Author Archives: Liza Dietrich

Questions about ex-Ohio BCI scientist may cast doubt on convictions

The Columbus Dispatch

By Mike Wagner, Jill Riepenhoff, Lucas Sullivan & Earl Rinehart

Dozens, if not hundreds, of criminal convictions in Ohio could be in jeopardy because a longtime forensic scientist at the state crime lab now stands accused of slanting evidence to help cops and prosecutors build their cases.

The credibility of G. Michele Yezzo, who worked at the Ohio attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation for more than three decades, has been challenged in two cases in which men were convicted of aggravated murder. One has been freed from prison because of her now-suspect work.

A review of her personnel records by The Dispatch shows that colleagues and supervisors raised questions about Yezzo time and again while she tested evidence and testified in an uncounted number of murder, rape and other criminal cases in the state.

Their concerns included that she presented evidence in the best light for prosecutors instead of objectively, used suspect methods while examining trace evidence from some crime scenes, and made mistakes that, as one former attorney general put it, “could lead to a substantial miscarriage of justice.”

Yezzo, 63, of West Jefferson, told The Dispatch that the accusations about her work being biased are wrong and that she approached her work objectively.

“I have never done anything to overstate analysis of evidence, nor have I done anything, for lack of better a word, to taint the evidence,” Yezzo said. “No, I didn’t appease prosecutors and law enforcement. I bent over backwards to try and find out whatever evidence was there, and that’s the best I can tell you.”

But two former attorneys general, defense attorneys, a judge, a former BCI superintendent and a nationally renowned forensic expert from the FBI all say that Yezzo has credibility issues that may have poisoned cases she touched.

Lee Fisher, who served as attorney general from 1991 to 1995, and Jim Petro, who served as attorney general from 2003 to 2007, both said they didn’t know of Yezzo when they were in office, but they now have concerns about her work.

“I would call for an investigation into every case where her findings and conclusions were instrumental in the final result of a case,” Fisher said. “We have an obligation to the integrity of the criminal-justice system to investigate every case. We have to determine whether her findings or conclusions were suspect.”

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said Friday that his office was alerted to the concerns about Yezzo in 2015 and has since conducted two separate reviews of her work. One involved examining 100 criminal cases where Yezzo’s evidence analysis played a role in a conviction.

DeWine said they found no issues with her work.

Moving forward, DeWine, who did not serve as attorney general during Yezzo’s tenure, said he has no plans for an internal investigation into Yezzo’s history, but he will have open discussions with defense attorneys on a case-by-case basis if they raise questions.

He said the BCI, which handles about 37,000 cases a year, has a “long history of doing good work” and has received the highest level of accreditation.

More than 800 pages of Yezzo’s personnel records paint a disturbing pattern of behavior that started shortly after she walked in the BCI doors in 1976. The concerns escalated over time until she resigned in 2009.

Over the 32 years that Yezzo worked in the crime lab, her bad behavior intensified to the point that colleagues questioned her mental health.

In the records, colleagues and supervisors described these concerns about Yezzo: She threatened to use a gun to shoot her co-workers and herself. She threw a 6-inch metal plate at one co-worker. She exposed her breasts to BCI agents at a bar, flipped off her boss and acted in a hostile manner to almost every lab employee, according to records. She was accused of calling an African-American scientist a racial slur, something Yezzo denies. She frequently broke into crying spells for no apparent reason.

Forensic scientists quit because of her erratic behavior. At one point her union, the Fraternal Order of Police, refused to back her.

Yezzo admits to the majority of the behavior described in her personnel file.

She attributed her erratic and sometimes abusive actions to intense pressure within the BCI to handle an enormous caseload as its lead forensic analyst.

She said the bureau was usually short-staffed and had difficulty keeping up with the workload. She also said she was having problems in her personal life. Those issues related to the loss of her sister and her mother moving in with her after the death.

She doesn’t believe her behavior affected her work.

Yezzo received numerous verbal reprimands and was suspended in 1993. But her analysis of evidence continued to be used in many high-profile felony cases despite the concerns about her work and behavior inside the state’s crime lab in London, where forensic scientists examine and analyze evidence from crime scenes across Ohio.

Yezzo conducted her analysis of evidence without much oversight. Her reports summarizing findings would be reviewed by her supervisors, but her actual work, methods and conclusions rarely were checked by anyone.

Now, defense attorneys in at least two cases have done their own investigations and believe they have proof that Yezzo’s work is suspect. In one of those cases, a judge already has freed a man from prison because of credibility issues described in Yezzo’s personnel file.

The judge in that case and others familiar with Yezzo’s BCI history say that if defense attorneys had known about her work issues during past trials, they potentially could have discredited her as an expert witness.

“I didn’t know of what occurred with Michele Yezzo when I was in that office, but if I had been made aware, I wouldn’t have allowed her to be involved in criminal-justice proceedings,” Petro said. “I am co-counsel in two cases where her work largely convicted men, and her work was shoddy at best. Any case where she provided forensic evidence that resulted in a conviction now comes into question.”

