Category Archives: forensic science

DNA convicts killer of 1976 murder previously ‘solved’ by police coerced confession that sent wrong man to prison.

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailA man has been sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for the 1976 rape and manslaughter of Janet Commins, a 15 year old girl, a crime that made national news at the time. Stephen Hough was interviewed along with all local men aged 17-22, but was ruled out after claiming to have been stealing petrol at the time. Instead, another local young man, Noel Jones, a barely literate 18-year-old traveller who had been picked up by police the day Janet’s body was discovered, was interviewed for days without legal assistance. He denied all knowledge of the crime but later his girlfriend told police he had confessed to killing Janet and had asked her to provide him with an alibi. After two days of questioning, he signed two detailed confession statements. On the second day of his murder trial in June 1976, he admitted manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Noel Jones spent 6 years in prison for the murder.

(Picture l-r: Stephen Hough, Janet Commins and Noel Jones)

 

At the time of the investigation, police suspected Jones had an accomplice, and in 2006 they undertook a ‘cold case review’ to try and secure forensic evidence against their second suspect. This did not match, and was uploaded to the National DNA Database. A decade later, Stephen Hough was arrested after sexually assaulting another 15 year old girl. When DNA was taken, this was also uploaded to the National DNA Database where it matched the crime scene DNA from the 1976 murder.

Noel Jones described the six years he spent in prison as a “nightmare” which “absolutely destroyed my life”. He has never challenged his conviction, but says he is innocent and only confessed because police had pressured and coerced him.

The original investigation is now being re-examined. The police officer in charge of the investigation rose through the ranks to become Deputy Chief-Constable. At Hough’s trial he gave evidence that nobody thought to offer Noel Jones a solicitor during the initial stages of his questioning because he wanted to investigate “properly and thoroughly”. Police could be “impeded” by solicitors representing clients, he said, adding that “there was no requirement in those days for a person to be advised that he could have a solicitor”.

Yet another miscarriage of justice from the era prior to mandatory police recording of interviews, where police practice was to aim to secure confessions at all costs. One wonders how many more are laying dormant, with no DNA to reveal the truth after all these years.

Read more here:

Janet Commins: How police caught her killer after 41 years

Stephen Hough jailed for 12 years for Janet Commins killing

Janet Commins: Killer’s confession ‘made up by police’

 

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

Weekend Quick Clicks…

More Forensic Laboratory Errors in Australia

In Western Australia, a Corruption and Crime Commission investigation is underway after it has been revealed that a mistake in labelling DNA samples in a laboratory led to the wrongful conviction of a man in 2004. There are lots of aspects to this story that beggar belief. Here are some that we know about already:

  • The original mix-up at the laboratory: DNA found at the scene of a burglary was incorrectly identified as belonging to the innocent man. The DNA actually belonged to a man with the same name and a laboratory worker assigned the DNA test results to the wrong person.
  • The laboratory informed the police of the mix-up after it’s discovery in April 2016 when the real offender was arrested over a separate matter. The police then took a further YEAR to act on this information.
  • The victim initially protested his innocence to police but agreed to plead guilty on the advice of his lawyer who apparently told him that no one was likely to believe him and that he risked a prison sentence if he went to trial.

images

This laboratory is again under investigation – hot on the heels of another inquiry launched last month after it emerged a forensic biologist for PathWest, Laurance Webb, was sacked because he breached testing protocols four times between 2008 and 2014, including failing to conduct quality control testing and have work peer reviewed (see here….) . There is also an urgent question over why the police took a year to act on the information. One must surely also question the original legal advice to plead guilty – though that is not being mentioned in any of the media reports below:

CCC probe: Man wrongly convicted after DNA bungle

WA cops took a year to clear innocent man

Man wrongfully convicted after DNA mixup

DNA bungle finds WA man wrongly convicted of home invasion in 2004

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

Blood test for Shaken Baby Syndrome?

