Category Archives: Junk science

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

 

Junk Science Reigns ____ So Much for True Science in the Courtroom

We had hope, back in 2009, when the National Academy of Sciences report Forensic Science in the United States; A Path Forward was published, that there might finally be some remedy for all the junk science being used to convict innocent people. The report painted a scathing picture of the lack of true science contained in, and the invalidity of, traditional forensic disciplines; the sole exception being DNA. The report did spawn the creation of the Federal Commission on Forensic Science, which has proven, over the last three years, to be a totally toothless tiger, accomplishing essentially nothing.

Now recently, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has issued an additional report that is highly condemning of current forensic practices. You can see the PCAST report here:  pcast_forensic_science_report_final

HOWEVER, even in light of this recent report, both the FBI and the Department of Justice have stated they have no intention of changing the way they currently address forensics.

Please see the Intercept article, FBI AND DOJ VOW TO CONTINUE USING JUNK SCIENCE REJECTED BY WHITE HOUSE REPORT, by Jordan Smith here.

Nothing to Smile About: Bite Mark Evidence Blasted Again

Your smile could cost you your freedom.

Just ask Crystal Weimer from Pennsylvania, or William Richards from California.  Weimer and Richards don’t know each other, but their fates were eerily and tragically similar.

Both were tried and convicted of murder in unrelated cases.  Both of their convictions were based on testimony by so-called bite mark experts, who claimed to have matched marks found on victims with each of the defendant’s “bite mark.”  In both cases, the prosecution relied heavily on the “matching” bite marks as proof of the defendants’ guilt.  In both cases, the bite mark evidence was just plain nonsense.

A new report released this week by the President’s Counsel of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST), offered yet another devastating critique of bite mark evidence:

available scientific evidence strongly suggests that [bite mark] examiners not only cannot identify the source of bite mark with reasonable accuracy, they cannot even consistently agree on whether an injury is a human bite mark. For these reasons, PCAST finds that bite mark analysis is far from meeting the scientific standards for foundational validity.

PCAST, an advisory group appointed by the President and made up of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers, suggested that bite mark analysis was unlikely to be “salvageable” as a forensic methodology and that scarce forensic resources should be devoted elsewhere.

The PCAST report adds to the chorus of experts that put bite mark evidence in the junk science category.  In 2009, leading scientists from the National Academy of Sciences issued a report condemning bite mark evidence as highly unreliable.

But despite all the criticism from top-notch forensic experts, bite mark evidence has not been banned from the court room.

Which means that innocent people could wind up in prison for crimes they didn’t commit based on “science” that isn’t scientific at all.

In June, 2016, both Weimer and Richards were exonerated – just one day a part.   As it turns out, the bitemark evidence that put them in prison was just plain wrong.  Collectively, they spent nearly thirty years in prison.

And that is nothing to smile about.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Could Jerry Sandusky be innocent?

What if Jerry Sandusky didn’t do it? Hard to believe, right? The evidence against him seemed to be overwhelming. But was it really?
Author Mark Pendergrast argues that much of the sensational 2012 child-abuse case against the notorious former Penn State assistant football coach hinges on flawed repressed-memory theory. In a commentary for The Crime Report here, Pendergrast says it is relatively easy to generate false memories of abuse and documents how that may have occurred in this case.

Johnson, Wheatt, Glover – All Charges Dismissed – After 20 Years

Johnson, Wheatt, Glover – this was the very first case I worked on with the Ohio Innocence Project eight and a half years ago. At the time, it was a GSR case (gunshot residue). The GSR evidence was always highly questionable, but it was a major factor in their conviction. As it turns out, not only was the GSR evidence bogus, but the case is also an example of egregious prosecutorial misconduct.

Please see the story by Maurice Possley on the National Registry of Exonerations website here.

 

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Prosecutors Oppose New Trial for Melissa Calusinski in SBS Case

We’ve previously posted about the Melissa Calusinski case in Lake County, IL here. It would seem to clearly be a case of a coerced false confession, combined with bad medical “science.”

Lake County State’s Attorney, Michael Nerheim, has already declined to have his so-called “conviction integrity unit” review the case.

Now, despite the fact that the Lake County Coroner officially changed the cause of death from homicide to undetermined, and despite the fact that newly discovered X-ray evidence shows that the child had experienced previous head trauma, the prosecution is opposing a request for new trial by Calusinski’s attorney.

Why are we not surprised? See the Lake County Daily Herald story here.

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Bite Marks – The Junk Science Continues to Unravel

From the NY Times.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/13/us/lives-in-balance-texas-leads-scrutiny-of-bite-mark-forensics.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=1

 

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“Automatic” Justice? Is Technology Eliminating the Presumption of Innocence?

A recent legal research paper from the School of Law at Queen Mary University of London has raised the issue of technology’s impact upon the criminal justice system, and how its effect may be replacing presumption of innocence with presumption of guilt. A truly frightening prospect. You can download the paper here: Automatic justice? Technology, Crime and Social Control.

The nature of evidence in the justice system has steadily been evolving to be ever more founded in technology, be it legitimate and proven technology … or not. And the tendency is for the prosecution (and police) to say, “We have ‘scientific’ evidence of your guilt; therefore, you are guilty.”

And here’s the problem: much of this “technology” has not been verified and statistically validated. It just gets presented in court as “science,” and judges, lawyers, and juries don’t have a clue as to whether or not it’s actually accurate or relevant. How do you know the latest “computer app” is actually true and accurate? You don’t. We’ve seen frequent examples of so-called forensic “science” being proven wrong. Just three of these would be compositional analysis of bullet lead (CABL), microscopic hair comparison, and bite marks. There are currently thousands of cases under re-investigation as a result of scientifically flawed FBI hair comparison work and testimony. There are some infamous cases of fingerprint identifications being wrong; one of these being the case of Brandon Mayfield. Most people, (including lawyers) don’t understand that there is huge margin for error in locating a cell phone through cell towers.

The agents of the justice system – lawyers, judges, police, and especially juries – have been notoriously ignorant regarding the scientific, technological, and mathematical issues of evidence. This is why so much of the justice system depends upon so-called  “experts” to try to understand and explain what all the technology means; but, these experts, often self-styled, may be legitimate — or they may not be. Unfortunately the lawyers, judges, and juries have no way to tell. Defense attorneys will most commonly not technically question (cross examine) prosecution “experts.” This is too bad, because, in my opinion, a technically knowledgable and logically-penetrating defense attorney could just “take apart” many prosecution “experts” – even medical doctors. The typical legal defense strategy is to present “your own” expert, which puts the poor jury in the position of having to decide which of the dueling experts to believe. All this, unfortunately, leaves the justice system, and the defendant, at the mercy of “experts,” and there is no scientific way built into the justice system to sort through which “science” is true and correct, and which is junk – and which experts are truly expert, and which are charlatans.

From the conclusion of the paper: “Our deepest concern is the emergence of a potentially unfettered move towards a technologically driven process of ‘automatic criminal justice.’”

We – all of us – have a problem. The justice system was never conceived or designed to comprehend the explosion of technology. And the lawyers and judges are not trained or prepared to deal with it. It’s a problem.