Category: Forensics

Your Latest Forensics Scandal: The U.S. Army

Monday, March 21st, 2011

From McClatchy:

For nearly three years, the military held the key to Roger House’s exoneration and didn’t tell him: A forensics examiner had botched a crucial lab test used in the Navy lieutenant’s court-martial.

In fact, the military had begun second-guessing a decade’s worth of tests conducted by its one-time star lab analyst, Phillip Mills.

Investigators discovered that Mills had cut corners and even falsified reports in one case. He found DNA where it didn’t exist, and failed to find it where it did. His mistakes may have let the guilty go free while the innocent, such as House, were convicted…

But the problem was bigger than just a lone analyst.

While a McClatchy investigation revealed that Mills’ mistakes undermined hundreds of criminal cases brought against military personnel, it also found that the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory, near Atlanta, was lax in supervising Mills, slow to re-examine his work and slipshod about informing defendants. Officials appeared intent on containing the scandal that threatened to discredit the military’s most important forensics facility, which handles more than 3,000 criminal cases a year.

The military has never publicly acknowledged the extent of Mills’ mistakes nor the lab’s culpability. McClatchy pieced together the untold story by conducting dozens of interviews and reviewing internal investigations, transcripts and other documents.

That sounds about right. When the FBI was informed by the National Academy of Sciences a few years ago that the lead-composition tests it has used for decades was based on flawed science, the agency stopped using the tests, but also declined to inform the thousands of defendants who had been convicted based on the evidence.

My column last week discussed ways to reform the forensics system.

Friday Links

Friday, March 18th, 2011

I’m flying back to D.C. this afternoon, so there will likely be no more blogging today. Please, do chat amongst yourselves.

Lunch Links

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

My column this week . . .

Monday, March 14th, 2011

. . . looks at recent efforts to reform the forensics system. My argument: They’re welcome, but they fail to address the underlying problems of cognitive bias and perverse incentives.

Friday Links

Friday, February 18th, 2011
  • Another isolated incident. And this time, a particularly inept one.
  • Long and stabby things.
  • I’ll be writing about this in my column on Monday, but here’s another study showing problems with the use of police dogs. My favorite bit is how the tests designed to fool the handlers were twice as likely to produce false alerts as the tests designed to fool the dogs.
  • Father gets a $275 ticket for not wearing a helmet at a skateboard park. It apparently doesn’t matter that he wasn’t skateboarding.
  • Man convicted of murder despite no body, no physical evidence of a crime, and no proof the alleged victim is actually dead.

Morning Links

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011
  • An invitation to this event arrived in my email. I think I’ll pass. A colonoscopy sounds like a more pleasant way to spend an evening.
  • National Research Council study says the FBI overstated the science in its case against accused anthrax killer Bruce Ivins.
  • Rick Santorum talks about his “Google problem”. I like that his defenders are appealing to civility. The guy thinks there should be laws preventing gay people from having sex in their own homes, and likens homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality.
  • I don’t know much about this case, but the summary has all the red flags of yet another bogus sex abuse prosecution. It also comes with natural suspicion of any case handled by Maricopa County DA Andrew Peyton Thomas.
  • Scottish Deerhound wins Best in Show at Westminster. I like these dogs. They look like Muppets.
  • In Baltimore, a police officer is supposed to review red light camera citations to match the license plate with the person who is issued the ticket. Somehow, 2,000 red light tickets were recently verified with the signature of a police officer who is dead.
  • Slate looks at the new Frank Gehry building in Miami.

The Shaken Baby Problem

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Emily Bazelon has a long, well-reported feature in the New York Times Magazine on new doubts about the diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome.

I wrote about this issue in 2009, and my column then inspired some spirited email responses. There is a small but growing part of the medical community that is skeptical of the diagnosis, and a very adamant larger group that says there’s no legitimate debate, here—the diagnosis is sound, and the skeptics are either nuts or are guns for hire.

I’m obviously not a doctor, but it strikes me that there’s something tantalizingly easy about the shaken baby diagnosis. It is based on just three symptoms, all internal, and can be made even when there are no external signs of abuse. Some experts and prosecutors claim that the diagnosis is enough by itself to prove (a) a crime has been committed, (b) who committed it (conventionally, the diagnosis implicates the last person who was alone with the child before the death or injury), and (c) the suspect had the requisite intent (the diagnosis includes the conclusion that the injury could only be caused by intense, vigorous shaking, which prosecutors usually argue in court shows anger and intent to harm).