From the Blind Injustice Facebook group:

Blood test for shaken baby syndrome? I would sure like to know more about this. History shows that far too often, in the rush for answers, these newly-developed theories or tests are put into use before they are adequately tested in a controlled environment that considers other factors that could lead to the same blood test results. And that leads to wrongful convictions. If the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report on forensic means anything, it means that we have to be very careful with claims like this…

Article about alleged blood test here.

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

Today’s Widespread Use of Pre-Trial DNA Testing Won’t End Wrongful Convictions

From phys.org:

As we enter an era in which DNA evidence is routinely used in criminal investigations, errors that led to wrongful convictions—including mistakes later corrected with DNA tests—may seem to be fading into history. This, however, isn’t true, says law and criminal justice professor Daniel Medwed, who edited the book, Wrongful Convictions and the DNA Revolution, which was published last month.

Many of the underlying issues that plagued the U.S. criminal justice system before DNA evidence rose to the fore still exist, he says, and will continue to produce flawed convictions unless they’re remedied.

Here, Medwed explores some of those procedural deficiencies as well as the deeply rooted sense of justice that animates his work.

Why do wrongful convictions occur, and what are some of the factors that lead to convicting an innocent person?

The phrase “wrongful convictions” could encompass a range of flawed convictions. Yet the concept typically refers to the case of a factually innocent person: Someone who simply didn’t commit the crime for which she was convicted. I think innocence cases largely derive from good-faith mistakes rather than malevolence on the part of, say, police or prosecutors. Those mistakes include eyewitnesses who simply get it wrong; zealous prosecutors who can’t look objectively at contrary evidence because of tunnel vision; suspects who falsely confess to crimes due to cognitive deficits; defense lawyers who are overworked and underpaid; and reliance on forensic “science” that lacks sufficient grounding in the scientific method.

In Wrongful Convictions and the DNA Revolution, you examine what we’ve learned after 25 years of exonerating innocent prisoners through DNA evidence. What are those lessons?

We’ve learned about the substantive factors that contribute to wrongful convictions, as mentioned earlier, but we’ve also unearthed the procedural deficiencies in our system. The more than 300 documented exonerations of innocent prisoners through post-conviction DNA tests from 1989 to 2014 show that the traditional mechanisms of error correction in our system are insufficient. The direct appeal (in which a defendant challenges a criminal conviction secured at the trial level to a higher court), is ill-suited to address errors based in fact as opposed to law. And classic “collateral” remedies, such as habeas corpus, are replete with statutes of limitations and other procedural hurdles too high even for the innocent to clear. Going forward, we need to address both the substantive and the procedural flaws that can yield miscarriages of justice.

What has motivated you to study wrongful convictions and DNA evidence, and what inspires you to keep studying it?

First, inspiration comes from deeply-held personal beliefs. In my view, the hallmark of a civilized society is the extent to which we protect those in the weakest position to defend themselves—most notably, criminal suspects facing the potentially massive power of the government. All too often, criminal suspects are people of color with limited financial resources. This dynamic not infrequently produces disturbing outcomes for the individual, and sometimes results in the conviction of an innocent person. Imagine what it must be like to have the system fail you so dramatically, to have your cries of innocence fall on deaf, cynical ears. Thinking about that provides all the motivation I need.

Second, I feel as if we’re at a unique stage in history. DNA testing is now commonly used at the front end of the criminal process to weed out the innocent before a case even gets to trial. That means post-conviction DNA exonerations of inmates will inevitably dwindle to almost nothing; many of the DNA cases that generate headlines concern prisoners convicted years ago. But a decline in DNA exonerations will not signify that the system has become error-proof. Rather, the factors that initially gave rise to those  will remain and infect criminal cases that lack biological evidence suitable for DNA testing at all. Only an estimated 10 to 20 percent of criminal cases have testable biological evidence at all; what’s more, that  is often lost, destroyed, or degraded over time. So, I think we need to capitalize on the lessons learned from the DNA era to reform the underlying sources of error for all cases. And we need to do this before the rate of DNA exonerations wanes too much and the public gets the misimpression that the innocence problem is fixed.

