At least that’s what the A.P. is reporting.
I haven’t yet heard who got the job.
- Amateur photographer harassed for taking photos of small town water tower.
- Virginia Postrel on the locavore dilemma.
- On forensics and biometrics: “”A lot of things possible on a TV series just don’t work that way in real life.”
- The Jerks Who Want to Tell You How to Raise Your Kids Because Your Kids are Obviously Too Stupid to Think for Themselves Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
- Feds want to force Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. to enable them to spy on you. Then again, most of what’s written on those sites is completely illiterate.
- Owner of Segway company dies after riding Segway over a cliff.
My crime column this week looks at the case of Eddie Lee Howard, who is on death row in Mississippi. Howard is trying to get a new trial. He was convicted mostly because of testimony from disgraced bite mark expert Michael West. The office of Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood is arguing that Howard is procedurally barred from raising West as an issue. That argument may or may not have legal merit, but it’s a pretty sleazy argument to make.
My crime column this week looks at the latest forensics scandal, a report from two former FBI agents that says North Carolina’s state crime lab withheld or mischaracterized evidence in at least 230 cases, including three murder cases that resulted in execution.
Over the weekend someone sent me this (not nearly comprehensive) list of forensic scandals. It includes a few I hadn’t heard about. Including this one:
In one case, Dr. Campbell claimed to identify to a medical certainty the body of Melody Cutlip; the real Melody Cutlip was later found alive and well in Florida.
Dr. Campbell has also testified beyond the limits of acceptable science in his field, stating in court that bite marks matched to a reasonable degree of medical or dental certainty.
As you might have guessed, Dr. Campbell is a bite mark specialist. In fact, he’s considered one of the country’s best.
There have been some developments in the Mississippi case of Eddie Lee Howard, which I first wrote about here. I’ll have more on those developments in an upcoming column. But in the meantime Ican’t resist sharing a short passage from the Mississippi Innocence Project’s pleading in Howard’s case that relates to Mississippi District Attorney Forrest Allgood.
First some context. Allgood, remember, is the DA who wrongly convicted Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. He’s also the DA who put Steven Hayne on the stand in the Tyler Edmonds case to deliver his infamous “I can tell by the bullet wounds that there were two hands on the gun” theory. The key to Eddie Lee Howard’s case, just as in the cases of Brewer and Brooks (and Jimmie Duncan), was bite mark testimony from our favorite forensic odontologist, Michael West.
Michael West is the man who claims to have invented a method of bite mark analysis that only he can conduct, and that can’t be duplicated by anyone else. He’s the man who claimed he could trace the teeth marks in a half-eaten bologna sandwich found at a crime scene to the defendant, to the exclusion of everyone else on the planet. He’s the man who, in a sting orchestrated by a defense attorney, not only claimed that a dental mold made from the teeth of the defense attorney’s private investigator was a definite match to photos of bite marks on a corpse from a case ten years prior, but also claimed the odds that anyone else made those bite marks were “astronomical,” and sent back a 20-minute video in which he explained, step by step, how he was able to match the dental mold to the completely unrelated bite marks.
So here’s what Forrest Allgood told the jury about Michael West’s genius during Eddie Lee Howard’s murder trial:
“[W]hether we like to think so or not, the progress of mankind has been carried forward on the backs of people like Michael West. . . The church threatened to burn Copernicus because he dared to say that the planets didn’t revolve around the earth. So it was with Michael West.”
And so it was.
I believe Allgood meant to invoke Galileo, not Copernicus. But otherwise, bravo, Mr. Prosecutor. One day children all over the world will read in their textbooks about this humble dentist from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and how the wicked fate of history cursed him to be unappreciated in his own time.
Last year I wrote a column about a minority but growing chorus of forensic specialists who are questioning the way Shaken Baby Syndrome is diagnosed and used in the courtroom. New Scientist reports this week that one of those critics has been temporarily barred from testifying in U.K. courts.
The pathologist in question, Marta Cohen of Sheffield Children’s Hospital, learned of the restrictions following a private hearing on 22 July before the General Medical Council, the body that investigates complaints against doctors in the UK.
“The decision is appalling,” says John Plunkett of the Regina Medical Center in Hastings, Minnesota, who has shown that short falls can cause the trademark symptoms said to be exclusive to child abuse.
