Posts Tagged ‘crime labs’

Letting the Guilty Walk Free

Alejandra de la Fuente — 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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Florida Agency Expands Subjective ID Methods

Seth — March 15, 2010 @ 9:32 AM — Comments (0)

Last week, we saw an article in the Daytona Beach News Journal that exemplifies the problem with how the method of identifying owners of fingerprints is described to the public by law enforcement.  For example:

A new, $7.4 million computer system has the software capability of storing and examining palm prints and larger areas of the finger lifted from crime scenes. In addition, the new program — called the Biometric Identification System — for the first time is able to retain suspects’ mug shots, as well as images of a crook’s tattoos and other identifying marks, said Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime analyst Stacy Colton-Clark.

. . .

Crime analysts have a “hit” when the finger or palm print of an unidentified suspect matches with prints already stored in the computer system. Anytime an individual is arrested, his or her fingerprints — and now their palm prints — are taken by the arresting agency. Those prints are stored in the state’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System, commonly known as AFIS.

First, the reporter over simplifies the process by which fingerprints in the database are matched to suspects.  A fingerprint is never a “match” per se.  Rather, when an unknown print is entered into AFIS or this new system, it may produce a “hit” which means that the computer think there are enough consistencies between the unknown print and the hit.  However, that isn’t the end of the story.  Then a fingerprint analyst at the law enforcement agency will then have to do a side-by-side comparison and subjectively determine whether the prints are consistent enough with each other to verify the hit.

So there is a not a computer-driven scientific certainty involved here.  In fact, this method is burdened by the same subjective (and often unreliable) methods as other forensic “matching” methods.

The article also judges the dividends of spending $7.4 million on this program by how many more hits are achieved but does not investigate whether those hits were accurate or the reliability of the method.

See this is the problem with fingerprints (and many other individualizing forensic assays)–they are based on a number of assumptions:

1) that every person has a unique fingerprint design (which has never been studied or proven);

2) that mere experience at performing subjective fingerprint comparisons guarantees reliability (it doesn’t–proficiency testing has demonstrated that when the same comparison was performed by multiple analysts, different results were achieved and that the error rate in some cases has been as high as 50%);

3) there is no bias involved (this obviously isn’t true–the comparisons are being performed by a law enforcement agency whose job it is to get a “match,” and by an analyst who knows that the known print they are comparing to just was spit out as a “hit” by a computer system.  There is no way this is an unbiased process).

It can’t be that we judge the success of any forensic method on how many “hits” we get or whether the person is eventually convicted because that is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I would submit that instead of spending many millions of dollars expanding the system in place, that money would be better spent, as the National Academy of Sciences Report suggests doing, on coming up with a new method of examining prints that diminishes human observer bias and increases reliability.

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DNA evidence useless in Jovin murder case

Alejandra de la Fuente — November 17, 2009 @ 12:29 PM — Comments (1)

That was the title of the article from the Yale Daily News yesterday about the 1998 murder of a Yale senior, Suzanne Jovin.

On the night of Friday December 4, Jovin had turned in her senior essay, volunteered at a Best Buddies event, and went home to e-mail a friend before heading out to return the keys of a university car she had borrowed that night. While walking on campus, she encountered two classmates around 9:30pm. At 9:55, a 911 call was made reporting they saw a woman bleeding on a corner in a nice neighborhood a couple of miles from campus. The woman was Jovin, who had been stabbed 17 times in her head and neck.

Evidence included DNA scraped from under her fingernails, a Fresca bottle found at the scene containing a handprint, and a cigarette also found at the scene. Unfortunately, the DNA sample was contaminated by former lab technician Kiti Settachatgul, who was working at the forensic laboratory in charge of testing the evidence. Recently testing confirmed Settachatgul’s DNA in the fingernail scraping sample, making the testing unusable in court. Now, a decade later, the investigation is moving on to test the other evidence found a the crime scene – particularly the print on the soda bottle.

Since the original investigation, one of the prime suspects was James Van de Velde, Suzanne Jovin’s senior thesis advisor. Immediately after being publicly named as a suspect, Van de Velde’s classes were canceled and he discontinued teaching at Yale. During the DNA testing no evidence was found linking Van de Velde to the crime, clearing him of the crime. Hopefully the other evidence can help to finally solve this case.

I think an important message from this case is the need for improvement within forensic laboratories. This whole case would have been solved had the sample not been contaminated. Extensive measures should be taken to prevent such occurrences. All the lab technicians should undergo specialized training for working within those crime labs and should have background checks run to ensure their reliability. It should also be made very sure that they don’t have any personal involvement within the case, or don’t know what or who they’re actually testing for. As outlined in our “Solving the Problem: Evidence Reservation” page, evidence can help to solve cases long after they’ve occurred. That’s why it’s so important to make sure those samples last, whether it’s guaranteeing no contamination, storing properly, or even holding onto it at all, we need to make sure everything from a case is saved in case we need to test or retest it in the future.

