Posts Tagged ‘forensic science’

How reliable is the evidence we use to convict?

Alejandra de la Fuente — 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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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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An Uncommon Reunion

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 05, 2012 @ 10:22 AM — Comments (2)

In the curious case of Brian Banks, the 26-year-old California man recently exonerated for the rape of a young woman in 2001, Facebook can be credited somewhat with helping him not only gain his freedom, but pursue a lifelong dream of playing professional football. While users of the social media site often use the service to connect with friends and locate long-lost acquaintances, Banks utilized it for a greater purpose: to bring his accuser, 24-year-old Wanetta Gibson, to the truth of her false accusations for a crime that never occurred.

In the absence of DNA and other crucial evidence that could free Banks from a decades-long nightmare, a hold-your-breath meeting–arranged by Banks and agreed upon by Gibson–in an investigator’s office would pave the way towards the convicted man’s freedom. Gibson admitted that Banks had not sexually assaulted her, nor had he kidnapped her as had been widely reported. On video and audio tapes that have gone viral on the internet, Gibson can be heard twice, in response to the investigator’s inquiry of the alleged assault, “No he did not [rape me].” There is no coercion, prompting or influence on the investigator’s or Banks’ part. She speaks clearly, forthrightly and without hesitation to all questions posed before her.

The California Innocence Project assumed Banks’ case and assisted in the subsequent legal affairs that would lead to his freedom. He spent five years behind bars and five years on probation, wearing an ankle monitor so that his every move could be tracked. He also wrestled with being labeled a “sex offender.”

Prior to Wanetta Gibson’s accusation and Brian Banks’ subsequent incarceration, he had been highly recruited by a number of prominent colleges across the nation to play football. He was headed to a great collegiate career at USC, playing the sport he loved when his world came to a screeching halt following accusations of the rape. Despite the absence of DNA evidence or other evidence which could tie him to the alleged act, Banks’ defense attorney encouraged him to accept a plea agreement in exchange for a 41-year sentence because, according to published reports, the jury would see, among other “descriptives,” a “muscular black teenager” and not, presumably, an athletically-gifted young man headed to college on a scholarship. Prior to Banks’ incarceration, he had never been in trouble with the law. For Banks, though, a “short” sentence behind bars was a deal worth taking: He was young and would be free in a few years. A “brief” stay in prison was significantly more accepting over the prospect of remaining behind bars until middle age. As a result, he accepted the deal, languishing in prison for five years with, he believed, a career gone as quickly as the myriad collegiate offers that had come earlier.

Enter Wanetta Gibson and Facebook.

Gibson’s Facebook “invitation,” a casual, as though-nothing-had-happened appeal  was, by anyone’s measure, a strange befriending. With the taxed-down monetary settlement (awarded by the school district where she was a 15-year-old student at the time of the accusation) exhausted years ago, her motive for appealing to Banks remains suspect. Various news accounts accuse her (and her mother, Wanda Rhodes, 52) of continuing a charade of monetary acquisition by any means necessary in an effort to remain one step ahead of creditors seeking payment for big-ticket purchases made with the approximately $750,000 settlement.

Former neighbors and acquaintances of the pair do not paint a pretty or wholesome picture of the twosome. Wanetta Gibson, now a mother, and her mother, according to social services and legal documents, are well-known throughout the region as they attempt to evade legal and social service officials. They are, to some who know their story as it relates to Brian Banks, joined at the hip, and are always watching their backs.

In an act of desperation, according to case watchers, Wanetta Gibson may have mindlessly befriended Banks on the social media site in an effort to redeem herself for the travesty which she caused years earlier. Others theorize that the accuser may have wanted to wrest whatever finances she  believed he may have accumulated in prison, because she was currently unemployed, had exhausted all means of legally obtaining money and believed he would perhaps be grateful for her acquaintance (again!) since he was no longer behind bars. One of her primary concerns seems to have been the possibility of repayment of the settlement based on her false testimony.

Others speculate that the mother/daughter duo was, once again, “up to no good,” that something sinister was resting just below the surface, another scam perhaps. Banks posits the notion that Gibson most likely wanted to resume a relationship, that she believed that he may have in fact forgiven her for the years spent behind bars for the lies she had told, and that they could indeed move forward, together, despite the past. Whatever the motive for Gibson’s sudden appeal on Facebook doesn’t, however, cause him to languish over her intent.