The fear of similar outcomes means that British-based pathologists who dispute SBS are unwilling to take on cases of alleged child abuse. “It means that no one will take any head injury cases,” said one, who asked not to be named. “If you disagree with the prosecution, you risk being called before theGMC.”
The verdict appears under Cohen’s registration details on the GMC website, stating that: “She must not give evidence as an expert witness in cases where there is alleged non-accidental head injury to an infant or child.” It also makes clear that the restrictions are temporary precautions while the complaints against her are further investigated by theGMC.
It is not clear who complained to the GMC, but the motivation appears to come from criticisms circulated to prosecution services by a judge, Justice Eleanor King, following cases last year in which Cohen gave evidence. King’s criticisms included accusing Cohen of developing a “scientific prejudice”, of being “disingenuous” in her citing of research and unwilling to defer to prosecution expert witnesses.
The GMC will not explore the validity of the competing scientific theories about SBS, and will simply investigate Cohen’s “fitness to practice”. The GMC’s ruling comes at a time when evidence is mounting that innocent events such as the birth process itself, choking, short tumbles and breathing difficulties can cause the classic symptoms (BMJ, vol 2, p 430).
Given what we know about the history of forensic science and the tendency of specialists to overstate its certainty, the decision to bar an SBS critic from testifying is troubling. Even if the ban on Cohen is lifted, it sends a pretty clear message to SBS skeptics. Testify for the accused, and you’re risking an investigation.
I first wrote about Bruce Levy’s bizarre arrest last March. Levy headed up the Nashville firm that took over all of Mississippi’s autopsies after the state effectively fired Steven Hayne in 2008. Last spring, the night before the Mississippi legislature was to vote on a bill that stopped an attempt by some Mississippi counties to rehire Hayne, Levy was arrested in a pot sting conducted by Mississippi police.
This week, Levy was indicted by a grand jury. He faces up to 10 years in prison.
Like the Roger Wiener case, this story just doesn’t smell right. The allegation is that Levy purchased a big box of pot and had it FedExed to the hotel he was staying at while he was doing some autopsies in Jackson. I guess that would make some sense if Levy were a (not particularly bright) casual pot smoker and needed a fix. But the police also allege that in addition to the FedEx box, Levy had pot stashed all over his room. If he was stealing drugs off the bodies he autopsied and selling them (as suggested in the linked article), why would he buy another big package of pot while he was staying in Jackson? And why in the world would a doctor who owns his own autopsy firm be engaged in low level pot distribution in the first place?
I should say that at this point I have zero evidence that this was a set-up. And it’s worth noting that the policy agency that conducted the sting reports to the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, which is currently headed up by Steve Simpson. Simpson is the one who basically fired Hayne, who made the contract with Levy’s firm, and he actively opposed the bill to bring Hayne back that the legislature was scheduled to vote on the day after Levy’s arrest. So it’s entirely possible that Levy was just a really dumb, really careless (but quite successful) doctor who for whatever reason also dealt marijuana on the side. But the timing of his arrest is incredibly coincidental, and the other details we know so far are . . . . really, really strange.
As I’ve covered this Hayne stuff it has occurred to me that HBO could make a pretty wicked dark comedy series about the autopsy/medical examiner business the south. Not only would they not need to change anything from what actually goes on to make the show more interesting, they’d probably need to leave some real-life events out to make it more believable.
I have a piece up at Slate using the Hank Skinner case to argue that in rape and murder cases, investigators should err on the side of conducting DNA tests on all biological material collected at the crime scene.
- Off-duty Baltimore cop kills a man who grabbed his girlfriend’s butt. Pretty sure if a non-cop had done this he’d have been in jail while the police department sorted out what happened.
- Same prop newspaper shows up in multiple TV shows, movies.
- A visit to Georgia’s Stalin Museum.
- Eliot Spitzer: Abraham Lincoln would be ashamed of you for not wanting to pay more in taxes. The sneering condescension in that piece will raise your blood pressure about 10 points. Seems to be something about being born into money that makes people especially prone to lecture the rest of us about “shared sacrifice.”
- Missouri cops harass guy with history of recording Missouri cops.
- Nebraska crime scene investigator who manufactured evidence sentenced to “up to four years” in prison.