 

NYTimes Editorial Criticizes Trump/Sessions Decision to Kill New Forensic Science Commission

The evidence as to why this is needed is clear.  Those in this movement had worked for such a commission for decades.  This is a horrible decision that could really set back innocence reform–and justice–for years.   Editorial here

Trump Administration kills Forensic Commission

Horrible, horrible news for those who care about accuracy in our criminal justice system.  Read story here.

 

Injustices multiplied

From: Post Register

Christopher Tapp was finally freed from prison after more than 20 years. Prosecutor Danny Clark has released a statement in which he attempts to explain the actions of his office in dropping all counts of rape against Mr. Tapp, but leaving in place the murder conviction (with a deadly-weapon enhancement). Clark’s statement unfortunately does not explain this split, which is peculiar since all of the same forensic evidence used to dismiss the rape charge equally demonstrate that Mr. Tapp had nothing to do with the murder of Miss Dodge. The DNA analysis requested by the Idaho Innocence Project has produced clear results that exclude Mr. Tapp from everything tested. The tests also exclude all of the other suspects that were part of the prosecution theory of the crime. More importantly, the scientific evidence tells a very clear story—one that was totally ignored by the prosecutor’s statement.

Mr. Tapp is not on any of the evidence in this case, but one man is—in every single profile. First of all, his semen was recovered from the victim’s body—before Mr. Tapp’s trial. We now know, through testing requested by the Chris’s legal team (and the victim’s mother), that the same man left a pubic hair on the victim’s face. In DNA analysis completed during the last year—requested by the government—we have also learned that the same single perpetrator contributed DNA to clothing the victim was wearing—both her sweatpants and her sweatshirt. Most recently, in conjunction with a request by the IIP, the prosecutor had key items of the prosecution’s theory tested using the most modern techniques available (including MVac). This is key, since the confession that was spoon-fed to Mr. Tapp (in exchange for an immunity agreement) had Mr. Tapp contacting the victim and her possessions in three places. He held down her hands, he stabbed her once through her shirt and wiped his hands on the shirt, and he moved her teddy bear. It was clear from the crime scene that she had been stabbed through her shirt, and that the teddy bear had been moved. Fortunately, the clothing and bear were preserved, and swabs from the victim’s hands had been taken but never tested.

We agreed with the prosecution that these were the key items that should be analyzed with the most modern technology possible. These items would either show the truth of the prosecution’s theory, or finally put it to rest. When the results were known, they produced a clear picture of what happened. None of the state’s suspects (including Chris Tapp) were on any of the evidence, but in a remarkably clear set of results, the semen donor was consistently on all of them. We now know who moved Angie’s teddy bear, left DNA on her shirt, and restrained her—leaving his DNA on each hand.

For 10 years, we have fought to demonstrate in open court that Mr. Tapp is innocent of murdering Angie Dodge. During that same time, the county continued to test evidence in this case (apparently looking for Mr. Tapp’s DNA). We had just received the final results, when Chris Tapp was offered a deal. He could be freed, without the delays of hearings, a new trial, and possible appeals by the county. Apparently, the prosecutor had realized the absurdity of Mr. Tapp’s rape conviction given all the DNA results, and agreed to drop the rape conviction. But those same results also clear Mr. Tapp of murder. The state tested Miss Dodge’s sweatpants, nightshirt, the pubic hair, her hands and the teddy bear—not just for evidence of rape, but because those are all the places they concluded the murderer had touched.

There is nothing wrong with having an opinion about how a murder was committed, it is the first part of reasoning: hypothesis. But to ignore one’s own results, is to employ neither science nor common-sense. Could the paradox of Tapp’s murder conviction have anything to do with an exoneree’s right to sue? A right which Mr. Tapp had to surrender as part of his deal with the county.