Like many other exonerees who have been falsely accused of crimes they did not commit, Banks is putting the past behind him and moving into a different arena, one that doesn’t have bars, ankle monitors or daily activities ordered by officials who work in state-run facilities.

Major newspapers across the country are reporting on Banks’ slow turn of luck: He is scheduled to try out with the Seattle Seahawks football team on June 7th, and a number of other professional teams have expressed interest in him as well. If, however, he doesn’t make the roster with any of the teams, he has been offered, according to Derrick Hall, CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team, a place of employment with the organization. Hall watched Banks in a recent interview and was greatly impressed with the maturity of the young man who appears to harbor no resentment or ill-will toward his accuser or the fact that one-fifth of his life was spent behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

While a number of wrongful incarcerations can be attributed to a myriad of factors, including witness misidentification, poor forensic science, judicial misconduct, “bad” policing, coerced confessions, and ineffective legal counsel (which runs strong in this case), very few cases of exoneration can be attributed to walk-in-the-door, sit-down confessions of truth by an accuser, as in this case. Wanetta Gibson’s liberal entry into the investigator’s office was not only a surprise to Banks–he didn’t believe that she would show up–her confession of truth set in motion a string of events that set the wheels of justice rolling in Banks’ favor. Her conscience or the consciousness of what she’d done are theories up for grab. Only she can make a truthful case of her past and present behavior.

In this socially driven culture of tweets, texts, emails, “breaking news,” and 24/7 news bytes, Facebook has, in this instance, proven to be a savior for Brian Banks. It is reported that he remarked that he “didn’t believe” what he saw on his computer screen when he saw that Gibson had contacted him with the missive to “let bygones be bygones.” While such a casual dispatch may have been easy for her to issue, it will prove for Banks to be one which will indeed direct his path toward new and glorious opportunities and beginnings. Good luck, Brian.

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Weekly Update: The Buzz Around DNA Reform

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 24, 2012 @ 5:19 PM — Comments (0)

New York State Judge Says DNA Reforms Are Not Enough

New York Chief Judge Jonathon Lippman said, “even one wrongfully convicted person is too many,” in his state of the judiciary speech last week. Lippman was discussing his issues with the recently proposed DNA expansion bill in New York.

Lippman’s issues are not with the bill itself, but with what the bill fails to include. According to the New York Times Lippman said, “This is a grand opportunity to put together legislation that really directly impacts what I do believe is a stain on the justice system.” Lippman argued in his speech that the legislature should institute new safeguards against wrongful convictions with this DNA database expansion. Expanding the DNA database is not enough in the way of justice reform; Lippman explained several measures for the Legislature to consider in his speech: he suggested the creation of a new court to try 16- and 17-year-olds accused of nonviolent crimes as juveniles, as well as mandatory videotaping of interrogations of criminal suspects. Read more here.

Lake County (Illinois) State’s Attorney Candidates Debate DNA Reform

Lake County has suffered a great deal of criticism regarding their State’s Attorney’s Office after the overturning of Juan Rivera’s murder conviction last year. Now Michael Waller, who has served as the State Attorney for more than twenty years, is stepping down. Six candidates for the position participated in a debate last week where, not surprisingly, DNA evidence and reform were discussed.

While candidates’ experience prosecuting cases with DNA evidence varied, there seemed to be a general agreement among all that one of the first orders of business when elected would be the formation of a review board for wrongful convictions. The plans for these review boards vary as much as the candidates’ DNA experience, from private attorney Boyd Williams focusing on police chiefs and their priorities to Bryan Winter’s plan for a conviction integrity panel whose members would review former cases where there’s new evidence presented. Read more about the debate here.

Massachusetts Passes Forensic Analysis Access Legislation

Last week the Massachusetts Legislature passed a new bill that grants courts access to forensic analysis under certain circumstances.

The bill, an effort to decrease wrongful convictions, establishes a process for persons convicted of a crime, adjudicated delinquent, and those who pled guilty to a crime or pled no contest to file a motion with the court requesting forensic or scientific analysis of evidence that could prove their innocence.

Way to go, Massachusetts! Read more about the bill here.

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Congress Is Stalling Out on Forensic Science Reforms: Why?

