Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


Texas Forensic Science Commission’s Recommends Ending Use of Bite-Mark Testimony

Kate Mathis — February 23, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

What we know scientifically continuously changes as new research and advancements in technology become available. One area of interest that was once heavily relied upon in criminal trials has recently been called into question. After a six-month investigation, the Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC) recently concluded that criminal trials should cease using bite-mark identifications because the technique’s validity cannot be scientifically established. The commission’s chairman, Dr. Vincent Di Maio, stated that criminal cases should not permit bite-mark testimony because it does not meet forensic science standards. The Texas Legislature created the TFSC in 2005 with the purpose of investigating forensic evidence that is possibly being misused.

During bite-mark testimony, dental experts claim that they can identify marks on victims as those left by teeth and that those supposed bite-marks on a victim can be matched to the dental impressions of a known suspect. The commission, whose findings will be presented in a written report to the Teaxas attorney general, is the first of any official state or federal bodies to recommend the exclusion of this type of testimony. Although it is not legally binding, the recommendation may prove to be extremely significant, and legal experts believe it may have wide-reaching effects on criminal trials nationwide. The recommendation could assist trial judges in deciding whether to allow bite-mark testimony, and may also help defense lawyers prevent wrongful convictions when prosecutors insist on using this  unvalidated science in their quest to convict.

In addition to their investigation and conclusion about bite-mark testimony, the commission also began sorting through decades of past trial records. They intend to identify cases that relied heavily upon bite-mark testimony, and therefore should be reopened. According to Dr. Di Maio, although they have not determined in which cases bite-mark testimony was a critical aspect, this type of testimony was involved in 35 convictions that they have identified thus far. He went on to state that the TFSC would alert convicted individuals and defense lawyers who may want to pursue new trials or exoneration at the appropriate time.

Relied upon for decades and used in hundreds of convictions across the country, forensic dentistry specialists used bite-mark testimony to “reliably” match a suspect’s tooth patterns to marks on a victim. As this type of testimony has been increasingly called into question, it has been used less often in recent criminal proceedings and DNA testing has exonerated several people whose convictions were based on bite-mark testimony. In addition, new studies revealed that wound patterns from the same teeth can differ and change shape over time because human skin is very malleable. In fact, in one study that was presented to the TFSC, even a panel of leading forensic dentists could not agree whether human teeth caused the alleged bite marks in the photographs they studied.

The commission hopes that with their new recommendation, researchers will eventually establish thorough principles for identifying human bite marks. They also hope the criteria will include when bite marks can be used in investigations, such as to exclude a person from suspicion or say that they cannot be excluded, rather than to prove one individual left the wounds.

The Innocence Project of Florida is challenging a conviction of a client who was induced into pleading, in part, on problematic bite-mark evidence that the original expert how now recanted. In fact, a battery of forensic odontologists have concluded that the supposed bite-mark purportedly left by our client on the victim’s shoulder was not even a bite-mark at all. Yet, the State continues to oppose relief for our client and is relying on the bite-mark evidence in their attempt to preserve this wrongful conviction.

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How reliable is the evidence we use to convict?

Samantha Adams — May 12, 2015 @ 1:32 PM — Comments (0)

Psychological research continues to demonstrate that evidence such as eyewitness identifications or confessions do not necessarily prove guilt; eyewitnesses can misremember events, lineup processes can encourage witnesses to misidentify suspects, and confessions can be coerced. The unreliability of these types of evidence stems from psychological and cognitive processes such as tunnel vision, (in which a criminal justice official becomes so entrenched in the idea that the suspect is guilty that he or she starts to reinterpret information to support this idea,) and the malleability of human memory, (which causes witnesses to remember a crime differently from how it really occurred, and allows suspects to be convinced that they are guilty of a crime that they did not commit cite). Psychology has proved time and time again that not only do humans often incorrectly remember and interpret events, but also that these psychological flaws often contributes to wrongful convictions.

However, we also have to accept the fact that hard scientific evidence is also not always reliable. Over the years, countless types of forensic evidence have been found to be less dependable than they were once thought to be. For example, in 2002, the National Research Council conducted a study the FBI’s use of bullet lead analysis. Bullet lead analysis was performed to find an association between a bullet used for a particular crime, and bullets associated with suspects for that crime. The NRC found that despite the FBI’s equipment and procedures being up to snuff, their interpretations of analysis results were questionable; the FBI overstated the significance of their results to jurors, making the analysis results seem incriminating to a misleading degree. Following the report, the FBI chose to discontinue these tests, but did not thoroughly notify all the defendants who were affected by this misleading testimony, thus limiting their chances to appeal their convictions.