The Crime and Federalism blog reports on the case of Carlos Alfredo Simon-Timmerman, a New Yorker who was stopped in Puerto Rico last year on his way back from a vacation in Venezuela. Simon-Timmerman was stopped by U.S. Customs agents, who found a pornographic video in his bag entitled Little Lupe the Innocent; Don’t Be Fooled By Her Baby Face. The movie featured Lupe Fuentes, a porn actress who, as the movie title suggests, is a 23-year-old with a more youthful appearance.
Fuentes is currently under contract with a U.S. porn production company, and has made movies for other U.S. companies in the past. Those companies are required by federal law to keep records showing that all participants in their adult films are of legal age. That means Assistant U.S. Attorney Jenifer Yois Hernandez-Vega could have verified Fuentes’ age with as little effort as a Google search and a phone call. (Hell, she probably could have just consulted one of the porn experts at the Securities and Exchange Commission.)
Instead, the prosecutor pushed ahead with child pornography charges against Simon-Timmerman, even after the man’s attorney was able to show that Fuentes had appeared in movies produced in the U.S., as well as other documentation that Fuentes was of legal age at the time the movie was made.
Hernandez-Vega still didn’t buy it. Her evidence that Fuentes was a minor was apparently so strong that she not only apparently felt she didn’t need to take 15 minutes to look up the proof of Fuentes’ age on file with the federal government, she could also dismiss the evidence produced by Simon-Timmerman’s attorney that his client hadn’t broken any law—all while keeping Simon-Timmerman locked up for months.
And what was that evidence? “Expert” testimony. At trial, Hernandez-Vega called Alek Pacheco, A U.S. Customs agent and self-described expert in child pornography who concluded (presumably after viewing the video several times) that Fuentes was “13 or 14″ years of age.
The state also called a Dr. Pedro R. Jaunarena who, according to court documents (PDF) filed by Hernandez-Vega…
…will explain from viewing the images in question the bodily features he considers in making his determination, such as the face of the minor, the breast area, the genital area to include the existence or non-existence of pubic hair, the height of the minor, among other factors to be considered to establish the approximate age range of the minor depicted and to establish that the relevant images depict minors under the age of eighteen.
Simon-Timmerman’s attorney was even able to get Fuentes to confirm her age over the phone. That still wasn’t enough for the prosecutor.
Little Lupe herself would have to fly to Puerto Rico, show her passport to the prosecutor, and testify under oath that she was really, really not 13 years old.
“My fans mean everything to me, ” Fuentes told Asylum via her publicist. “It was important to me to make the trip to Puerto Rico to show support to someone who did no wrong.”
That was last month. After Fuentes’ appearance, Simon-Timmerman was finally released, and the charges against him were dropped. It took the graciousness of a porn star to keep Simon-Timmerman from going to prison.
If this case follows other clear-cut prosecutorial abuse cases, Hernandez-Vega will suffer little if any penalty or sanction for her stunning incompetence, which caused the arrest and months-long incarceration of an innocent man. And Jaunarena and Pacheco will continue testifying as experts in federal courtrooms, despite the fact that their expertise in this case was off by by about five years.
(Thanks to Jonathan Pratt for the tip.)
Researchers at the University of London used a suction device to create bruises on 11 subjects. They then took sequential photos of the bruises over nine days. They showed the photos to 15 forensic experts and asked them to order the photos chronologically. Forensic experts regularly testify about the age of bruises down to the hour, providing chronologies that allow prosecutors to give a suspect a window to have committed a crime. Or, alternately, to attempt to put a the crime at a time for which the defendant has an alibi.
But these particular 15 experts didn’t fare so well. The results:
Lead author, Margaret Pilling, an Honours Medical Student at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, said: “The greatest accuracy, from forensic experts, occurred in very fresh bruises (between 0 and 12 hours) however there were still a number of significant misjudgements in this age range.
“The median difference between the estimated age and the real age was 26 hours – a considerable disparity. We conclude that forensic experts’ estimates of bruise age from photographs are, at best, unreliable.”