Grave doubts

Barbara Parsons was in the bedroom of her home in Norwalk, in northern Ohio, when someone brutally attacked her, striking her 15 times in the head with a large, heavy object.

Her husband, James Parsons, told police that he was working at the local auto repair shop when his wife was murdered in 1981. His alibi held up for about 12 years, until he was arrested and charged with his wife’s death in 1993.

Shortly before his arrest, police resubmitted evidence to the BCI, and Yezzo was assigned to the case. It was mainly circumstantial, but Yezzo’s analysis of the crime scene is what led prosecutors to charge James Parsons with his wife’s murder.

Prosecutors used Yezzo’s analysis of blood patterns to determine that a breaker bar, a long socket wrench made of thick metal, was the murder weapon. Prosecutors said the bar belonged to Parsons.

Yezzo performed an experiment on the crime-scene evidence that compared the head of the breaker bar with blood patterns found on Barbara Parsons’ bedsheets and nightgown. Yezzo concluded that the letters N and S, which were imprinted on the head of the breaker bar, “were consistent with” blood impressions left on the bedsheets. She also concluded a halo-like impression from the breaker bar was consistent with a blood pattern left on both the sheets and nightgown.

Defense attorneys rebutted her findings and said Yezzo did not properly document how she got those results, nor did she properly explain her findings to the jury.

Yezzo was working on the case in 1993 and preparing to testify when she was suspended for threatening a co-worker and placed under investigation.

Parsons was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

He remained in prison for 23 years until Donald Caster, an attorney for the University of Cincinnati-based Ohio Innocence Project, played a hunch and asked for Yezzo’s personnel file.

At a hearing this year in Huron County, Caster convinced Judge Thomas Pokorny that Yezzo’s scientific conclusions were suspect and that her troubled BCI history called into question her credibility.

Pokorny didn’t declare Parsons innocent, but the judge dismissed the murder conviction and released him.

“What has weighed most heavily on the court’s mind is the testimony from Ms. Yezzo’s superior that the integrity of her analysis and conclusions may be suspect as she ‘will stretch the truth to satisfy a department,’” Pokorny said in his ruling, referring to a memo written by an assistant BCI superintendent in 1989. “This opinion together with the other evidence of her troubled behavior in the workplace casts grave doubts about her credibility.”

Yezzo defended herself at James Parsons’ hearing when Caster questioned whether her work was biased toward law enforcement.

“There may have been issues between me and my co-workers, but it was not a circumstance where those issues fell to the analysis of evidence,” Yezzo said. “You’re trying to portray me as a prosecution expert. I testified to the results, not to try and make any points with anybody.”

Yezzo’s direct supervisor, Daniel Cappy, defended her work. Cappy testified that Yezzo had some behavioral issues, but he stood behind the quality of her work as a forensic scientist.

Parsons suffers from congestive heart disease and dementia. He requires constant care and was placed in a nursing home after his release in April.

Prosecutors lost their initial appeal and are now asking the appellate court to reconsider Pokorny’s ruling. It’s unlikely prosecutors would attempt to retry Parsons for his wife’s death.

“It was shocking to me — shocking — that you have a forensic scientist being questioned by her own bosses and no one went back to check her work,” Caster said. “That is grossly negligent at best. It’s clear that she became an advocate for prosecutors, and that’s not what a forensic scientist should be.”

A second chance

On Friday, another man convicted of murder asked a judge to grant him a new trial because of Yezzo’s checkered history.

Kevin Keith was once just 13 days away from being executed.

Prosecutors convinced a jury that he walked into a small apartment in Bucyrus, about 60 miles north of Columbus, on Feb. 13, 1994, and riddled it with gunfire. Three people died and three others were wounded.

The key testimony at the trial that ultimately put him on Death Row came from Yezzo.

Her forensic analysis of tire tracks and a license plate imprint left in a snowbank matched what detectives working the case contended — that both came from the car Keith apparently drove that night.

But in 2010, a retired FBI forensic expert said Yezzo’s conclusions were baseless and her methods were shoddy in Keith’s case. Keith’s legal team, led by Assistant Ohio Public Defender Rachel Troutman, also produced evidence that they say implicates another man, challenges the credibility of eyewitness accounts and shows that police mishandled the case.

All of that prompted then-Gov. Ted Strickland to spare Keith’s life by commuting his sentence to life without parole. Keith remains in the Marion Correctional Institution.

“I can’t thank the governor for giving me life in prison,” Keith told The Dispatch in 2010. “When I found out his decision, it felt like the poison was going through me right then. But the governor gave me some hope by leaving the door open in my case.”

Keith’s attorneys now think he has more reason to hope, and a better chance of proving his innocence. They filed a motion late Friday in Crawford County Common Pleas Court, asking for a new trial based on the problems with Yezzo’s work and her behavioral history.