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DNA Tests Prove Broward Man Innocent

Seth — September 03, 2009 @ 3:25 PM — Comments (2)

Yesterday, DNA results were released in the case of Anthony Caravella, a mentally retarded man who was convicted at the young age of 15 of raping and murdering Ada Jankowski in Miramar, Broward County, Florida. Paula McMahon of the South Florida Sun Sentinel reports:

“This means Anthony is innocent, it exonerates him,” said Diane Cuddihy, the Broward chief assistant public defender who reopened Caravella’s case and has been working on it since 2001.

. . . .

The test, performed by a private lab in Richmond, Calif., eliminated Caravella as a potential source for the sperm found inside the Miramar victim’s body 26 years ago.

The test yielded the DNA profile of an unidentified male that could be checked against genetic databases to see if there’s a match with anyone on file.

While the State will likely argue that this evidence got there through some innocent means, let’s be clear about what we have here. The State convicted Caravella of stabbing the victim to death and raping her in the meantime, despositing his semen inside of her during the crime. Their own lab, in 1983, identified sperm on a swab of material taken from the victim’s vagina. Now, 25 years later, Forensic Science Associates, one of the best private labs in the nation, found some sperm cells on a slide made from the same swab, extracted the DNA from those sperm cells and determined, conclusively, that the sperm could not have come from Anthony Caravella. So we tested the perps sperm and it doesn’t match the defendant, so it means the defendant is not the perp. It is as simple as that, no matter how much the State may try to confuse the issue.

From a scientific standpoint, what is interesting is that when the local crime lab had a crack at this evidence, they got no DNA result. In fact, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office Crime Lab, didn’t even detect semen, despite the fact that lab analysts did see sperm on the tested vaginal swab in 1983.

Everyone in the local law enforcement community is baffled, but should any of us really be surprised at this point? Another point about government-run crime labs that we didn’t mention in our post the other day is that, for unknown reasons, they just are not as good as independent private labs at getting DNA results in these challenging old cases. Maybe it is because the scientist is not as experienced. Or they did not painstakingly search on the slide for microscopically visible sperm cells. Or maybe they just don’t view the importance of the case in the same way as a private lab would. Who knows. All we know is that time and time again, private labs succeed where government-run crime labs have failed.

What we do know, is that when the prosecutor Carolyn McCann says that they need to review the methods of the private lab because the result doesn’t comport with what her lab found, while certainly necessary, she is really only trying to intimate that something is amiss in an attempt to delegitimize the perfectly legit results. The only thing that is amiss, is that we now know a guy has spent 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and no one, except his attorney, is trying to rip down the prison walls to free him.

Another important point about this case, which I suspect will be the focus of ongoing conversations about this case, is Mr. Caravella’s mental retardation (IQ of 67) and how that, combined with coercive and suggestive interrogation methods by law enforcement, led to what DNA results show was a false confession. As we have documented in our policy section of our website, false confessions contributed to a wrongful conviction in about 25% of the DNA exoneration cases nationwide. One of those cases, that of Jerry Frank Townsend, makes this case more troubling because both are Broward cases, both involve law enforcement suggestively interrogating a mentally retarded person until they confess and using that false confession to close cases, and both cases may even involve at least one of the same law enforcement officers.

Congratulations to Mr. Caravella and Diane Cuddihy, his long time attorney for this result. IPF has been in touch with Ms. Cuddihy for a while and will let you know about new developments in this case when they happen. When Caravella is exonerated, he will be the 243rd DNA exoneree nationwide, the 11th in Florida, and the 4th in Broward County alone. Hopefully, the State will do the right thing and right this wrong before too long.

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Houston Crime Lab on trial

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 24, 2009 @ 11:02 AM — Comments (0)

Grits for Breakfast points to developments in a civil trial filed against the Houston Crime Lab, one notorious for bad practices and misconduct.

John Terzano of the Justice Project blogs on TPM Muckraker with more details about the case:

A trial is now underway in Rodriguez’s civil lawsuit against the City of Houston, and the city is claiming that there was nothing it could have done to prevent the misconduct of their lab analyst, whose lie led to Rodriguez’s wrongful conviction…

This argument is very troubling because it ignores the tragic history of mistakes and misconduct within the Houston Police Department’s crime lab. Independent research conducted in 2007 found that the crime lab repeatedly incorrectly tested DNA samples, and in some cases, made up the results without actually testing the evidence. It was also discovered that serology work, the same type of forensic evidence used against George Rodriguez, was not properly performed in over four hundred cases. With a history of producing flawed and inaccurate analysis, it is little wonder that the problems of the Houston crime lab led to the false testimony of the crime lab analyst. (emphasis added)

There’s a frustrating paradox – and a saddening reality – inherent in forensic science, and it’s this: that for all of the power of scientific analysis, people are still people. Our faith in forensic science can only be as strong as our confidence in the methods employed by the fallible scientists themselves. Oversight, accountability, and independence are critically necessary for – in fact, they’re precursors to – a reliable institution of forensic science.