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 31, 2012 @ 5:03 PM — Comments (1)

A three year old report by the National Academy of Sciences brought to light the disturbing state of forensics and criminal labs in the United States. Contrary to what Law & Order and CSI would have us believe, the work conducted by these organizations is oftentimes little better than junk science and guess work. These methods, such as analyzing bite marks or the markings on a bullet, can often lead to wrongful convictions.

When this report was released it was met with a great deal of shock and a seeming desire for reform. Democratic Senator for Minnesota Al Franken called the report’s conclusions “damning” and “terrifying.

It would seem, based on reactions to the bill, that Congress would’ve taken action to pass legislation reforming forensic sciences, and yet three years later there is no new legislation on the books. Early last year Patrick Leahy, a Democratic Senator from Vermont and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, introduced a bill that would enact a number of the reforms suggest by the NAS’s report. Here in Florida we are no strangers to the lack of motion that seems so often to occur in the legislature (still no movement on William Dillon’s compensation), and that is exactly what is happening with this bill. Even if this bill does pass in its current form, there is a major disconnect between the recommendations of the NAS and the bill’s reforms according to ProPublica; the report says that the formation of a national forensic science agency to act as an oversight mechanism would be a good foundation. The bill does call for the formation of such an agency, but suggests nesting it within the Department of Justice. The NAS’s report says:

[N]o existing or new division or unit within DOJ would be an appropriate location for a new entity governing the forensic science community… The entity that is established to govern the forensic science community cannot be principally beholden to law enforcement. The potential for conflicts of interest between the needs of law enforcement and the broader needs of forensic science are too great.

This separation is not for lack of trust in law enforcement or the Department of Justice, but instead because it is required to allow the agency to function effectively as an oversight mechanism. Marvin Schechter, a former member of the committee that wrote the report, said, “For over 100 years, forensic science in this country has been under prosecutorial law enforcement control, and it’s been a disaster.”

Innocence Project co-director and co-founder Peter Neufield says that a national forensics agency involved with the DOJ doesn’t have to be an either- or decision, but instead argues that such an organization should be a collective initiative.

Leahy’s bill has largely stalled out, and no other bill is on the table at present, though West Virginia Democrat Senator John Rockefeller is also considering forensic reform legislation.

We’ll be keeping an eye out for a new bill so that we can finally bring our forensic science up to par and stop putting innocent people behind bars.

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Questionable Membership

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 03, 2011 @ 11:19 AM — Comments (3)

While many of us are culturally unified by various issues and experiences encompassing race, class, and gender there are others who, once upon a time, belonged to organizations which none of us will ever aspire to join, submit a membership card, or inquire about annual dues. The alliances are headed by various state-approved entities where rules and regulations of the guild are determined and outcomes asserted according to a set of guidelines, mandates, and directives. Organizations oftentimes have prominent affiliates and are located in various districts, townships, and provinces across the land, and though most clubs are fraternal, women can also become members if it has been deemed that they, too, meet certain criteria.

Sometimes, however, memberships are deemed to have been instituted in error. Too late, says the various committee chairs: Your intake cannot be retracted. We will in fact move forward.

Five men, Larry Griffin, Leo Jones, Ellis Wayne Felker, Jesse Tafero, and Cameron Todd Willingham, were members of a club which no free person wants to join. Their shared experiences were their executions amid questionable “evidence” related to various crimes.

Two of the men, Jesse Tafero and Leo Jones, were from Florida. Tafero, executed in 1990, maintained his innocence in the 1976 murder of two law enforcement officers at a rest stop off of 1-95 in Broward County. His execution garnered nationwide attention because of its “botched” handling. His state-approved killing was particularly violently, due to the malfunction of the (now-defunct) electric chair. Writing in response to the May 4, 1990 execution, Justice Leander Shaw said that Tafero’s electrocution was a “violent scene with smoke and flames spurting from his [Tafero’s] head.” Only after three attempts did the State successfully meet its objective.

Jones, convicted in 1981 of killing a Jacksonville police officer, was executed in 1998 amid claims of innocence. His “confession,” he maintained, was coerced by the investigating officers who took his “statement.” Several witnesses later came forward in support of his claim of innocence, and court documents in the case supported his assertion.