“Every case she has touched is tainted,” said Zach Swisher, a member of Keith’s legal team who also reviewed Keith’s case in 2010 as legal counsel for Strickland. “The fact that she is considered an expert is a joke. She gave the detectives what they wanted in a capital case, and that is just unconscionable.”

William Bodziak, a forensic expert for 43 years, including 29 of them for the FBI, said Yezzo’s work in the Keith case was below standards for even scientists in training — and Yezzo had decades of experience.

Bodziak said the evidence problems started with the “unprofessional” recovery and documentation of tire-track and license-plate imprints. The lack of photographs and the inability to show dimensions at the crime scene made it nearly impossible to draw conclusions, said the expert, who provided an independent analysis as part of Keith’s case for a pardon.

For the license plate imprint, Bodziak said Yezzo concluded that the numbers “043” could be seen in the snow, and those numbers matched the plate from the car prosecutors said Keith was driving. But Bodziak found multiple problems: He could barely see the 0 or the 4 in the imprint; the license plate was mounted flat, making it unlikely to leave such an impression; and the snow surrounding those numbers remained untouched.

Bodziak said Yezzo’s tire-track conclusions lack even more credibility because she made them by comparing a photograph to a commercial brochure a detective provided. She didn’t inspect the actual tires. Bodziak said the tires on that car were among the most common and popular used on the road.

“There is nothing to support the conclusions she made, nothing at all,” said Bodziak, who remains a consultant on forensic cases for both prosecutors and defense attorneys.

“If I had been working on that case, I would have pointed out all those discrepancies and would not have made any conclusions. But it appears she was giving investigators the conclusions they wanted, and that’s the really bad part of this case,” he said.

Yezzo was unaware that her work was challenged by Bodziak in 2010 and disputes that she made conclusions in the case. She says she never stated that the “043” impression came from the vehicle prosecutors claim Keith was driving, just that she could see those numbers.

She also says she compared the tire tracks to photos the BCI had of the tires on the vehicle Keith used, and she only said the tracks “were consistent with” the treadmarks left at the crime scene.

Yezzo said she couldn’t help it if prosecutors or defense attorneys in her cases overstated or twisted her analysis to help make their arguments in court.

“Attorneys on both sides are going to slant things in the way they want a jury to think about them,” Yezzo said. “I don’t like it when people take what analysts do and stretch the truth. I can only be responsible for my analysis.”

Update for Taiwan Association for Innocence

The success of Taiwan’s developing Innocence Movement was recently celebrated at the Taiwan Association for Innocence‘s annual conference, held August 27-28. TAFI sent out the following announcement about the event, also providing case updates. We here at the Wrongful Convictions Blog wanted to share the information to highlight the great work being done over in Taiwan.
The annual conference of  Taiwan Association for Innocence took place on August 27-28 in Taipei, Taiwan. About 200 people participated in the conference, including Mr. Cheng Hsing-Tse, who was a death roll inmate recently released from prison awaiting for retrial. Unlike most of our cases, Mr. Cheng’s successful retrial petition was filed by the prosecutor’s office. The court granted retrial in May and set him free after 14 years of imprisonment. The success of this case echoes with one of the themes of the Innocence Network conference in San Antonio this past April. It reminds us that prosecutors should be involved in the innocence movement. To promote this idea, we invited Ms. Inger Chandler from Harris County DA Office to share how the conviction integrity unit operates. Ms. Chandler gave two speeches at our annual conference, and was also invited to talk about CIUs at the Ministry of Justice with local prosecutors.
In addition to Ms. Chandler, another highlight of the conference was a speech by a prosecutor in Taiwan who requested a retrial for Mr. Lu Chieh-Min. Mr. Lu was convicted of murder and sentenced to 13 years of prison. He was exonerated by new DNA evidence last December.
The cases of Mr. Cheng and Mr. Lu show us the possibility of working with prosecutors to exonerate the innocent. Despite the difficulties, we will continue to help those who have been wrongfully convicted.

Best regards,
Shih-Hsiang
Yu-Ning
Taiwan Association for Innocence

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Four Lesbians Were Wrongly Convicted of Child Abuse. Why Haven’t They Been Exonerated?

Originally published on Slate.com

By June Thomas

On the night of Saturday, Oct. 15, every LGBTQ person and ally—and anyone who wants to see unequivocal proof of how messed up the American criminal justice system is—should plant themselves in front of a TV set and watch Southwest of Salem. The documentary, which airs on Investigation Discovery at 8 p.m., tells the story of the San Antonio Four—a group of Latina lesbians who were wrongly convicted of gang-raping two girls in the mid-’90s. Each served more than a decade in prison.

Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez, all now in their early 40s, were found guilty of aggravated sexual assault on a child after two of Ramirez’s nieces, then 7 and 9, claimed the four women had raped them with various objects while they were staying in Ramirez and Mayhugh’s home. As Linda Rodriguez McRobbie explained in a 2013 Slate piece, the case was a product of “a weird, panicked time in recent American history, when the word gay or lesbian was too often conflated with pedophile.” Despite inconsistencies in the girls’ stories; the fact that their father was angry at Ramirez, his former sister-in-law, for rejecting his romantic advances and coming out as a lesbian; and evidence of overt and coded homophobia in the women’s trials, all four ended up behind bars.