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The perils and pitfalls of forensic science

Alejandra de la Fuente — May 13, 2009 @ 11:32 AM — Comments (1)

Both the New York Times and TalkLeft took issue yesterday with the oft-unacknowledged imperfections in forensic science.

The New York Times picks up on the National Academy of Sciencesreport that we’ve mentioned before, and how a cross-section of scientists and government officials back the recommendations that the NAS put forward.

Barry Fisher, a past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and a former director of the crime laboratory at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said he and others had been pushing for this kind of independent assessment for years. “There needs to be a demonstration that this stuff is reliable,” he said.

It’s not that there hasn’t been any research in forensic science. But over the years much of it has been done in crime labs themselves. “It hasn’t gotten to the level where they can state findings in a rigorous scientific way,” said Constantine Gatsonis, director of the Center for Statistical Sciences at Brown University and co-chairman of the National Academy of Sciences committee. And rather than being teased out in academic papers and debated at scientific conferences, “a lot of this forensic stuff is being argued in the courtroom,” Mr. Fisher said. “That’s not the place to validate any kind of scientific information.”

Meanwhile, TalkLeft discussed the unreliability of fingerprint evidence when analysts are given a “context” for a print. For example, scientists might be given a latent print, and then given a print for comparison and told it was taken from a suspect. Human beings are suggestible, and because this analyst is a human being, they’re statistically more inclined to find that the prints match, independent of whether they actually do.

He has conducted studies that show that when working on an identification, fingerprint examiners can be influenced by what else they know about a case. In one experiment, he found that the same examiner can come to different conclusions about the same fingerprint, if the context is changed over time.

The same kinds of contextual biases arise with other decision-makers, said Dr. Dror, who works with the military and with financial and medical professionals. He thinks one reason forensic examiners often do not acknowledge that they make errors is that in these other fields, the mistakes are obvious. “In forensics, they don’t really see it,” he said. “People go to jail.”

Finally, TChris at TalkLeft had a good analogy:

Just as police officers conducting lineups should not be told whether the suspect is or isn’t among those who are lining up, forensic scientists who are asked to match a fingerprint shouldn’t be told whether the print is suspected to have been left by a particular person. Any other standard raises concerns about the objectivity of the analysis.

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Friday Roundup

Alejandra de la Fuente — May 01, 2009 @ 10:29 AM — Comments (0)

A few tidbits from around the legalsphere this morning: This blog post reports on a recent study from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). The study shows how the litigation of “small crimes” – crimes like loitering, driving with a suspended license, and dog leash violations – that still carry a prison sentence (!) are clogging the courts.

“Every year literally millions of accused misdemeanants, overwhelmingly those unable to hire private counsel, and disproportionately people of color, are denied their constitutional right to equal justice. And, taxpayers are footing the bill for these gross inefficiencies.”

SentLaw: A Pennsylvania inmate who maintains his innocence asks to be executed by the State, having grown exhausted from having multiple appeals denied.

Grits for Breakfast has their take on the Houston Police Department crime lab fiasco: “This is another example of a “team spirit” mentality that contributes to many forensic-based false convictions. Houston crime lab workers apparently weren’t acting as scientists seeking independent answers but considered themselves part of the prosecution’s team, omitting lab results that might not favor the side they wanted to win.”

Simple Justice has a thorough piece discussing what Obama should be looking for in his Supreme Court nominee, now that Justice Souter is retiring.

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Houston man, victim of prosecutorial misconduct, could be freed on bond

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 30, 2009 @ 10:28 AM — Comments (0)

An article in the Houston Chronicle a few days ago told the story of Gary Alvin Richard, who was convicted of a rape and robbery in 1987. Richard has spent 22 years behind bars for what is now clearly a crime he did not commit. New blood-typing tests and recently-unearthed (withheld evidence, in this case) prosecutorial misconduct solidify that conclusion.

Both sides are asking a judge to overturn his conviction.

A jury convicted Gary Alvin Richard in a 1987 attack on a nursing student in a trial based largely on blood-typing evidence from the Houston Police Department crime lab. But, prosecutors and the defense attorney agree, new tests completed Friday show that an [Houston Police Department] analyst misled jurors at Richard’s trial and failed to report evidence that may have helped him.