The courtroom is about the whole truth and nothing but the truth. A prosecutor’s obligation is to seek justice, not to uphold convictions. Indeed, the prosecutor has an ethical obligation to see that wrongful convictions are overturned, and Mr. Clark fulfilled that duty in dropping the rape charge against Mr. Tapp after 20 years. But the first lesson of logic is that half-truth is not truth. Justice for Chris Tapp is not simply finding him not-guilty of rape or murder, it is finding ¬¬¬him not-guilty of rape and murder. The DNA did not say that he was not-guilty of rape, it said he was not on any evidence—and another other man was. That man held down both of Angie Dodge’s hands, he left semen on her body and a pubic hair on her face, his DNA is on the shirt through which she was stabbed, and he moved her teddy bear. One man is on every piece of evidence in this case—not just the rape evidence. Rape and murder. Truth and nothing but the truth. You cannot remedy one injustice with another.

Hampikian, Ph.D. is a professor of biology and criminal justice at Boise State University and director of the Idaho Innocence Project. Cummins, Esq., is an attorney with the Idaho Innocence Project.

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

New Attorney General Jeff Sessions “Tough on Crime”

The newly anointed US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, in his first major address has proclaimed a policy of “tough on crime” – particularly violent crime.

Here we go again – the “war on drugs” redux. How many prosecutors have been elected running on a “tough on crime” platform? I would say most, if not all.

So how do prosecutors “deliver” on their campaign promise of “tough on crime?” They arrest a lot of people, obtain a lot of indictments, secure a lot of convictions, and send a lot of people to prison. The only problem? A lot of these people may be actually innocent. But they’ve been scooped up into the frenzy of proving that law enforcement is “tough on crime.” People get convicted through intimidating and coercive plea bargains, phony evidence and false testimony, bad forensics, and police and prosecutor misconduct.

Criminal prosecution MUST rest upon the foundations of truth, logic, real evidence, and prosecutorial ethics – not upon hysteria hyped by politicians and the media.

You and see the CNN coverage of Mr. Sessions address here.

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

Serious concerns about forensic science standards in the UK.

banner_scientist2In England and Wales, since the closure of the Forensic Science Service, forensic testing has been undertaken by a number of private companies. At the time of the privatisation, many warned that introducing a profit-motive into forensic science could have perverse outcomes. Many were concerned about falling standards and ‘bargain basement’ outfits doing shoddy work. Some of these concerns look to have been justified, with news this week that two men have been arrested after the discovery that they have manipulated alcohol/ drug test results used in both the criminal and family courts. The media have reported that almost 500 cases are being reviewed to see if an injustice has occurred. Already, there is one reported instance of a case being dropped because the results of the drug tests cannot be relied upon (First case dropped since forensic science blunders as CPS says it cannot proceed)

While the news of the arrests and falsified rest results have received wide coverage, (see here…. and here… and here…) it comes hot on the heels of a critical report by the Forensic Regulator that iterates that “standards may be at significant risk” (see here. ). The 2016 Annual Report details major failings in the previous year, and warns of the financial pressures that are putting forensic quality at risk, with many police forces still not fully signed-up to minimum standards. Read the report here….    The press release stated that: A lack of funding to improve forensic science is jeopardising the integrity of the criminal justice system. Read the press release here….

With financial pressures on companies, and pressures on workers within those companies to ‘perform’, the risks to forensic science integrity in the UK is obvious. However, it is not limited to the UK and also encompasses all forensic evidence – as concerns grow about the quality of digital forensics in the US as just one example: Bargain Basement Digital Forensics Examiners – Too Good to be True.

The lesson – one that those dealing with wrongful convictions have known for years – is that forensic science cannot be done ‘on the cheap’, and attempting to do so puts the entire legal system in jeopardy.

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Precedent-setting hair case drags on

Today marks one year of freedom for George D. Perrot, who served 30 years in prison before his conviction was overturned in a nationally significant case involving flawed FBI forensics and one strand of hair. But Perrot continues to feel “tortured” by Massachusetts prosecutors, who are dragging their feet on an appeal of the decision that set him free. The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism updates the case here.