Posts Tagged ‘National Academy of Sciences’


Study Finds 1-in-25 Death Row Inmates Likely Innocent

Julian Soto — May 19, 2014 @ 9:31 AM — Comments (0)

The issue of wrongful conviction is even more prevalent than we had previously imagined. At least 1 in 25 (4.1% >) of prisoners on death row are wrongfully convicted; according to a shocking new peer-reviewed study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

In a report (Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants Who Are Sentenced to Death) published on April 28th, a team of both statistician and legal researchers statistically examined the cases of 7,482 death row convictions from 1973 to 2004. Using a survival analysis mathematical model, researchers estimated that if all death-sentence defendants remained under sentence of death indefinitely, at least 4.1% would be exonerated.

Just on its face numerical value 4.1% could seem somewhat diminutive, however when that percentage is translated to represent the lives of actual people (1 in 25) it becomes much more disconcerting. It is incredibly disturbing that the justice system has currently imposed sentences which will statically lead to the death of an innocent person, 1 in every 25 times that sentence is carried out to completion. With this shocking margin of error in mind, it becomes quite apparent how necessary the efforts of the innocence movement truly are.

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Solitary Confinement: Re-assessing, Re-evaluating, Re-thinking

Anne — July 27, 2012 @ 4:27 PM — Comments (1)

Note: This is the first of a three-part series on solitary confinement.

Dr. Craig Haney, the nation’s leading expert on inmate mental health, and a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, recently testified before a U. S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights on the effects of solitary confinement upon prisoners. Inmates in long-term confinement, according to Haney, suffer mental breakdowns from the lack of human contact that can lead to a multitude of mental, physical and emotional conditions, including psychosis, mutilations and suicide. Solitary confinement for most inmates, Haney testified, “precipitates a descent into madness” and can cause “profound, psychological damage.”

The increase in solitary confinement in the United States (since the late 1970s), according to statistics provided by Haney, is the result of the “confluence of three unfortunate trends”: mass imprisonment, the shift in responsibility for housing the mentally ill to the nation’s prison systems, and the abandonment of the notion of rehabilitation. Haney, who is also chair of UCSC’s Legal Studies program, estimated that 80,000 of the nation’s 2.3 million inmates in prisons and jails are in long-term solitary confinement. A great number of inmates have spent the majority of their prison sentences in solitary confinement, a legal and administrative practice that separates designated inmates from the prison’s general population.

Professor Haney was invited to testify by Subcommittee chairman Senator Richard “Dick” Durbin, D-Ill, at the first-ever hearing on the constitutional, fiscal, and public safety consequences of solitary confinement. Since 1971, Haney has conducted groundbreaking research into the effects of solitary confinement upon prisoners. His work has been cited in numerous scholarly journals and publications. Since 1971, he has been a leading proponent of mental health issues affecting prison inmates.  As a graduate student, he was one of the principal investigators in an academic undertaking that became known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE).” He and fellow researchers placed a group of psychologically healthy college students in a prison-like environment, randomly assigning half to the position of prison guards; the other participants were designated as prisoners.

The researchers in the SPE carefully monitored participants’ behavior during the designated period, eventually ending the experiment, however, upon their observation that the otherwise “psychologically healthy volunteers in the simulated prison [setting] rapidly deteriorated into mistreatment and emotional breakdowns.” Thus began Haney’s prolific research into the effects of solitary confinement upon prisoners who have been incarcerated for extended periods of time. Since the SPE, Haney’s work has extended into the effects of capital punishment as well. In 2011, his research was cited numerous times in the majority opinion when the United States Supreme Court upheld a ruling ordering California to release 46,000 prisoners in an effort to relieve the state’s overcrowded prisons.

While a great portion of Haney’s testimony before the Subcommittee centered upon the effects of solitary confinement, he also addressed the state of  prisons’ mental health workers, individuals who are assigned the task of treating inmates who have mental health issues.  Oftentimes the workers are (themselves) stressed and too overburdened to render effective care with respect to noticeable improvements in inmates’ mental health issues. Such inadequate  healthcare not only harms prisoners, Haney testified, it also “endangers the public once those prisoners are released” from prison. Without adequate mental healthcare as well as available, external counseling, prisoners, once released from the confines of a structured environment, are oftentimes present and “untreated” in the public domain.