More than 16 years later, one of the accusers recanted her story, claiming that both she and her sister were pressured by their father into making the claims. The scientific expert, who had testified that physical evidence proved the girls had been abused, also recanted. And after the Innocence Project of Texas got involved, the women received early releases—though the crimes are still on their records.

Thanks to the national media, the story of the San Antonio Four finally became known outside of south and central Texas earlier this decade. And while Deborah S. Esquenazi’s film doesn’t bring new facts to light, it communicates the sting of injustice with the immediacy of a slap to the face. There is a bracing contrast between the four women we first meet in prison visits—where they seem calm and centered, despite having been robbed of an average of 14 years of their lives—and the teenage lesbians we glimpse in home movies and candid photos. Those young women in love look happy and ready to take on the world: Vasquez and Rivera were raising Rivera’s two children together, and we see the whole group celebrating at a baby shower for Ramirez. A few scenes later, they’re in a courtroom, shocked to see that the accusations they considered ridiculous have landed them before a judge. They didn’t even consult an attorney at first, believing their innocence would be obvious. “That turned out to be a mistake,” Vasquez later observes.

The movie doesn’t linger on the women’s trials, but it effectively exposes the raw homophobia that the prosecution exploited relentlessly. It also explains how the case fit into the Satanic abuse panic that infected America in the 1980s and ’90s. After the juries convict all four women, they’re sent to prison—locked up and without the financial wherewithal or connections to bring attention to their case.

Then Darrell Otto, an academic from Yukon College in Canada, becomes aware of the case, decides that “it just didn’t make sense,” and begins corresponding with Ramirez. Before long, the National Center for Reason and Justice and the Innocence Project of Texas are involved—and, largely unmentioned in the film, the San Antonio News-Express tackles the story. Witnesses recant, junk science is debunked, and eventually the women are given early release.

And that’s where things get really heartbreaking. Vasquez, released first, in 2012, is placed on the sex offender registry and subjected to all manner of restrictions. We see her driving to the grocery store on a route provided by her probation officer in order to avoid schools, parks, and any other places children might be found. The next year, the others leave prison, and the reunions are emotional. Ramirez and Rivera are reunited with the children—now teenagers—they haven’t seen in more than a decade. (Because of the nature of their convictions, they weren’t allowed contact visits with their kids.) “I’m your grandma, baby,” Rivera says, meeting her granddaughter for the first time in the moments after she leaves jail.

For me, the most affecting line in the whole movie is Vasquez’s observation that “Inmates can’t write to one another.” Isolated during their years behind bars, the women later discovered that they had all been writing letters to try to bring attention to the case—and like Vasquez, Rivera and Mayhugh had also refused to participate in their prisons’ sex-offender program, even though it cost them privileges and even a chance of freedom. There was, in addition, a personal dimension: Vasquez and Rivera had been a couple for seven years when they were locked up. “Cass and I, we never broke up,” Vasquez told me when I met the four women in New York in September. “We were forced to separate for many years. We’re both in committed relationships, and our partners know that there’s nothing that could ever come between us. We still have that love and respect. I don’t think that will ever change.”

In person, and in the film, the women are astonishingly free of bitterness. All acknowledged that they had experienced moments of anger—“I had a lot of anger because I was taken from my children,” Ramirez told me. But none are mad at the girls who falsely accused them. “There were six victims, not four,” Ramirez added. The film includes an emotional scene in which the recanted accuser, then 27, meets her Aunt Liz for the first time since her release. Amid many tears, the two embrace. How, I asked Ramirez, was that reconciliation possible?

“They didn’t know any better,” she told me. “I don’t think they really understood the impact it was going to have. They were victims themselves—of this father, the charges, and having to go through everything.”

In what might be the most enraging scenes in the documentary, Judge Pat Priest, who presided over the initial trials, refuses to exonerate the women—even after a key witness has said that she lied under oath and evidence that was used against them has been proved false. In a telling interaction, the judge skeptically questions a polygraph expert who has declared that there is no evidence of the women indulging in “deviant sexual behavior”—clearly signaling that he believes lesbianism itself is deviant.

The women’s fate is now in the hands of the nine judges of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Vasquez is no longer subject to sex offender restrictions, but the convictions are on all the women’s records and their lives are in limbo. “It’s hard to plan for the future,” Mayhugh told me. “I hesitate to get into a relationship, because I don’t know what’s going to happen. Am I going to go back to prison? I don’t want to put somebody through that. You want to purchase a vehicle, and you’re going to leave the bill with your family or leave it unpaid and come out to trouble with that.”

For Vasquez, the current situation is eerily familiar, an echo of the period between the seemingly absurd accusations and their eventual imprisonment.

“We’re hopeful,” she told me, “but it still doesn’t change the fact that I could go back. Look what happened in the beginning. We never thought that we would go to prison.”

