Category: Forensics

Morning Links

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

New at HuffPost: A Michael West Special

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

My latest piece for Huffington Post looks at the case of Leigh Stubbs, a Mississippi woman serving a 44-year prison sentence thanks primarily to testimony from our old friend Michael West.

West performed his typical bite mark voodoo in this case, but he also donned the title of “video enhancement expert,” claiming he was able to use some fancy computer equipment to “enhance!” security camera footage well beyond its resolution. He also gave his expert seal of approval to some, um, interesting opinions about homosexuals and crime. There’s also some nifty misbehavior by former U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton, back when he was a Mississippi DA.

Allgood vs. Edmonds

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

At the website for the Columbus (Mississippi) Dispatch, a commenter recounted portions of my recent Reason piece on bad prosecutors to make the case against reelecting District Attorney Forrest Allgood. Allgood responded with a lengthy letter of his own.

Allgood’s letter purports to include a bunch of documentation I don’t have, and that the newspaper didn’t print. But after running Allgood’s letter by my sources, I stand by my reporting. He is right that I did not contact his office for comment before that most recent article was published. Perhaps I should have. But that article a summary of my previous reporting. And I’ve contacted his office numerous times in the past requesting comment. He has never returned my calls.

But Tyler Edmonds, one of the victims of Allgood’s prosecutorial overreach, did respond to Allgood’s letter. Edmonds’ thorough rebuttal does a great job exposing Allgood’s slipperiness.

In any case, Allgood was reelected once again last week, and by a nearly two-to-one margin. (Interestingly, he did lose his home county.) In the end, the guy who has seen two people he convicted of murder later exonerated by DNA evidence, and two more later acquitted after appeals courts threw out the convictions due to prosecutorial misconduct and the use of faulty forensic testimony, the guy who once compared disgraced “bite mark expert” Michael West to Galileo  . . . will get another term.

Morning Links

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Indiana May Halt Crime Lab Investigation

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

So remember how Indiana was launching a big investigation into errors at the state crime lab? Remember how hundreds of convictions could have been called into question?

Turns out it would be cheaper to just pretend the whole thing never happened.

A half-finished audit of drug and alcohol test results from the state’s toxicology lab already has found serious problems that raise the possibility of wrongful convictions.

But just how bad the situation is might never be known.

The Indianapolis Star learned Tuesday that the state has abruptly halted the independent audit. It was one of the first recommendations offered by a new three-person board appointed by Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Linda Chezem, chairwoman of the advisory board overseeing the state Department of Toxicology’s move from Indiana University to a stand-alone state agency, said it’s prudent to review the audit. She cited the cost — more than $250,000 — and the need to make sure the state is “spending money to get the best information we can.”

Chezem said she has “no idea” how long it will take to review the audit. And it’s uncertain whether the state will restart the audit . . .

IU hired Colorado-based auditor Forensic Consultants Inc. to examine the paper records for every positive test result from 2007 to 2009. Auditors found errors in 10 percent of marijuana cases and 32 percent of cocaine cases. They were working on the substance involved in the most cases — alcohol — when informed by email to “place a hold” on the audit.

“What they have done,” said prominent Indianapolis defense attorney J.J. Paul, “is open Pandora’s box, and now they want to close it just as they get to the greatest number of cases that affect the greatest number of people.”

Chezem, a former judge, questioned the value of a comprehensive, paper-only audit of results without retesting samples.

“The question is, ‘What does this mean?’ ” she said of the audit results. “We’re asking other experts to work with us on this. . . . Until you have a retest result that’s false-positive, I don’t know if anyone has been denied civil liberties.”

Of course, it would be much more expensive (and probably impossible) to go back and retest every individual sample. You do the general audit to get a grip on the extent of the problem, which you then use to figure out which batches of individual samples need to be retested. Without the audit, you’re left only with the impractical option of going back and testing every sample over the period in question (which is never going to happen), or leaving it up to individual defendants to take it upon themselves to go to court, at their own expense, to request that their case be reopened.

This reeks of sweeping the problem under the rug. Gov. Daniels can still override the panel’s recommendation and continue the audit. I hope he does.


Independence Day Links

Monday, July 4th, 2011
  • Tennessee legislature takes on the dangerous threat posed by raunchy bumper stickers.
  • LAPD L.A. Sheriff’s Department to stop suspending cops who “have used excessive force, driven while intoxicated, falsely imprisoned people or committed other serious misconduct.” Instead, they’ll now get a stern warning.
  • Speaking of L.A., the city will settle with the family of a teen shot and killed by an LAPD cop after video evidence shows the cop lied about the incident. It’s the second time video has contradicted his testimony. Yes, the cop is still on active duty.
  • Really fantastic ProPublica investigation into how the criminal justice system handles the deaths of children. Answer: Not very well.