Reason contributors Glen Whitman and Roger Koppl have an article in the journal Law, Probability & Risk on rational bias in forensic analysis. The outright frauds and charlatans in the forensics field are bad enough. But Koppl and Whitman focus on the structural biases inherent in the way forensic analysis is often performed, biases that likely afflict even well-intentioned analysts. From the abstract:
Specifically, forensic examiners’ conclusions are affected not just by objective test results but also by two subjective factors: their prior beliefs about a suspect’s likely guilt or innocence and the relative importance they attach to convicting the guilty rather than the innocent. The authorities—police and prosecutors—implicitly convey information to forensic examiners by their very decision to submit samples for testing. This information induces the examiners to update their prior beliefs in a manner that results in a greater tendency to provide testimony that incriminates the defendant. Forensic results are in a sense ‘contaminated’ by the prosecution and thus do not provide jurors with an independent source of information. Structural reforms to address such problems of rational bias include independence from law enforcement, blind proficiency testing and separation of test from interpretation.
Koppl and I co-wrote a piece for Slate a couple of years ago laying out some of those structural reforms.
The problem goes back to the fact that forensics isn’t really science. With the notable exception of DNA testing, most fields in forensics were invented and developed by police agencies, not scientists. So they have evolved over time not to better seek out the truth, but to help law enforcement personnel prove a hunch or theory. Hence the general absence in most forensics of critical components to the scientific process like peer review and blind testing. The forensic evidence is then still presented to juries with all the gloss, polish, and impressive-sounding vernacular of hard science.
The other problem is that while science might be described as a perpetual journey toward truth, once a jury hands down its verdict, the criminal justice system tends to put a premium on finality and closure. So even though science may later show us that the forensic evidence used to convict someone 10 or 20 years ago is flawed, overstated, or simply false, the courts have been reluctant to reopen those cases.
- Vatican official compares criticism of church officials for sex scandal to persecution of the Jews. Hmm. Centuries of pogroms, ghettos, and a holocaust that nearly exterminated European Jewry from the face of the earth vs. shaming church officials for covering up the sexual assault of thousands of minors. Yes. Totally the same!
- Missing man/apes link found in South Africa.
- Government officials take aim at unpaid internships. How dare these private companies exploit eager young people who volunteer to work without pay in exchange for valuable professional experience! Also, something tells me the thousands of unpaid interns who work on Capitol Hill and for federal agencies won’t be affected.
- Newsweek columnist looks at problems with forensic evidence.
- Just so I have this straight: 18 high school seniors showed up for for prom wearing clothes that school officials deemed too revealing, and as punishment, the principle paddled 17 of them?
My crime column this week looks at the latest developments in the Mississippi death investigations saga, including last week’s good news that Gov. Haley Barbour signed the bill that will effectively (most likely) end the career of Steven Hayne.
- Dallas police launch a “let’s see if we can talk people out of their Fourth Amendment rights” initiative.
- Forbidden love.
- I smell crappy science.
- What do you know, the experts may have been wrong again.
- Here’s a Cato podcast interview with Billy Murphy, the Baltimore criminal defense attorney and narrator of the new Flex Your Rights video.
- Strong column from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger’s op-ed page editor calling for the state to appropriate the necessary funding to hire a competent state medical examiner.
- .…bankrupt America!
- Sacramento man twice arrested and jailed in a case of mistaken identity, despite the fact that he’s four inches taller than the man police wanted, that he’s black and the other guy is white, and that they have different last names.
- Another crime lab under review.
- New study looks at disclosure rules and regulation of government-to-government lobbying. Surprise! Governments aren’t nearly as concerned with how they spend money (that is, your money) lobbying than they are with how people spend their own money lobbying.
- Why, when I was a kid, just to get to school we had to . . . okay, you win.
- To hell with your standard poodle. It’s all about the Brooklyn Mutt Show.
- Cop’s dash video differs from police report in alleged police brutality case. Naturally, they fought like hell from releasing the video to the guy filing the civil rights suit.
- More fun with Barack Obama’s Facebook feed.
- Omaha trial of CSI investigator accused of tampering with evidence begins.
- IRS sends agents to harass car wash owner over a four-cent tax bill.
The event is open to the public. Here are the details:
“Bad Science: The Execution of Cameron Todd Willingham and the Case for Forensic Reform”
Craig Beyler, Fire Scientist hired by Texas Forensic Science Commission to review Willingham case
John Lentini, Owner, Scientific Fire Analysis, LLC and Author, Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation
Juan Hinojosa, Texas State Senator
Stephen Saloom, National Policy Director, The Innocence Project
Radley Balko, Senior Editor, Reason Magazine
Tuesday, March 23, 2010, 7:00 p.m.