An even more contemporary example from the FBI is the April 2015 announcement that a large majority of FBI cases that included microscopic hair analysis also overstated the results as more incriminating than they actually are. This is especially relevant here at the Innocence Project of Florida due to the high percentage of Floridian defendants who had been convicted with the help of these analyses.  Just because these analyses were misrepresented in court does not necessarily prove the defendants’ innocence, but it does speak to the fragile nature of forensic evidence.

Besides flaws in the significance assigned to results of forensic testing, there are also some fields of forensic science that were previously so plagued with errors that they have had to have been almost completely rewritten. The most noteworthy example is that of arson science. Cases from Cameron Todd Willingham, to David Lee Gavitt, to the very current case of Letitia Smallwood have all been questioned due to the flawed arson science used in their convictions. Arson science from previous decades was actually considered more of an “art”. Rather than experimenting and training, older arson science was based on certain types of burn marks that were thought to indicate arson. However, more recent science, in which researchers set actual fires and observe them, reveals that these same marks appear in accidental fires as well. Arson science reminds us that just because a certain forensic test is considered “science” doesn’t necessarily make it truly “scientific”.

This brief overview of different types of evidence is not meant to demonstrate the hopelessness of preventing wrongful convictions or of using evidence to find the real perpetrators of crimes. Instead, it is a reminder that the resources the criminal justice system has at its disposal to prove someone guilty, from burn marks to confessions, need to be handled with care.

For more information on the fallibility of forensic science, take a look at this article.

 

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Shaken Baby Syndrome and Wrongful Convictions

Samantha Adams — March 30, 2015 @ 4:47 PM — Comments (1)

A quick Internet search for “Shaken Baby Syndrome” reveals countless numbers of caretakers being accused of being responsible for the death of an infant. In an article describing one of these recent cases, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown is quoted as saying:

“Shaken Baby Syndrome is the leading cause of child abuse deaths each year…The victims are innocent, helpless children and are too often harmed by those entrusted to care and protect them.”

Recently, however, convictions based on these kinds of accusations are facing serious reconsideration.

In the past, Shaken Baby Syndrome, or SBS, was widely believed to be based on scientific fact, but it’s come to light that this science is likely to be flawed. According to a recent article in the Washington Post,“Testing has been unable to show whether violent shaking can produce the bleeding and swelling long attributed to the diagnosis, and doctors have found that accidents and diseases can trigger identical conditions in babies.” This means that those caretakers that have been accused, convicted, incarcerated, and portrayed as abusive monsters are in many cases actually without any fault in the child’s death.

However, despite a lack of good science proving the existence of Shaken Baby Syndrome, it is an understandably emotional issue that is deeply entrenched in society, and the discrediting of the diagnosis has sparked some debate. A letter to the editor was written in response to the aforementioned Washington Post article, arguing for the existence of Shaken Baby Syndrome. Seth Miller, the Innocence Project of Florida’s Executive Director and President of the Innocence Network , and Barry Scheck, a founder and co-director of The Innocence Project, replied to this letter succinctly summing up the issue—

“No one condones child abuse, and no one wants innocent parents and caregivers to be hauled off to prison or separated from their children… We need an open-minded inquiry and dispassionate debate about the troubled science so the criminal justice system can get it right. The time is long overdue to fund basic and applied research in the area of pediatric head injuries. It is a public health issue of enormous importance.”

 

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More Than a Mistake: The Manipulation Inherent in False Confessions

Samantha Adams — January 27, 2015 @ 10:22 AM — Comments (1)

It is difficult to learn that people are convicted for crimes they did not commit. Accepting the existence of wrongful convictions means facing the fact that America’s criminal justice system is not infallible. But we must acknowledge that while our legal system portrays itself as only punishing those who are guilty, there are many weak areas where the innocent can mistakenly slip through the cracks. For example, it is extremely common for eyewitnesses to inadvertently identify an innocent person, as did Jennifer Thompson when she wrongly identified Ronald Cotton as the man who raped her. The jury, strongly influenced by the eyewitness testimony, thus convicts the innocent man. In such a case, neither the jury nor the eyewitness intends to be unjust; they mistakenly believe that they have correctly identified the criminal.