Based on the new tests, both sides will ask a judge next week to release Richard on bond while they sort out what happened in his case…

Richard’s case abounds with issues common to wrongful convictions. Among them:

The victim identified him some seven months after the attack. HPD crime lab analysts came to conflicting conclusions about the evidence, but reported only the results favorable to the case. Physical evidence collected in what is known as a “rape kit” has been destroyed, a victim of poor evidence preservation practices, leaving nothing for DNA testing now.

Richard’s case is of many that have come to light since the Houston Police Department initiated a review of past cases in October of 2007. That review was spurred “days after DNA evidence cleared Ronald Taylor of sexual assault in a case where HPD analysts performed faulty tests on body-fluid evidence.” Kudos to Houston for reviewing its past cases with some genuinely desire for justice, but this episode also serves as a reminder of the importance of getting things right the first time.

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Texas bill allows defendants to challenge their convictions based on junk science

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 23, 2009 @ 10:57 AM — Comments (0)

Per the Innocence Project’s blog today, “A bill passed by the Texas Senate this week would provide an avenue for prisoners to challenge convictions based on discredited forensic science.” They reference a story in the Marshall News Messenger that begins,

Criminals who were sent to prison — or sentenced to death — based on discredited scientific evidence would be given a new way to challenge their convictions under a bill passed this morning by the Texas Senate.

In recent years, an increasing number of arson and gunshot convictions in Texas have triggered alarm as new technology proved earlier evidence wrong, and convictions were cast into doubt — including at least one case in which the prisoner was executed.

The measure by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, would allow discredited scientific evidence that figured in a criminal conviction to be considered by an appeals court in order to establish the innocence of a defendant…

Advancements in forensic testing — DNA, ballistics and arson — have led to new evidence being uncovered in several cases in Texas. Whitmire said that led him to file the bill, which clarifies how discredited scientific evidence can be used in court appeals.

In December 2008, we worked to overturn Jimmy Ates’ conviction, based largely on fraudulent FBI bullet lead analysis. Since then, the National Academy of Sciences has issued a scathing report, decrying the sorry state of forensic science labs around the country.

We know well how junk science can contribute to a wrongful conviction – indeed, the Innocence Project in New York says that junk science contributed to over half of the nation’s first 225 DNA exonerations. We applaud steps like these being taken in Texas, and hope that a new incredulity toward and accountability regarding forensic science will spread to other states and jurisdictions.

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The Coverdell Grant Program for forensic science

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 14, 2009 @ 10:02 AM — Comments (0)

The Innocence Project in New York recently released a report titled, “Investigating Forensic Problems in the United States: How the Government Can Strengthen Oversight through the Coverdell Grant Program.” From the executive summary:

In 2004, Congress established an oversight mechanism within the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant Program, which provides federal funds to help improve the quality and efficiency of state and local crime labs and other forensic facilities.

[…] Nearly five years after Congress passed legislation to help ensure that forensic negligence or misconduct is properly investigated, extensive independent reviews show that the law is largely being ignored and, as a result, serious problems in crime labs and other forensic facilities have not been remedied. In short, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP), which is responsible for the program, has failed to make sure that even the law’s most basic requirements are followed.

Yesterday, the blog for paraphrased some of the results of this study, and reiterated the Innocence Project’s call for increased oversight or, rather, they called for the Obama administration to increasingly take advantage of the grant program that Congress created five years ago. One particularly egregious fact they quote is this: only 13% of designated oversight entities meet the federal law’s forensic oversight requirements. If you were a defendant, would you want to take a 1-in-8 chance that the forensic lab that processed the evidence in your trial was subject to proper oversight?

Finally, “Under new leadership, the Department of Justice can – and should – make sure crime lab problems are properly addressed, which will enhance the public safety and help prevent wrongful convictions.” Remember, working to correct problems in order to preclude wrongful convictions is cheaper than housing wrongfully incarcerated individuals.

No sooner had The Hill run this post than Grits for Breakfast published some presentations from the public meetings held by the National Academy of Sciences, meetings held to address the problems plaguing forensic science labs around the country. They link to this presentation in particular that calls for forensic tests “to be as blind as possible, for as long as possible,” and which contains the shocking graphic on common error rates linked above.

You’ll notice that firearms and fingerprints, while among the most reliable forensic testing methods, still yield erroneous conclusions around 1-5% of the time. Some toolmark and bitemark tests, meanwhile, are reliable less than half of the time. That report also refers to several studies that found that, for example, when a scientist was provided with “context” for certain samples – context such as, “The suspect has already confessed, here’s his hair and a hair from the crime scene” – that error rates were much higher. Those who conducted the psychological studies could induce false positives by giving false context, leading the forensic scientist to believe certain conclusions before they came to them independently.

All of these scientific studies point to the sad state of the crime labs in this country. Scientists might think so, but they are not immune to psychological tendencies – such as suggestibility – that afflict every human being. Independent oversight and common-sense reforms are the necessary solution to the problem.

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