Georgetown University Law Center
McDonough Hall – Hart Auditorium
600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20001
A panel of experts in forensic science and criminal justice discuss the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed by the state of Texas in 2004. Willingham was convicted in 1992 of murdering his three young daughters in a house fire that the state determined was arson.
A report issued by Beyler in 2009 claimed that in convicting Willingham, the state used techniques and assumptions that were no longer recognized as scientifically valid and that the original finding of arson could not be sustained.
This event is sponsored by the Georgetown Law Innocence Project.
A Webcast will be available at http://www.law.georgetown.edu/webcast/.
Yesterday, I reported that the Mississippi State Senate had unanimously passed a bill that would require anyone hired to do an autopsy by one of the state’s counties be certified in forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology. The bill was a reaction to the news that several Mississippi counties were attempting to resurrect an old state law to bring back controversial medical examiner Steven Hayne, who isn’t board certified.
The bill now heads to the Mississippi House, where it look like it may face some opposition. After the bill passed the Senate, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who frequently used Hayne during his time as a district attorney, sent the following email to the state’s representatives:
Please be advised House Bill 1456 amends Section 41-61-65 and allows the Department of Public Safety to appoint a Pathologist which must be qualified to perform post-mortem examinations. Further, this bill requires the Pathologist be an M.D. or D.O. who is certified in Forensic Pathology by the American Board of Pathology. This is an Innocence Project bill which threatens cases which involved Dr. Hayne. This bill has passed the Senate and is headed to the House of Representatives. Please contact your House Member and encourage him or her to defeat this bill. Our office is working diligently to stop this potentially harmful legislation.
Mississippi Attorney General
As I reported last summer, it was Hood’s office that issued an opinion allowing Mississippi coroners to resurrect an old law that would allow them to circumvent the Mississippi Department of Public Safety’s termination of Hayne in 2008.
Hood’s email is striking for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a pretty straightforward and unapologetic defense of Hayne, and an indication that so long as Hood is in office, there will be no serious review of old cases to find other potentially innocent people convicted by Hayne’s testimony.
Second, certification in a medical specialty by the American Board is standard throughout the medical profession. It displays a basic level of competency. Most hospitals won’t hire a doctor who hasn’t been certified by the American Board. It’s a pretty minimal requirement to ask of the doctors whose testimony will be used in criminal proceedings. In fact, under Mississippi law the state medical examiner is already required to be certified by the American Board. Since 1995, Hayne, the coroners, and the Mississippi legislature have gotten around the law by simply not hiring a state medical examiner. With no official state medical examiner, Hayne was then allowed to handle so many autopsies on a contractual basis that he effectively held the position in every way but having it printed on his business cards.
Third, Hood is fighting his state’s Department of Public Safety and State Senate to bring back a doctor whose testimony has already led to the murder convictions of two innocent men, whose laughable testimony was thrown out of court (PDF) in a third murder case, and who has been roundly condemned by nearly every other medical examiner outside the state of Mississippi who is familiar with his work. (I’ve talked to at least 13.)
Finally, Hood’s email is factually inaccurate. The bill would not address prior cases involving Hayne, as Hood implies by using the past tense of the word “involve.” It merely prevents Hayne from doing any autopsies in the future. Either Hood hasn’t actually read the bill, or he’s trying to drum up opposition by deliberately exaggerating its scope, implying that it would reopen thousands of old cases. Mississippi really should look at all of those cases, but that isn’t what this bill does.
Hood not only has a complete and utter lack of shame about the damage Hayne has already done to Mississippi’s criminal justice system, he now seems determined to make sure Hayne can continue to do more.
Over at Hit & Run, I’ve posted on new developments in both the Cory Maye case and in the ongoing Steven Hayne saga. Hold on to your hats, here, but both developments are actually positive.
- This “Al Qaeda Seven” nonsense is shameful. Good on Walter Dellinger and Peter Keisler for denouncing it. And why hasn’t William Kristol been shamed out of public life? In a just world, he and Naomi Klein would be vying for a slot on Celebrity Apprentice.
- Indiana seventh grader suspended after turning down drugs from a classmate.
- Why does the GOP refuse to take seriously one of its few serious politicians?
- Yes, flipping off cops should be legal. Generally stupid, but legal.
- The science news cycle.
- So we’re still granting Blackwater billion-dollar contracts?