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The Exoneree Band Is Free to Rock, and Rightly So

From: The New York Times

CLEVELAND — A few hours before William Michael Dillon and his bandmates took the stage for their headline gig at the House of Blues here last week, this singer and guitarist took a moment to listen to his own grim ballad, “Black Robes and Lawyers.” A self-taught musician, Mr. Dillon wrote the tune in 1985 on strips of prison toilet paper while serving nearly 30 years for a murder he didn’t commit. Sitting now in his lake-view room in a boutique hotel, he softly sang along with the recording, lost in a fog of distance.

“All I ever wanted was for somebody to hear me,” he gently said when the track came to an end. “The truth is, you could hear my story and forget it two days later. But hopefully you won’t forget the music.”

Mr. Dillon’s music — taut, piercing and haunted by his memories of the cellblock — was the driving force of the show on Thursday night by an unusual ensemble, the Exoneree Band, a touring group of prisoners-turned-musicians, each of whom was wrongfully convicted of another person’s crime. Collectively, the band’s five members spent more than a century as unjust captives of the state. Imagine the inmates at San Quentin getting up to play for Johnny Cash, but with the sickening twist that none of them should have been there to begin with.

“We do our music and share our stories basically to stay sane,” said the bassist, Eddie Lowery, a former soldier who in 1982 was locked up for almost a decade for a rape in Kansas that someone else committed. “Each of us comes from somewhere different culturally and musically, but we all do songs that talk about what happened in our lives.”

Continue reading the main story

As exonerations of the wrongfully convicted have steadily increased in courts across the country — last year, experts say, there was a record number, 149 — so, too, has their presence in the larger media culture. Whether it means TV shows like “The Night Of” or documentary films like “The Central Park Five,” journalists and artists are paying more attention now than ever to men like Mr. Lowery and their lives.

But what there hasn’t been, at least until this moment, is a rock band devoted to making music from these juridical disasters, which, with their narratives of injustice and redemption, seem to be especially apt for song. While different in their details, each of the bandmates’ stories is an American tragedy that could have been penned by Bruce Springsteen after a night of reading Kafka. In 1981, when he was only 20, Mr. Dillon, for example, pulled into the parking lot of a beach in Central Florida to smoke a joint with his brother, unaware that five days earlier someone had been murdered there. The police approached and questioned him, and four witnesses eventually — and incorrectly — fingered him as the killer. He was tried, convicted and imprisoned, then wasexonerated and released in 2008 after serving 27 years of a life sentence.

Much like combat, unjust incarceration is hard to grasp unless you go through it yourself. And one of the joys of being in the band, its members said, was finding others who not only shared a similar ordeal but who were also seeking healing through their music. “We don’t have to talk about what happened when we’re together,” said Ted Bradford, the rhythm guitarist, who served 10 years in Washington State for a rape he didn’t commit. “It’s like being in a brotherhood. We all just sort of know.”

The idea for the Exonerees first emerged in 2009 at a gathering in Houston hosted by the Innocence Project, a national advocacy group for the wrongfully convicted. After the day’s events, a lawyer, Katie Monroe, found herself at a hotel roof bar having drinks with some former inmates who were having trouble sleeping. “It was 2 or 3 in the morning,” Ms. Monroe recalled, “and next thing you know, the guys started doing this full-blown, harmonized version of ‘Stand by Me.’ I was so moved and struck by how talented they were, I wanted to pursue something formal.”

So in 2010, she said, she and the fiddlerKate MacLeod, who had also worked with the wrongfully convicted, asked the Innocence Project to help them find exonerees with musical inclinations. They discovered Mr. Dillon, who was at that point living free in Southern California and had recently recorded a CD with the Grammy-winning producer Jim Tulio. Not long after, they tracked down other members for the band: Mr. Lowery;Raymond Towler, the lead guitarist, who did 29 years in prison on a murder charge in Cleveland; the drummer,Antoine Day, a Chicago R&B man who served 10 years for murder; andDarby Tillis, a harmonicist and death-row inmate, also from Chicago, who spent nine years in prison (he died of natural causes after his release and was replaced by Mr. Bradford).

The Exonerees’ first show was in 2011, when they performed in Cincinnati for an Innocence Project conference. Since then, they have mostly played the wrongful-conviction circuit, playing gigs at TedX Talks or in hotel ballrooms for bar associations. But Mr. Tulio has big plans for the group: He has been searching for an angel investor to fund a full-scale musical — in the vein, he said, of “Hamilton” — that would feature the musicians and their stories in a multimedia theatrical production.

Before that happens, though, the band may need a bit more time to polish its act; it rarely practices because its members are spread across the country and most have other jobs. The show last week in Cleveland, a fund-raiser for the Ohio Innocence Project, was a welcome, if uncommon, opportunity to jam. They shared the billing with a pair of opening acts: Faith & Whiskeyand the No Name Band, both composed of judges and lawyers.