Mississippi Supreme Court: Steven Hayne Is Still Credible, but He Is Mortal

Monday, July 4th, 2011

The North Mississippi Commenter has the details on another recent Mississippi Supreme Court decision involving medical examiner Steven Hayne.

It’s really pretty remarkable. After all that has come out about Hayne, not only does the court once again refuse to entertain doubts about his credibility as an expert witness, it actually takes a concurring opinion to point out that he at least isn’t above the same expert witness guidelines that govern everyone else.

Another Forensics Scandal

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

From the Seattle Times, a story as amazing as it is infuriating:

For a quarter century Greenberg testified as an expert in forensic psychology, an inscrutable field with immense power. Purporting to offer insight into the human condition, he evaluated more than 2,000 children, teenagers and adults. His word could determine which parent received custody of a child, or whether a jury believed a claim of sexual assault, or what damages might be awarded for emotional distress.

At conferences and in classrooms, in Washington and beyond, he taught others to do what he did. He became his profession’s gatekeeper, quizzing aspirants, judging others’ work, writing the national-certification exam. His peers elected him their national president.

But his formidable career was built upon a foundation of hypocrisy and lies. In the years since Greenberg’s death, while court officials wrestled over his estate, The Seattle Times worked to unearth Greenberg’s secrets, getting court records unsealed and disciplinary records opened.

Those records are a testament to Greenberg’s cunning. They show how he played the courts for a fool. He played state regulators for a fool. He played his fellow psychologists for a fool. And were it not for a hidden camera, he might have gotten away with it.

It’s another lesson in fraudulent self-proclaimed forensics experts, but also in the perils of the larger problem of “the cult of expertise.”

Another Crime Lab Under Fire

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

This time in Indiana:

Nearly one of every three cocaine tests conducted for criminal cases by the Indiana Department of Toxicology from 2007-2009 were bad, according to audit results released today by Indiana University.

The findings follow the release in April of audit results that revealed a 10 percent error rate in marijuana tests during the same period.

The lab has been operated by Indiana University since 1957, but will become a standalone state agency later this year. The move comes as a result of legislation passed this year by the General Assembly in the wake of growing concerns about problems at the lab, including long waits for results and questions about the accuracy of results . . .

MacIntyre said the bulk of the bad tests results were from 2007 and 2008, with “most of the problems resolved in 2009.” That would coincide with the arrival of a new lab director, Michael Wagner, who was the first forensic toxicologist to head the lab in more than a decade. Wagner resigned — under pressure, he contends, from IU officials — as concerns about the lab mounted.

The audit will now move to alcohol tests results from 2007-2009, which MacIntyre said will include the largest number of tests to be reviewed.

But the Indianapolis Star reported last month that the problems go back even further:

The Indianapolis Star reported Tuesday that about 2,000 emails it obtained from the lab show the agency was beset by incorrect test results from 2004 to 2006. A current audit of the lab’s work is covering only 2007 to 2009.

The lab tests blood and urine samples for evidence in criminal cases. The emails obtained by The Star show inadequate staffing and funding produced an environment in the lab ripe for errors, including the kind that could lead to people being denied justice, or escaping it.

The emails are correspondence to and from Peter Method, who served as the acting director of the department from 2003 to 2008. They suggest benign neglect on the part of the Indiana University School of Medicine, which did not authorize an audit of test results until 2008, at least four years after the first testing errors were reported by email.

One of the most telling notes was written by the lab’s supervisor in November 2006 to Method and Method’s supervisor, Michael Vasko, chair of the medical school’s Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology.

“I never had this (happen), error after error. … I guess if this is acceptable to you and the department, then I don’t have to worry. If an error occurs again in the future, I won’t bother you anymore,” the supervisor wrote.

The audit has already shown the lab sent out, on average, a flawed marijuana result every 3.28 days and a false positive marijuana result once every 18 days.

Among the more important revelations from the email correspondence are IU allowed the lab to languish under Method from 2003 to 2008, even though he acknowledged he was underqualified for the job.

They also show that while Method reported to Vasko, IU said Vasko’s job was merely broad “administrative oversight” — leaving the lab to Method as problems mounted.

Based on the emails alone, The Star found documentation of 26 bad test results from 2004 to 2006 that were reported to law enforcement.

Of those, 12 were false positives — findings that might have compromised the rights of Indiana residents. The other 14 were false negatives that might have prevented law enforcement from charging guilty people.

The error rates were seeing in these stories are jaw-dropping, especially when you consider the potential consequences of those errors. These stories ought to be a huge national scandal.

Note that this particular lab was affiliated with a university; it didn’t fall under the auspices of a law enforcement agency. The latter is especially problematic, but you don’t correct these problems simply by giving a lab more independence. The underlying problem is that we’re producing evidence that’s presented in court as “science” under conditions that fall well short of that definition.

