded that ‘junk science’ can so easily lead to injustice. This need not just be wrongful convictions, but can damage confidence in the justice system in many ways, including giving false hope to victims. However, it is shocking to still see cases where BAD science can lead to people being wrongfully convicted. It is still happening daily around the world. In the US, ‘bite mark’ evidence is still being used to convict, EVEN when the bite mark evidence given at trial is later reversed by the same experts  - read the shocking story here….

When Courts Uphold Bad Science, Innocent People Stay in Prison

Fortunately for one suspect – DNA evidence came to his rescue – albeit 3months after his arrest and imprisonment on child rape charges. The suspect had been identified by the victim AND failed a lie detector test, but was eventually freed when DNA testing that he had pleaded for, linked to another convicted felon who lived nearby. The Prosecutor had only reluctantly agreed to DNA testing, stating previously that it would be ‘a waste of taxpayers money’. Read here…

Rape Suspect Denied DNA Test Is Finally Cleared

This is a shocking reminder that prosecutors and governments as a whole, often think of forensic science as a ‘cost’ that can be cut. This is playing out now in the UK, with the ongoing cost-cutting which has seen the closure of the Forensic Science Service and full privatisation of the forensic science ‘market’, as well as the slashing of police science budgets. Now, finally, the media are reporting on the shocking delay in the UK of utilising advances in DNA profiling. Read more here….

Britain goes from ‘pole position to banana republic’ in DNA profiling

How long before we are counting the cost in terms of wrongfully convicted individuals?

New Understandings in Medical Science Lead to Exoneration in Australia…

864615-pn-chris-von-deutschburgFrom Perthnow.com:

The WA Court of Appeal today set aside the 30-year-old second degree murder conviction of Chris von Deutschburg, with this morning’s judgement saying a “miscarriage of justice occurred at the (1983) trial”.

The acquittal was heavily dependant on evidence from WA microbiology Professor Marshall, which was submitted in the appeal run by Malcolm McCusker QC, before he became WA Governor.

On June 1 1983, Mr von Deutschburg, then a homeless 18-year-old known as Christian Wilhelm Michael scuffled with an elderly man during a house robbery.

The man died of a bleeding duodenal ulcer seven days later, and the teen was then jailed for life with hard labour in December and served seven years before being paroled in 1990.

In the December 1983 Supreme Court trial, then state pathologist Donald Hainsworth insisted 86-year-old Stavros Kakulas’s condition was brought on by stress caused by the incident.

But in October 2005, The Sunday Times started investigating the case and interviewed Prof Marshall, who said he stood by an affidavit refuting the evidence that convicted Mr von Deutschburg which he he wrote in 1986 when Mr von Deutschburg had previously considered appealing.

“As a result of my own research and findings . . . I strongly believe that all statements to the effect that the ulcer which caused Mr Kakulas’s death was caused by stress are medically incorrect,” he said in the 1986 document.

A petition for clemency by law firm Mallesons Stephen Jaques, settled by Mr McCusker, led to then WA attorney-general Christian Porter referring the case to the Court of Appeal in May 2012.

This was after Prof Marshall — who won the Nobel in 2005 with co-researcher Robin Warren for proving bacteria not stress caused most ulcers — emphatically told the State Solicitor’s Office the injuries did not cause the ulcer or its bleeding.

Prof Marshall wrote to the SSO in April 4, 2012, saying: “There is no likelihood that his (Mr Kakulas’s) injuries either worsened or contributed to the duodenal ulcer in question.”

In the Supreme Court this morning Justice Michael Buss said Mr von Deutschburg’s appeal had been allowed, there was a “judgement of acquittal” and that the “conviction for murder has been set aside”.

“The medical evidence before this court is incapable of proving beyond reasonable doubt that the appellant’s assault upon Mr Kakulas caused or materially contributed to his death,” the judgement said. “A miscarriage of justice occurred at the trial.”

Mr von Deutschburg, 48, who now lives in Victoria, said: “Today I welcome the Court of Appeal making a decision in this matter … in 1983 it took just three days to find me guilty, but some 30 years to finally accept my innocence.

“I served a life imprisonment with hard labour sentence, including years within Fremantle Prison, all based upon DPP trial evidence that simply never existed. This injustice spanning almost three decades has devastated my life.

“Thank you to Professor Marshall for his medical work of healing the sick, and saving the life of an innocent person persecuted by the State for some 30 years.

“Thank you to my current legal team Sam Vandongan SC and Legal Aid Natalie Sinton. Thank you to my previous legal team including now Governor Malcolm McCusker QC, Judith Fordham, and law firm Mallesons. Thank you to News Ltd journalist Paul Lampathakis who has been working tirelessly for the past some seven years.”

Mr von Deutschburg also thanked the foreman of the 1983 jury for support “all these decades and for visiting me while I was in Fremantle Prison, (and) RP and all those who have variously helped over these past 30 years.”

The former jury foreman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, told PerthNow the decision was “a great weight off my shoulders” because he always knew Mr von Deutschburg was “wrongly convicted”.

He said the jury wanted questions about whether anti-inflammatory drugs had been given to Mr Kakulas, which potentially could have caused the ulcer to bleed, and whether there was a differing medical opinion on the cause of ulcers. But he said the jury was told it could only deal with the evidence at the trial and therefore was compelled to convict him.