Many times, according to statistics  provided during the hearing, non-treated inmates (or inadequately treated inmates) commit crimes which cause their return to the familiar, institutional environment of incarceration. A vicious cycle of re-institutionalization becomes, in many cases, the norm. An overburdened healthcare system speaks not only to an inadequate system of governance–as it relates to prison reformation–it also articulates a much broader statement in terms of the responsibilities of government in being fiscally accountable to those who work in conditions as presented in California’s (and other states’) prison facilities.

Haney’s testimony before the Subcommittee concluded on multiple points of note. According to Haney, we put “far too many people in prison, we pay far too little attention to what happens to them while they’re there, we keep them there for far too long, then we disregard what happens to them when they try to make the difficult transition to come out into the free world.” In April 2012,the National Academy of Sciences appointed Haney to a panel to study the causes and consequences of high rates of incarceration in the United States.

Others testifying on issues related to solitary confinement included the Honorable Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons; Christopher Epps, Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections; and former inmate Anthony Graves, who was released from Texas death row in 2010, after spending 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Ten of the 18 years Graves spent on death row were in solitary confinement. He is the founder of “Anthony Believes,” an organization dedicated to the health and well-being of individuals consigned to death row and solitary confinement. His front-line advocacy has garnered national attention on issues related to solitary confinement and prison reformation.

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Congress Is Stalling Out on Forensic Science Reforms: Why?

Chelsea — 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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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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The perils and pitfalls of forensic science

Ryan — 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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Innocence Project in the St. Pete Times: A lifeline for imprisoned innocent

Ryan — April 27, 2009 @ 11:10 AM — Comments (0)


[Mark Wallheiser, Special to the St. Petersburg Times] Innocence Project of Florida executive director Seth Miller and lawyer Bobbi Madonna meet with associates on potential cases. In the background is the whiteboard used in weekly lectures given to law school interns.

The Innocence Project of Florida received some press today in the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest newspaper, that explores the arduous process we go through to select our cases.

The process is a lot like sifting for gold. Of the 3,000 inmates who have asked for help since the office opened six years ago, 90 percent have received rejection letters. Rarely do the lawyers find someone like Wilton Dedge or Alan Crotzer, both wrongly convicted of rape.

Ironic turn of phrase – since we certainly don’t want to compare innocent people in prison to gold, being a good thing in any way, but sifting and deciphering and contemplating are all appropriate ways of imagining the process.

The entire article is worth a read, and it is somewhat brief.

Update: Our story is on A1 in the St. Pete Times today! Here is a PDF of the front page.

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

Ryan — 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

Ryan — 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 TheHill.com 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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Friday Roundup

Ryan — March 25, 2009 @ 9:59 AM — Comments (0)

On Thursday, lawyers for several Guantanamo detainees asked a judge to rule that they are entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. This represents the first test of the Obama administration to rule on the issue.

The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial today calling fingerprint matching an “inexact science.” The subhead reads, “Although it is accepted that prints are unique, courts continue to have questions about using them to make IDs.”

In 2007, a Maryland judge threw out fingerprint evidence in a death penalty case, calling it “a subjective, untested, unverifiable identification procedure that purports to be infallible.”

The ruling sided with the scientists, law professors and defense lawyers who for a decade had been noting the dearth of research into the reliability of fingerprinting. Their lonely crusade for sound science in the courtroom has often been ignored by the courts, but last month it was endorsed by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

In 1905, Henry Faulds, a Scottish doctor and the first person to propose lifting and comparing fingerprints to solve crimes, wrote, “The least smudginess in the printing of them might easily veil important divergences … with appalling results… [Police are] apt to misunderstand or overstrain, in their natural eagerness to secure convictions.” The more things change, the more they stay the same, apparently.

In the wake of New Mexico’s abolition of capital punishment, Stateline.org has an insightful survey of the complex and nuanced landscape of death penalty law around the nation. (By the way, as if I needed another reason to dislike Sarah Palin, she’s apparently pushing to re-establish the death penalty in Alaska after it was abolished in 1957.)

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