Unfortunately, there are also instances where wrongful convictions are more than a mistake. While some wrongful convictions can be at least partially explained away by human error, other cases show signs of outright manipulation. A strong indicator that some sort of deception or coercion was inherent in the wrongful conviction is the existence of a false confession.

Police interrogations are a common source of manipulation leading to false confessions. In a recent study, psychologists Stephen Porter and Julia Shaw found that not only is it surprisingly easy to create false memories of committing crime, but also that many of the methods that lead to the creation of these false memories are commonly employed in police interrogations as part of the Reid technique. For example, interrogations following the Reid technique are designed to be accusatory and to elicit a confession from the suspect, and often make use of false evidence and social pressures. All of these methods were employed by Porter and Shaw in their study, and contributed to the creation of the participants’ false memories. In other words, police interrogations are not always intended to correctly identify the culprit; rather, the police often assume that the suspect is guilty and do whatever it takes to force a confession out of him or her, including manipulating the suspect’s memory and producing a false confession.

Eddie Joe Lloyd’s case provides an even more straightforwardly deceitful example of how police interrogations can lead to false confessions. Police convinced the mentally ill Lloyd that by incriminating himself in the 1984 murder of a 16-year-old girl, he would influence the real culprit to confess and thus be helping the police solve a crime. Of course, police instead used his confession to implicate Lloyd himself, and he was sentenced to life in prison, which he served until being exonerated with DNA evidence in 2002. It’s clear, then, that the manipulation involved in police interrogations is not harmless. Confessions are extremely powerful evidence that often lead to conviction, and police who use these sorts of coercive strategies to encourage suspects to falsely confess are a major player in wrongful convictions.

Police are not the only ones guilty of manipulative techniques, however. Prosecutors also play a role in encouraging false confessions through the practice of plea bargaining. Judge Jed S. Rakoff has written an informative article about how prosecutor’s offers of a plea bargain can lead innocent people to plead guilty. While it may seem like plea bargains actually offer defendants a good deal, for example, serving life in prison instead of being charged with the death penalty if they simply plead guilty to the crime without a trial, we must remember that these bargains can be a deal with the devil. If an innocent person has been so far implicated in a crime that he or she is forced to go to court, he or she may believe there is no possibility of being proved innocent, and will instead resort to taking whatever scraps the prosecutor throws at them in the form of a plea bargain. The innocent person is then stuck with a charge and prison time, and faces the obstacle of going against his own confession if he ever wants to prove himself innocent. Rakoff notes that an estimated 2 to 8 percent of convicted felons are actually innocent and plead guilty to avoid harsher sentences, and that 10 percent of the Innocence Project’s exonerations had previously plead guilty to their charge. Plea bargains can certainly be a temptation that is hard to avoid.

Too many innocent people are being manipulated to falsely confess and subsequently convicted based on these false confessions. The fact that players in the criminal justice system are actually working in ways to encourage these false confessions is an unfortunate truth that must be recognized in the fight against wrongful convictions.

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Alabama v. Arthur or Conviction v. Science

Marianne Salcedo — November 07, 2014 @ 11:15 AM — Comments (0)

Our recent Facebook link of a February 2014 Atlantic Monthly article by Andrew Cohen, “Why Some States Still Fight the Exoneration of the Innocent,” is only the latest in Mr. Cohen’s years-long examination of the Thomas Arthur case in Alabama.

Thomas Arthur was convicted of murder in 1982 in Alabama. Arthur has consistently said that he is innocent of the crime. He was convicted solely based on eyewitness testimony that evolved after an eyewitness to the crime had been arrested and convicted for the murder. After serving 10 years in prison, the “eyewitness” decided to cut a plea deal and implicate Arthur. He has been on death row for 30 years.

In 2008, another man, Bobby Ray Gilbert, confessed to the murder under oath. At that time, a DNA test was conducted and was inconclusive for either man. However, since 2008, new and more accurate tests have been developed, and Arthur’s defense team has requested that the newer test be done. The Alabama courts have declined the request even though it would cost the state nothing to turn over the evidence for testing because Arthur’s family will pay for it.