That led to a strange, cerebral sound check in which, between testing mikes and speakers, the conversation turned to topics like exculpatory evidence and the need to record police interrogations. “These guys’ stories are amazing,” said Michael Donnelly, a Cuyahoga County common pleas judge and the singer for Faith & Whiskey. “Beyond their music, which is pretty good, they make me, as an officer of the court, want to fix the system.”

When they finally took the stage, the Exonerees began their set with “Black Robes and Lawyers.” The song commenced, as always, with Mr. Dillon’s blunt, ironic introduction. It said everything that needed to be said.

“My name,” he told the crowd to loud applause, “is William Michael Dillon. I was arrested for murder on August 25, 1981, for a crime I didn’t commit. I was released on November 18, 2008.”

Then he strummed a chord and took a pause.

“Thank you,” he went on, “to the keepers of justice.”

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3 Big Ways ‘The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey’ Got It Wrong

From: Rolling Stone

From confirmation bias in the 911 tape analysis to dissecting an ‘appropriate’ response to death, how CBS’s documentary didn’t tell the whole story

This month, two new TV documentary specials about the unsolved murder of JonBenét Ramsey have aired in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the six-year-old’s tragic and mysterious death on Christmas night, 1996. Viewers who hoped to learn conclusive proof of who killed the child beauty queen sometime after she was put to bed in her Boulder, Colorado, home were likely disappointed. Two decades later, and the debate over whether it was the Ramseys or an intruder rages on, with A&E and CBS taking startlingly different positions.

Though each promised new exclusive details, both programs largely relied on the available evidence gathered during the investigation and interviews with members of law enforcement involved in the original case. As was the case in 1996 – and every year since – the interpretation of that evidence remains at the center of this unsolved crime. A&E’s documentary, which maintained that the Ramseys were rightfully exonerated by DNA evidence in 2008, concluded that because the intruder theory was dismissed early on by Boulder police, there simply isn’t enough evidence to name a suspect without a complete reinvestigation.

A complete reinvestigation is what CBS’s The Case of: JonBenét Ramseypromised, but the only thing they delivered was a witch hunt that culminated in naming Burke Ramsey, JonBenét’s then nine-year-old brother, as her killer, and implicating John and Patsy Ramsey in a coverup. (Burke Ramsey, now 29, appeared on Dr. Phil last week in his first-ever public interview, and insisted that neither he, his father John nor his late-mother Patsy has anything to do with JonBenét’s death.)

Absent any new physical evidence or meaningful new witness statements, the fruits of this reinvestigation, led by former FBI agent and criminal profiler Jim Clemente and behavioral analyst Laura Richards, were almost entirely subjective, at times dangerously misleading and dependent on a flawed police investigation that will very likely never result in the killer being brought to justice.

Here, three big ways CBS mislead viewers with their reinvestigation into JonBenét Ramsey’s murder

Confirmation bias, selective hearing and the misleading 911 call analysis
The first step in Clemente and Richards’ reinvestigation was analyzing Patsy Ramsey’s 911 call, specifically an inaudible portion at the very end when the phone clicked but did not disconnect. Because the operator did not hang up, the call continued to record, but no one has ever been able to conclusively decipher the extremely muffled, inaudible voices heard faintly in the background.

But many have tried. One such example is the Aerospace Corporation, who in 1997, at the request of the Boulder Police Department, conducted a test of the 911 tape, but the results were never officially released. However, in 1998, the National Enquirer leaked the results, which were subsequently quoted in Larry Schiller’s 1999 bookPerfect Murder, Perfect Town: The Uncensored Story of the JonBenét Murder and the Grand Jury’s Search for the Final Truth, and former Boulder Police Detective Steve Thomas’s book,JonBenét: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation, in 2000.

Clemente and Richards made a vague reference to this analysis, but didn’t disclose that it had been leaked and that they were aware of its conclusions, as any investigator in this case surely is. Instead, they claimed they were going to use “more modern audio technology” to figure out how many voices were on the tape and what they were saying. Sitting in a recording studio, the pair listened as the engineer fussed with levels and knobs. As Clemente and Richards began to “figure out” what was allegedly being said and who was allegedly saying it, subtitles popped up on screen in a flagrant attempt to convince the viewers that they, too, could hear it. There were three voices speaking, they claimed, and one of them was Burke Ramsey, whom Patsy and John told investigators was asleep in his room the morning they discovered JonBenét was missing.

A cursory review of the Twitter reactions to this segment indicates that many viewers could not make out any of what Clemente and Richards claimed to hear. “In the headphones it was incredibly clear,” Clemente tweeted, the implication being that despite devoting substantial time to playing back the audio over and over again, viewers should just trust what Clemente and Richards said they heard.

The problem is, at least as far as the 911 call analysis goes, Clemente and Richards lost credibility by failing to disclose that the leaked results from the Aerospace Corporation’s analysis are word for word what they seemed shocked and awed to hear on the other end of those headphones. Here is what the Aerospace Corporation found in their analysis of that 911 call, according to a report in local newspaper the Daily Camera: “Those sources say enhancement of the tape reveals Burke’s voice in the background, asking his parents ‘What did you find?’,” the paper writes. “John Ramsey allegedly can be heard shouting to Burke, ‘We are not talking to you,’ and Patsy shouts ‘Oh my Jesus, oh my Jesus.'”