Convicted in 1981 and executed in 1995 for the murder of Quinton Moss in Missouri, Larry Griffin garnered the support of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and other advocacy groups came to his defense. Although he was executed in 1995, his case was re-opened ten years later. After years of legal wrangling, appeals, and protests by supporters of a new trial, the St. Louis Circuit Attorney, following an extensive case review in 2007, concluded that Griffin was guilty of the crime for which he had been sentenced, and that the State of Missouri had not in fact executed an innocent man. Questions remain, however, regarding his innocence.

Attorneys for Ellis Wayne Felker, executed in1991 at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center (GDCC) in Jackson, Georgia, were refused a new trial for Felker despite having received a plethora of previously unrevealed documents which could have led to a new trial or exoneration. Felker was granted a temporary reprieve (from May-November 1996) due, most likely, to the Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. The State of Georgia certainly could not be marred with the ugliness of an execution during such a global presence. The GDCC was the site of the recent execution of Troy Anthony Davis.

In Texas, which has the renowned feature of being included among the nation’s top five states for executions (Virginia, Oklahoma, Alabama, Ohio are the others), Cameron Todd Willingham’s case comes back into the national spotlight, presumably because of  Governor Rick Perry’s quest for the Republican Party’s nomination for President of the United States. In the face of overwhelming evidence that points to Willingham’s innocence relating to the death of his three daughters in Corsicana, Texas, in 1991, Governor Perry has been met with questions regarding his refusal to allow a probe of the Cunningham case during the height of the litigation.

While it is seriously unfortunate that Griffin, Jones, Felker, Tafero, and Willingham have the dubious distinction of having belonged to fraternities that no one wants to join, what’s more regrettable is that factors that assisted in their membership are continuously being utilized in various courts across the nation, including (faulty) eyewitness testimonies, false confessions, flawed legal counsel, jailhouse snitches, and the withholding of pertinent evidence from defense attorneys.

Our jobs on the outside are to continue the dialogue and to work to eliminate factors which invariably lead to the exclusive memberships.

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“Innocent Until Proven Guilty”…?

Alejandra de la Fuente — July 23, 2010 @ 4:26 PM — Comments (0)

Wrongful convictions are bullshit…and you don’t have to take just our word for it.  Last night, Showtime’s hit show, Penn & Teller’s Bullshit, aired an episode addressing the many plagues of our criminal justice system and the unreliability of our current forensic science practices to which many innocent members of our society have fallen prey, including Jamie Bain.  In the words of exoneree Jamie Bain himself and the Executive Director of the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF), Seth Miller, who was one of the key players in Bain’s exoneration, Penn and Teller provide us with a fairly deep look into these crucial matters.

Oftentimes, once a suspect has been convicted, the prosecutors rule out the possibility of any other perpetrators because they have already convinced themselves that their suspect is guilty.  At times when there has been no solid evidence in deciding a conviction, however, the socially conscious citizen must ask why the constitutional “innocent until proven guilty” concept seems to have vanished from the courtroom?

Take a look at the case of Jamie Bain who was accused of breaking into and entering a private residence, kidnapping a child, and raping him.  Upon describing his attacker, the victim was persuaded by his uncle that the description fit Jamie Bain (both the attacker and Bain had a bushy afro).  However, Bain’s blood type did not match the blood type of the semen found on the victim’s clothing.  Not only that, as IPF Executive Director Seth Miller pointed out, the police deliberately asked the victim to pick Jamie Bain, and not who he thought truly looked like his attacker, out of the line-up.  Under such circumstances, even though there was clear evidence that pointed to Bain’s innocence, the jury opted to rely on the testimony of an FBI agent.  Why?  Well, after all, who wouldn’t believe an FBI agent?  Now, here’s another “fun” fact:  law enforcement professionals are evaluated based on how many people they put in jail.

Going further in solidifying a need to correct our criminal justice system, Penn and Teller also explored the story of Richard Paey who was arrested for drug trafficking and sentenced to 25 years in prison.  Paey had been involved in a serious car accident that confined him to a wheelchair, and the drugs he’d been arrested for were, in fact, painkillers prescribed by his doctor.  Paey spent three and a half years in prison and many more battling the charges against him.