Writer Andrew Cohen titled his first article about this, “Another Death Row Debacle: The Case Against Thomas Arthur,” and the title continues to fit this case. As Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project in New York said when Arthur was at one point given a stay-of-execution:

“This indifference to the power of DNA to determine the truth through hard science is unconscionable. It is nothing short of a national scandal that Governor Riley is repeatedly refusing DNA testing before executions when testing could confirm guilt or innocence. With this 45-day window of time, Governor Riley has an opportunity to restore faith in the system and restore credibility to his office.”

As the Innocence Project of Florida has long contended, actions that strengthen the American system of justice, that ensure prisoners behind bars are the real criminals, and that do not allow the guilty to roam society while the innocent are imprisoned, are what we are fighting for. If a more sophisticated DNA test might exonerate Arthur OR prove him guilty once-and-for-all, then reason dictates the testing should be done — and done as soon as possible to ensure the honor of the justice system in the State of Alabama.

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Browsing the National Registry of Exonerations

Marianne Salcedo — October 30, 2014 @ 9:29 AM — Comments (0)

The National Registry of Exonerations is an outstanding source of information about exonerations in the United States since 1989. It is searchable, and recently, we took some time to create a short summary of exonerations in the State of Florida.

There have been 50 exonerations listed for Florida, including capital cases, since 1989. Fifteen have been based on new DNA evidence.  Florida leads the nation in exonerations for death penalty cases.

The factors contributing to Florida exonerations range from mistaken witness identification, official misconduct, perjury, false accusation, inadequate legal defense, and false or misleading forensic evidence. By far, the leading factor in Florida cases is perjury of false accusation.

Once you search for the exonerations you wish to examine, links will take you to case summary pages. Here are some examples. Click on the last names to learn more about these cases on the Registry website.

Neely, Todd; Florida; Exonerated 1989; Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct.

Townsend, Jerry; Florida; Exonerated 2001; Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession.

Britt, Cheydrick; Florida; Exonerated 2013; False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense.

Mr. Britt was exonerated with assistance from the Innocence Project of Florida just last year. In the coming months, we anticipate up to three more exonerations. Stay tuned and take some time to read about all of Florida’s exonerees, many of whom IPF has helped to free, and learn about all of the cases of injustice throughout the United States.

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Letting the Guilty Walk Free

Marianne Salcedo — September 19, 2014 @ 9:42 AM — Comments (1)

When the American system of justice allows an innocent person to be wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, someone else is getting away with murder. Murder or another crime — but the point is that laws and policies throughout the United States limit access to state-of-the-art DNA testing for inmates who claim innocence. On September 18, 2014, the Newark Star-Ledger Editorial Board published an editorial titled, “End the absurd bureaucracy around DNA testing.”

Given the incredible power of DNA to exonerate the innocent and expose the guilty, it’s alarming that a mountain of red tape still impedes its use.

The fact that, out of the 317 exonerations due to exculpatory DNA crime scene test results cited in the editorial, 153 of those results enabled police and prosecutors to identify and catch the real perpetrator, barriers to current DNA testing only serve to destroy innocent lives and let the guilty walk scot-free. As the Star-Ledger editorial notes:

This is not only a problem for the wrongly imprisoned, it’s a threat to public safety.

In Florida, past laws impacting post-sentence DNA testing were fraught with time limits for filing petitions and limitations on how long physical evidence from crime scenes was preserved. In 2006, Florida legislators removed those time limits and extended the time period for preservation of evidence. And to this state’s credit, all DNA test results conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have the ability to be run through both the state’s DNA database and the FBI’s CODIS. In New Jersey, the reliance on private labs for post-sentence testing means that the real perpetrator’s DNA may not be run through CODIS for a possible match ensuring that the true culprit will never be identified.

Gerald Richardson, a 2013 exoneree who was represented by the Innocence Project in New York, will testify before the legislature in New Jersey advocating that the state require post-sentence DNA tests to be compared with CODIS. Not only would identifying the real perpetrator speed the timeframe in which the falsely convicted are released from prison, but public safety would be improved by getting the true criminal off the streets. Our laws and policies should enhance Americans’ safety, not endanger it.