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

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New Scholarship Spotlight: Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science

harris_david-0187_0Pittsburgh professor David Harris has posted the above-titled article, Chapter 1 of his new book, on SSRN.  Download full text here.  Abstract states:

News reports about police and science like DNA identification, and popular entertainment like the television program CSI and its many imitators, give the impression that science is now the handmaiden of law enforcement. But this picture is at best misleading. Law enforcement does rely on some scientific techniques, but far more often police and prosecution prefer to ignore or even resist science that bears directly on the basics of police investigation. Years of scientific research on eyewitness testimony, police interrogation, and basic forensic techniques (other than DNA and chemical analysis) tells us how these foundational aspects of investigation go wrong. This science also explains how we can improve these aspects of how evidence is gathered and used. This work has been published, peer reviewed, and duplicated – sometimes for decades. But despite the fact that 300 cases of wrongful convictions have now been exposed using DNA, law enforcement continues to resist changes to these basic techniques that police use every day.

The focus of Failed Evidence is why law enforcement resists, and what can be done to overcome it. The resistance to better, more accurate investigative techniques has its roots in two aspects of human thinking: cognitive barriers (e.g., cognitive dissonance, group polarization, and loss aversion), and institutional and political barriers (e.g., the imperatives of arrest and conviction, the ingrained “us versus them” heart of police culture). These problems keep most police and prosecutors from even considering positive change.

From this understanding of why the resistance to science occurs, Failed Evidence distills six recommendations for making change happen, and gives concrete examples of progress from around the nation.

Vigilante justice goes high-tech in Ohio

Emotions often run high in criminal cases, and the higher they run the greater the likelihood that a defendant may be wrongly convicted.

History is replete with news-media fueled hysteria leading to false allegations and convictions. The 1915 lynching is Leo Frank is one early example. More recently, we saw that in 1989 wrongful convictions explored in the searing new Ken Burns documentary, The Central Park Five, and in the false rape charges filed against three members of the Duke University lacrosse team in 2006.

Another possible injustice is currently unfolding in the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case of two members of the popular Steubenville High School football team. The alleged alcohol-fueled rape of an unconscious 16-year-old girl at a party while other boys supposedly watched and did nothing, has set off an international firestorm.

What makes the media conflagration different in this case is that it has been fueled by bloggers and hackers who contend that other boys should be charged and that authorities are trying to cover up other wrongdoing by people associated with the football team.

Contrary to the narrative perpetrated in the cybersphere, law enforcement was not dismissive of the allegations. The alleged rape occurred on August 11. The girl’s mother reported it to police on August 14. Charges were filed on August 27, the same day that local authorities requested the assistance of the Ohio attorney general’s office for additional investigation.

But that wasn’t good enough for some, particularly a purported local member of the international hacker collective Anonymous who calls himself K.Y.

K.Y. has released a lot of information (and some misinformation) on his LocalLeaks web site. He also has threatened to release the social security numbers and other personal information of people he believes have information on the rape if they don’t come forward.

While some of the information K.Y. has thus-far released might be helpful, much of it seems to be fueled by personal animosity and to have been obtained illegally. (Like some cops and prosecutors, K.Y. apparently feels it’s OK to break the law to make others pay a price for breaking the law.)

This is a new frontier in media-fueled rushes to judgment. While some, including Erika Christakis have expressed concern about this new form of vigilante justice, many in the traditional media have followed the social media’s lead.

What makes this particularly frightening is the instant worldwide distribution via social media of unproven allegations by a masked man who doesn’t mind destroying the reputations of teenagers who may have had nothing to do with the rape in question.

To anyone who cares about justice and the rights of the accused to a fair trial, CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman’s interview with K.Y. should be a cause concern. ”We aren’t the judge nor the jury, but it’s fair to say we are the executioner,” K.Y. said of Anonymous. The hacker added that, because some of the people have ”incriminated themselves” in online tweets and postings, there is no real need to wait for the courts to decide on their guilt or innocence. ”If you think they are guilty, that’s because your conscience is telling you they are guilty,” K.Y. said. Case closed.

Trials often lead to unjust results, particularly in emotionally charged cases. But trials sure beat having the accused subjected to a high-tech lynching by a self-anointed ”executioner” hiding behind a Guy Fawkes mask.

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

  • Two defendants exonerated of murder in NY last Friday, but ordered to be supervised by court for 90 days, cannot be released until Wednesday because that is when ankle monitors will be once again available
  • In the UK, The University of Bristol Innocence Project has received the 2012 Pro Bono Award at the Bristol Law Society’s Annual Awards in recognition of its work in obtaining an appeal for the 30-year old case of William (‘Wullie’) Beck.  The award, which recognises ‘excellence’ in pro bono work, was presented to UoBIP members for their work on the case of Wullie Beck, who was arrested in 1981 for an armed robbery of a post van. Mr Beck served six years of imprisonment for his conviction based exclusively on eyewitness identification.
  • Federal judge find parts of expert cell tower analysis inadmissible under Daubert
  • NPR story on case of Wisconsin Innocence Project (listen here):  New video enhancement technology could lead to a new trial for a man convicted of armed robbery. But some on the high court fear using new technology to challenge old convictions could overwhelm the courts with new cases.
  • A federal appeals court has overturned the guilty verdict of a Chicago woman who has been in prison for seven years for the strangulation of her 4-year-old son.  Details here.