This is also another data point in the case for a system of rivalrous redundancy. I think it’s safe to say that you’re considerably less likely to fall into a rut of “benign neglect” if you know your results will be regularly double-checked by another lab.

New at Huffington Post: I Make the Case for Privatizing Crime Labs

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Very interested to see the reader reaction to this one.

Morning Links

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

The New Professionalism: Detroit Crime Lab Edition

Friday, May 27th, 2011

This is just astonishing.

Thousands of rounds of live ammunition, sealed evidence kits and case files — some containing Social Security numbers of rape and assault victims — lay amid rubble in a crime lab abandoned by Detroit police two years ago.

The Free Press discovered the ruins this week. Judicial experts expressed shock that evidence would be handled so recklessly.

“It’s incomprehensible that any law enforcement agency would not be mindful to preserve evidence,” Wayne County Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny said.

Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee Jr., told about the crime lab Thursday, launched an immediate investigation. “I will make sure that this never happens again,” he said.

The lab, housed in a former elementary school in Brush Park, was ordered closed in 2008 because of sloppy investigations. It’s now littered with tools, computers, TVs, cameras and microscopes, in addition to the other items.

The lab was open to trespassers for at least the past week. Parts of a fence around the perimeter have collapsed, and a window was broken. As recently as Monday, the front door was ajar . . .

The Free Press asked a downtown real estate professional with more than 25 years of experience in corporate real estate and building management to look at the former crime lab for an opinion on whether it was secure.

The professional, who asked not to be named because his company does not permit him to be quoted in the news media, visited the building Thursday afternoon and easily walked through the broken fence.

“You could back up a truck and empty the building,” he said.

So they had to close the place for sloppy work. Then they just left it open, to weather, trespassers, and raccoons, evidence and all. But rest assured. Chief says, “I will make sure that this never happens again.” So there’s that.

Sad thing is, any innocent people rotting away in a Detroit prison are the ones who will pay for this colossal fuck-up. If there’s evidence that could prove your innocence that was once testable but due to state screw-ups goes missing or contaminated, you’re generally out of luck.

Judge Denies Relief to Pennsylvania Man Convicted on Bogus Bite Mark Testimony

Monday, April 25th, 2011

In April 2009 I blogged about the case of John Kunco, a Pennsylvania man convicted of a rape in 1992 based mostly on the testimony of a bite mark expert. The Innocence Project asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to grant Kunco a new trial, based mostly on the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report on forensic evidence that found no scientific evidence to support the proposition that it’s possible to trace bite marks in human skin to one person to the exclusion of all others.

A quick summary from my post last year:

Two forensic odonotologists, or bite mark experts, named Michael N. Sobel and Thomas J. David testified that they were able to use ultraviolet light to isolate and photograph the woman’s wounds. Based on that photograph they were able to match the wounds to Kunco’s teeth, to the exclusion of anyone else. Their testimony grows more absurd when you consider that the photograph was taken five months after the rape, after the wounds had mostly healed.

Sobel and David wrote an article about their analysis in the Kunco case for a 1994 edition of the Journal of Forensic Sciences. In that article, they explain that “the technique used followed the recommendations developed by other odontologists.” One of the two footnotes to that sentence points to an article written by none other than . . . now-disgraced Mississippi bite mark expert, Dr. Michael West.

There’s no question that bite mark testimony was critical to securing Kunco’s conviction. The excellent new Bite Mark Evidence blog notes this passage from the prosecutor’s closing argument:

[T]here’s no way, no way on this earth, for Mr. Kunco to explain how his tooth marks got on Donna Seaman’s shoulder unless you accept the fact that he’s the one who attacked and brutalized Mrs. Seaman. That’s the only explanation, ladies and gentlemen. That’s why the evidence is better than fingerprints or hair samples … [T]he bite mark on Danna Seaman’s shoulder was as good as a fingerprint. And I submit to you it was that, ladies and gentlemen, for all intents and purposes. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d submit to you that John Kunco should have just signed his name on Donna Seaman’s back, because the bite mark on Donna Seaman’s shoulder belongs to John Kunco.

There was no other physical evidence linking Kunco to the crime scene.

I missed the decision when it came out, but last October Pennsylvania Jude Rita Donovan Hathaway refused Kunco’s request for a new trial. Hathaway acknowledged the limitations of bite mark testimony, and that the reliability of said testimony has been called into question (to put it mildly). So why did she deny Kunco relief?

To get a new trial post-conviction, you have to show that you’ve discovered new evidence that could not have been discovered at the time of trial, and that given the new evidence, no reasonable juror would convict you. But in Pennsylvania, you also need to file your petition within one year of discovering the new evidence.