With flaws such as these, it is no wonder that, since the 1980s, the population in our prisons has gone up significantly.  Some would pair that with the coincident that the crime rate has decreased a significant amount since that period of time as well.  Penn and Teller interview two experts, including Mike Rushford, President of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, who believe in that correlation as being a direct one.  In other words:

higher prison rate = lower crime rate

Penn and Teller, however, refute that with an equation of their own:

1 innocent in jail = 1 criminal on the loose

That is…whose place is that innocent person having to take in prison…?  We spend an alarming $50 billion simply to keep people in jail.  Who are these people?  Richard Paey, a handicapped, car accident victim?  Jamie Bain, the face of complete innocence who suffered 35 years in prison for a crime he couldn’t even dream of committing?

Mistakes have been made…major ones.  What could be our saving grace?  Clearly not the methods involved in the aforementioned cases.  To make that point, consider the claims made by Bradly Balco of Reason Magazine who has been studying and analyzing the use of forensic science in our criminal justice system.  His findings insist that forensic science was not created by scientists, but by law enforcement agents and prosecutors who aim to utilize it in defending their own preconceived reasoning.  Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky of John Jake College of Criminal Justice agrees that there is a lot of potential error when it comes to forensic science.  According to him, it is, instead, DNA testing that has proven to be one of the only reliable ways to confirm a person’s involvement or innocence.

So, if 2.3 million Americans are in prison today, how many of them were locked up after unfair trials?  How many were just victims of—in Penn’s words—“asshole, out-of-control prosecutors and faulty forensics?”  If Americans are to be considered innocent until proven guilty, how do we explain the hundreds of exonerations that have already taken place in America?

Written in collaboration with Tabby

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Federal Judge Lays Down the Law on State of Forensics in Courts

Seth — May 17, 2010 @ 9:52 AM — Comments (0)

I wanted to point out a recent speech by federal Judge Harry T. Edwards in Washington, DC to a group of DC judges this morning. The speech addresses the admissibility of or limits on the testimony of forensic examiners for any discipline other than nuclear DNA. ON of my colleagues characterized the speech as “forceful and unambiguous” and it “directly refutes several common government arguments” against the value of the National Academy of Sciences Report regarding the sorry state of forensics in America.

Judge Edwards makes a number of bold statements that are worth mentioning:

  • On page 5 and 6 he addresses the notion that courts should just follow precedent for the sake of following precedent, stating that the new information provided by the NAS report should be taken into account by every prosecutor who considers using forensic evidence and every court considering admitting such evidence. He concludes that “[i]f courts blindly follow precedent that rest on unfounded scientific premises, this will lead to unjust results.”
  • On p. 11 he notes that his “concern is that some forensic practitioners may not know what they do not know about the limits of their discipline. They will have to be taught this so that they can be appropriately circumspect in their testimony.”
  • Also on page 11 he notes that “[e]very forensic laboratory in the United States . . . should use appropriate protocols and employ highly skilled practitioners, but that [r]ight now. . . this is merely an aspiration, not a reality” and the judiciary must “do all that we can to help the forensic science community get its house in order.”

In Florida, we often rely on the way we have done things to guide us on how we should move forward.  Our rules for dealing with new evidence, particularly the Frye test in the scientific evidence context, make it difficult, if not impossible, to revisit old determinations about what was reliable and reevaluate those determinations based on new, more up to date information.  When we fail to have the flexibility built into the law to revisit outmoded determinations, we sacrifice reliability and accuracy for the sake of preserving a broken process.  At the intersection of forensics and criminal trials, the potential consequences of this is a wrongful conviction or, in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, being executed even though you are innocence.

We have discussed the NAS Report here, here and here.

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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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Bain DNA Test Results Press Conference Today

Seth — December 10, 2009 @ 10:30 AM — Comments (2)

We are in Polk County Florida today to hold a press conference with the 10th Judicial Circuit Public Defender.  At this event, we will discuss the the Bain case and new DNA test results that prove that sperm left on the child victim’s underwear during the rape came from someone other than James Bain.

This case is remarkable because James was convicted in 1974 and has been trying to get DNA testing for almost a decade.  He has been wrongfully incarcerated longer than any of the other 245 DNA exonerees were.

The press conference will take place today, December 10, at 2:00 PM at North Door of the Polk County Courthouse in Bartow, FL.  Members of James Bain’s family will also be in attendance.  So if you are in the area and would like to come by and support the efforts of IPF, stop by and say hello.

In the meantime, let’s get the word out about this case so that we can get James home by Christmas.

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