This is what Clemente and Richards concluded, verbatim. It’s not clear if and how their analysis is new or more advanced than what was done previously. Far more egregiously, not disclosing their knowledge of the conclusions of the Aerospace report misleads viewers about the purity of their own analysis by not addressing the significant risk of confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories – a factor in the vast majority of wrongful conviction cases. Witness identification, recall of memories, evidence collection and analysis and forensic testing can all result in misleading or false results if precautions are not taken to prevent it. At the very least, the risk that confirmation bias can lead to selective hearing should be considered when weighing the significance of Clemente and Richards’ analysis of Patsy Ramsey’s 911 call.

Instead, viewers were subjected to their herculean efforts to isolate, amplify and translate this supposed bit of muffled dialogue as if it was just as brand new to them. And then they presented their conclusions as proof that the Ramseys had lied, and used Burke’s alleged presence as an excuse to add him to their suspect list.

Dismissing the DNA evidence entirely
Some of the forensic scientists and experts Clemente and Richards assembled for their investigative team, including forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz and forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee, offered some interesting and credible assessments of the physical evidence. For example, Dr. Lee did a demonstration that showed how a blow from a flashlight found on the Ramseys’ kitchen counter could have caused JonBenét’s skull fracture. And both Dr. Lee and Dr. Spitz disagreed with Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy’s decision to exonerate the Ramseys in 2008 based on new DNA tests which revealed the presence of unidentified male DNA from a single source on both JonBenét’s underwear and leggings. Dr. Lee explained how touch DNA is so easily transferred that it can show up on a brand new pair of underwear straight out of its sealed packaging, so his belief that the presence of unidentified male DNA on a little girl’s underwear could have come from a factory worker was convincing.

However, just because the DNA is not proof of an intruder or proof of the Ramseys’ innocence doesn’t mean the touch DNA is completely useless either, as Dr. Lee claimed. Regardless of how CBS regards its investigation, this is still an unsolved murder, no one in the Ramsey family has been proven guilty in a court of law and the intruder theory has not been conclusively ruled out. The absence of proof is not proof of anything.

While touch DNA is easily transferred, there are still scenarios in which a specific DNA match would be regarded as extremely suspicious and should be pursued further. What if the DNA suddenly matched a child molester who had never worked in a factory that manufactured little girls’ underwear and had no reason to have ever come into contact with JonBenét, her new underwear or any of her other belongings that the DNA might have transferred from? Touch DNA alone is not a reason to convict, but it shouldn’t be ignored as an investigatory lead. Dr. Lee’s bizarre conclusion essentially invalidated the usefulness of touch DNA in all criminal cases.

Overselling linguistic forensics and behavioral analysis as conclusive
Time and time again, Clemente, Richards, former FBI “linguistic profiler” James Fitzgerald and former FBI statement analyst Stan Burke, reached certain conclusions based on highly subjective analysis of the vocal inflections, body language, pronoun use, linguistic phrasing and human behavior exhibited by the Ramseys during the investigation. Everything from Patsy Ramsey referring to herself as “the mother” in the 911 call, to John Ramsey’s decision to pick up his dead daughter’s body, to the “appropriateness” of Burke Ramsey’s response to her death was scrutinized through the lens of the investigators’ “expertise.”

The Case of never made it clear that these areas of forensic science and behavioral analysis are viewed by the courts with varying degrees of acceptability and reliability, and with very good reason. Human behavior and language is not one-size-fits-all, especially with the introduction of trauma. Jim Clemente voicing his opinion that Burke didn’t respond or emote “appropriately” seems irresponsible, especially when presented as evidence of guilt.

The admissibility of linguistic forensics and behavioral analysis testimony is subject to a set of standards that may limit its scope or forbid it entirely in a court of law. In criminal cases, these methods are more likely to be used to eliminate potential suspects – not presented as proof of someone’s guilt.

Alas, the social media response to The Case of has been flooded with comments about how Burke is “weird” and “a total psychopath” who is “obviously guilty.” For Clemente and his team to stoke that mentality without any caveats has repercussions that go beyond this case. Human beings are naturally inclined towards relying on their emotions and intuition, so expert testimony and evidence that is informed by subjective assessments of what is and isn’t normal behavior can be incredibly convincing.

Moreover, Clemente and Richards presented themselves and their team of investigators as infallible, their expertise as inarguable and their opinions as indisputable facts. More than once, they made unproven, disputed or misleading statements without providing further evidence, like the claim that John Ramsey disappeared for an hour and a half the morning of the murder – in actuality, he was in his study and the Boulder police just didn’t notice. They also rushed to disprove alternate theories. After one attempt to get through a replica model of the basement window, Clemente and Richards concluded there could not have been an intruder because the spider web in the corner was “destroyed” and the real spider web in the Ramseys basement window was undisturbed.