Kunco did file his petition within one year of the release of the NAS report. But Hathaway ruled that the research upon which the NAS report was based was published in other sources much earlier. Kunco, she ruled, should have filed within a year of the publication of that research. In other words, the expert testimony used to convict Kunco may well have been fraudulent, but Hathaway is going to keep him in prison anyway, basically on a technicality (this is similar to what’s happening in the Eddie Lee Howard case).

The NAS report was a synthesis of research across nearly every forensic discipline. It was a landmark report, commissioned by Congress in response to the rash of DNA exonerations. The cruel conundrum here is that when other people convicted on bite mark testimony have filed for relief and cited the publication of an article in a narrowly-read scientific journal (also like Eddie Lee Howard in Mississippi), they’ve been denied on the argument that a peer-reviewed article here and there isn’t enough of a scientific consensus to overturn a jury verdict, especially if you already challenged the state’s bite mark expert at trial. If Kunco had filed shortly after that first journal article disputing bite mark evidence was published, and had he lost, in most states he would then be barred from making additional post-conviction claims on the same topic, even if more articles then came out showing a consensus that he was right.

Hathaway then goes on to misstate the findings of the NAS report. She writes:

The [NAS] Report does not, however, conclude that the use of bitemark analysis and comparison has lost general acceptance in the scientific community of forensic odontology. Rather, it specifically acknowledges that “the majority of forensic odontologists are satisfied that bite marks can demonstrate sufficient detail for positive identification.”

Two problems here. First, Hathaway is only quoting the first part of that sentence. Second, she has also taken the entire sentence out of context. Here’s the complete sentence, in proper context:

Although the majority of forensic odontologists are satisfied that bite marks can demonstrate sufficient detail for positive identification, no scientific studies support this assessment, and no large population studies have been conducted. In numerous instances, experts diverge widely in their evaluations of the same bite mark evidence, which has led to questioning of the value and scientific objectivity of such evidence.

Bite mark testimony has been criticized basically on the same grounds as testimony by questioned document examiners and microscopic hair examiners. The committee received no evidence of an existing scientific basis for identifying an individual to the exclusion of all others.

Leaves quite a different impression, doesn’t it? The disconnect here is that the NAS report is criticizing the entire field of forensic odontology. It isn’t surprising that a majority of forensic odontologists, many of whom have given bite mark-matching testimony themselves, would think that bite mark matching is legitimate science. It’s only slightly less absurd than saying that palm reading is a legitimate science because a majority of clairvoyants, some of whom are palm readers, say so. (I use the word slightly here because there are legitimate areas of forensic odontology, such as using dental records to identify human remains.)

Hathaway is also misleading here:

Even the defendants’ experts, in their remarkably uniform affidavits, state: “the NAS Report did not invalidate bite mark identification entirely,” nor did it report that bite mark identification fell into the realm of junk science” . . .

I guess that’s true. The NAS report did not specifically use the phrase junk science. It’s also true that the report didn’t “invalidate bite mark identification entirely.” Instead, the report concluded that with more research, bite mark identification might someday be useful as an investigative tool, and, in limited circumstances, might have some value in excluding suspects. (Such as if there’s a fresh, easily identified human bite mark on the body, and the chief suspect has no teeth.) But as noted above, the report was decisive in its conclusion about the use of bite mark analysis to identify one suspect to the exclusion of all others: It simply isn’t backed by any serious science. And this is exactly how bite mark evidence was used in Kunco’s case.

One other thing. As noted, the expert witnesses in Kunco’s case used a method of analysis used by disgraced Mississippi bite mark specialist Michael West. West has been cast out from the forensic odontology community. So even within the already-questionable field of bite mark matching, West and his methods are considered quackery.

Hathaway’s ruling here is appalling, as is the state’s willingness to keep a man in prison based on testimony we now know to be utterly unsupported by science. Judges and prosecutors with any sense of justice or shame ought to be tripping over themselves to give all of these bite mark cases a thorough review. Instead, they’re throwing up procedural and technical roadblocks to prevent the convicted from getting a fair trial untainted by crappy science.

Sunday Links

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011
  • Never leave your kid in the car, even for 30 seconds. Not because it’s dangerous, but because someone may call the cops on you.
  • I blame gay marriage.
  • “Patrol officers in some police agencies and the state highway patrol were evaluated and given pay increases, in part, according to how many traffic violations they issued to motorists. That can no longer be a basis for performance evaluation under the new law.” Rather unfortunate that this needs to be codified into law in the first place.
  • The “bite-mark experts” fight back.
  • The column itself is just inane. The police responses to it in the comments section are horrifying.
  • Sheriff’s deputy resigns after shooting, killing a vicious chihuahua.

Morning Links

Friday, March 25th, 2011