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Michigan Man Exonerated After 17 Years in Prison

Justin Hirsche — September 09, 2014 @ 9:01 AM — Comments (0)

Jaime Lee Peterson was exonerated today after spending 17 years in custody and in a Michigan prison for the rape and murder of a elderly woman that he did not commit. He was serving a life sentence. The cause of his wrongful conviction stems from his false confession during the interrogation process which happened four months after the murder. Despite knowing that DNA testing of the victim’s rape kit excluded Peterson as the rapist, the jury convicted Peterson at a 1998 trial. The prosecutor led the jury to believe that semen found at the crime scene that was, at that time, untestable most likely belonged to Mr. Peterson. Along with his initial confession, this was enough to sentence him to life in prison. New DNA testing was conducted last year at the urging of Mr. Peterson’s new attorneys, the testing sought to prove that the previously untestable DNA belonged to the same person whose DNA was found initially with the rape kit. All of the male DNA  tested in this case was found to match a man named Jason Ryan (who was actually interviewed during the initial investigation).  Ryan was arrested last year for this decades old crime and currently is awaiting trial. Petersen’s case was led by the Michigan Innocence Clinic.

This case is just another one to add to the troubling ever growing list of coerced false confessions. After initially confessing Jaime (who is cognitively impaired) recanted his statements, but that usually does the person in such a situation no good. Roughly a fourth of those exonerated in America falsely confessed to crimes at some point during their interrogation. Jaime is the fourth man in Michigan to be exonerated by DNA evidence.

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DNA Evidence Clears Two men in 1983 North Carolina Murder Case

Justin Hirsche — September 03, 2014 @ 4:03 PM — Comments (0)

After spending 30 long years in prison, two brothers in North Carolina were exonerated Tuesday by a North Carolina Judge. Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown were both released from prison today They had been found guilty of the heinous rape and murder of an 11-year old girl. The two African American men were 15 and 19 at the time of the murder are both considered intellectually disabled. After long hours of unethical interrogation with no lawyer present each separately confessed to the crime, by signing statements written for them by police officers. But when they were sent to trial they recanted all of their statements confessing to the crime. Key evidence was left unaccounted for at the time of the trial. A similar murder had been committed in the same town within a month of the brother’s arrest, and a local man, Roscoe Artis, had confessed to the rape and murder of an 18-year old. Artis lived just a block from where the victim’s body had been found yet he was not seen as a suspect. A cigarette butt found near the vicitim’s body was tested  to see whose DNA would show up on it — there was not a match for either of the exonerees — but their was a match for Roscoe Artis’s DNA. Artis is currently serving a life sentence for his other rape and murder.

Leon Brown was sent away for life and Henry Lee McCollum received the death penalty with no evidence connecting them to the crime, but because they confessed to it under duress they had a huge chunk of their lives stolen. This just furthers the evidence that just because someone confesses to a crime when they are under immense pressure, that does not mean they are guilty of said crime. Roughly 25 percent of those wrongly convicted of crimes have admitted guilt during their initial interrogation, the only way we can stop this cruel treatment is to change the way we interrogate suspects and make sure all interrogations are videotaped. Over the past 23 years there have been over 2,000 exonerations in the United States and with the great news of today we can add two more to that ever growing list.

McCollum and Brown were defended in their search for the truth by Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

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Small Victory For Innocence in Washington State

Justin Hirsche — August 28, 2014 @ 10:44 AM — Comments (0)

Last week, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled, in a 6-3 decision, that DNA testing requests from convicts should be favorably considered. Specifically, judges should presume that the test results would favor the convict in making their decision, instead of denying them the chance to prove there innocence through DNA testing because the chances of exonerative results are remote. This decision spurs from the case of Lindsey Crumpton, who in 1993 was convicted of repeatedly raping a 75-year old woman. He was arrested running from the woman’s house with a bunch of incriminating items, including bedding smeared in blood among other things that the woman all identified as belonging to her. Crumpton is expected to spend the rest of his life in prison.

In 2011, he requested to have DNA testing done on the womans’ rape kit, her bedsheets and other pieces of evidence. A superior court rejected his request on the grounds that DNA testing would most likely not show that he was innocent. The case went all the way to the state supreme court and they reversed the ruling on the grounds that judges should presume that DNA testing will be in favor to convicts. Justice Mary Fairhurst when writing for the majority hit the nail on the head with this great statement: “Many innocent individuals have been exonerated through postconviction DNA tests, including some who had overwhelming evidence indicating guilt… and there is no direct evidence showing that labs have in fact been overburdened by an onslaught of postconviction testing.” This ruling is positive news for anyone falsely imprisoned in the State of Washington, because it now means their request for post-conviction DNA testing  cannot be denied just because the chances of them being proven innocent seem “slim” or “bleak”.

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