Yet when laying out their theory for Burke Ramsey as the killer, these experts literally made up a story about Burke killing JonBenét (on accident or in anger, but probably unintentionally) by hitting her in the head with a flashlight because she took a piece of his pineapple. The proof? JonBenét had undigested pineapple in her stomach. Even if this theory had been proven back in 1996, at age nine, Burke would have been too young to be legally prosecuted in Colorado, and he certainly couldn’t be held responsible for any horrendous cover-up instigated by his parents. To unleash a witch hunt on him now without rock solid proof of guilt is a cruel ratings ploy.

CBS included a disclaimer at the end of their closing credits which acknowledged that the “opinions and conclusions … about how [the crime] may have occurred represent just some of the a number of possible scenarios,” and encouraged viewers to “reach their own conclusions.” This bare minimum of legal cover may be just enough to protect CBS from John Ramsey’s inevitable lawsuit – as his attorney Lin Wood has already suggested is in the works – but it likely went unnoticed by viewers. The repercussions of depending on such controversial evidence go beyond this case, as jury members (the majority of which are not educated in the law) are often asked to weigh similar evidence and testimony when deciding guilt or innocence. The Case of oversold the same flawed methodology that has manipulated juries and resulted in countless wrongful convictions, coupled it with cherry-picked evidence and an extreme case of tunnel vision in order to finger a nine-year-old for a 20-year-old cold murder. That’s disturbing and irresponsible, no matter who killed JonBenét Ramsey

Calls for limits on ‘flawed science’ in court are well-founded: A guest post

From: The Washington Post

A White House advisory council on Tuesday issued a report urging federal prosecutors and judges to tread cautiously around forensic science on bullet markings, bite marks, tire tread marks and complex DNA samples, saying the science on them has not been proven by testing and research. The Post’s Spencer Hsu has the full story here, including strongly dissenting views from police and prosecutors’ groups, and the report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is included at the bottom.

University of Virginia law professor Brandon L. Garrett, who has written a book on flawed forensics and wrongful convictions, titled, “Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong,” argues that the council’s report is well-founded and supports a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report that much of forensic evidence used in criminal trials is “without any meaningful scientific validation.”

By Brandon L. Garrett

“They weren’t looking for the truth. They were looking for a conviction,” Keith Harward said after he was exonerated. “They need to stop this stuff.”

Harward served 33 years in prison in Virginia before his exoneration on April 8 for a Newport News rape and murder that he did not commit. He was originally convicted based on false testimony by two experts claiming his teeth matched bite marks on the victim. If it were up to him, such unreliable forensics would be banned.

In a remarkable report released this morning, the White House’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology prominently called on prosecutors to do just that: stop using unreliable forensics and stop making unscientific claims about the forensics. The administration’s recommendations are an important step toward safeguarding forensics and preventing tragic wrongful convictions.

After all, at Harward’s trial, it wasn’t just that the experts were wrong. They were spectacularly wrong. Yet they told the jury that they were totally certain they were right. One dentist testified to “a very, very, very high degree of probability those teeth left that bite mark.” A second dentist testified that “there is just not anyone else that would have this unique dentition.”

They were both wrong — and it gets worse. In a massive dental dragnet, police took over 1,000 molds of every Navy sailor on a ship docked at Newport News. One of those sailors was the actual culprit, but the bite experts didn’t detect him — DNA tests identified him 33 years later.

Stopping the use of unreliable forensics like bite-mark evidence is just the beginning. Despite depictions on shows like “CSI,” many types of forensics can provide valuable information but can also go wrong. Jurors understandably place great weight on testimony by an expert who claims to have found a match. But jurors might think differently if they heard about the real error rates for forensics.

Any human technique has an error rate, and a crucial quality control is to do testing to find out how good experts really are. It is not enough for fingerprint or bite-mark examiners to vouch for their own reliability. We must put their experience to the test. The few tests that have been done show disturbing error rates. For example, the White House report highlights a study showing a 1 in 18 error rate for fingerprint comparison and another showing a shocking 1 in 6 error rate for bite marks.

Cases like Harward’s are not isolated examples. Having read trial transcripts of DNA exonerees by the hundreds, I have found that more often than not, the testimony was exaggerated, overstated and erroneous. Of the first 330 people exonerated by DNA testing, 71 percent, or 235 cases, involved forensic analysis or testimony. DNA set these people free, but at the time of their convictions, the bulk of the forensics was flawed.

It has taken too long to respond to a national crisis of bad forensics. A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that much of forensic evidence used in criminal trials is “without any meaningful scientific validation.” Little changed. To be sure, scientists and researchers have made strides to improve forensics and how they are used in courtrooms; I have taken part in such efforts. However, the White House is right that seven years later, it is time for the use of flawed forensics to come to an end.

Here is the full report:

Pcast Forensic Science Report Final by Tom Jackman on Scribd

 

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