If doctors find the triad of symptoms, there’s really no defense, unless the suspect attempts to show that someone else was also alone with the child shortly before the symptoms began to appear. (The symptoms are bleeding at the back of the eye, bleeding in the protective area of the brain, and brain swelling.)

The emerging group of skeptics attack both the diagnosis itself and how it’s used in court. They argue the triad of symptoms can be caused by incidents or medical conditions other than shaking, and that the injury itself could occur days before the symptoms begin to appear, instead of the hours or minutes often claimed in court. If true, both of those claims would destroy the half to two-thirds of shaken baby diagnoses in which the child showed no other signs of abuse.

One other note: It’s interesting how quickly the skeptics are dismissed as defense experts for hire. I’m sure there are no shortage of quacks offering their services to criminal defense attorneys. But regular readers of this site have seen enough horror stories by now to know that there’s nothing about testifying for the state that cleanses an expert of bias, either. If they’re outside consultants, they too are paid for their services. And if they actually work for the state as a medical examiner or in a state crime lab, the biases are built into the system.

NPR on Hayne, West, and Mississippi

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

The video embed doesn’t seem to be working. But you can watch here.

Morning Links

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Mississippi Innocence

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Documentarian Joe York’s movie about the cases of Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks premieres next month at the Oxford Film Festival. Here’s a trailer. Pay close attention and you’ll see a quick shot of a younger, slightly plumper Radley Balko.

Looks like it’s going to be a great film.

Sunday Links

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

Saturday Links

Saturday, January 8th, 2011
  • Egyptian Muslims offer themselves as human shields to protect Coptic Christians from extremists during a Christmas Eve mass.
  • Nashville DUI arrests are down by about 35 percent in 2010 due to funding cutbacks. Effect on drunk driving fatalities: None.
  • Here’s another fun Steven Hayne case. Hayne determined a woman died of stab wounds to the face and neck even though the body he examined had no head. Note his explanation, which refers to witness testimony. It’s a good example showing why a medical examiner shouldn’t be given that kind of information before he conducts an autopsy.
  • Another state legislature wants to let local cops monitor what prescription drugs you’re taking.
  • Harvey Silverglate on the folly of anti-bullying laws. Naming a proposed law after a dead person is a pretty reliable indicator that it’s going to be a crappy law.

Steven Hayne, Expert for the Defense

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Last month, I wrote a column about the latest developments in Mississippi’s continuing medical examiner saga. In it, I noted that Steven Hayne had set out a letter (PDF) to defense attorneys announcing his availability to testify for them. I don’t know for sure how many times he has testified for the defense in the past, but the people I’ve talked to in Mississippi say it’s less than 10, and likely less than five. (He has testified for the state thousands of times.) But the new law barring him from doing official autopsies for prosecutors doesn’t bar him from testifying for defense attorneys or in civil cases.

And sure enough, the Jackson Free Press reports that Hayne is already finding business.

[O]n Dec. 9, Hinds County Circuit Judge Swan Yerger granted Assistant Public Defender Alison Kelly’s request for an independent autopsy review by Hayne. Kelly represents Darion Givens, 18, who faces murder charges in connection with the June 13 shooting death of his girlfriend, Falisha Miller, a Jim Hill High School student.

In court filings, Kelly argued that a second opinion of Miller’s autopsy is necessary to examine inconsistencies in the first autopsy, conducted by Dr. Thomas Deering. Witnesses reported hearing a gunshot, while Deering’s autopsy suggested that Miller’s shooter had used a silencer. Kelly maintains that Jasper Bell, who is charged as an accessory after the fact, was the shooter.

Kelly said this week that for Givens’ case, Hayne was the “best choice for defending [her] client in the most zealous manner.” While aware of controversy surrounding Hayne, Kelly said that she had not thoroughly investigated criticism of his work. Kelly did not seek out a forensic pathologist from the state medical examiner’s office because she wanted a second opinion on work performed by that office.

“In the state of Mississippi, Dr. Hayne is the only (forensic pathologist) that I know of, other than these people that the state is bringing into Mississippi to do their pathology work,” Kelly said. “I’m limited. I can’t use their pathologists to do my cross-examination of their reports.”

Hayne also recently testified for the defense in a case in Louisiana.

As I noted in the column, perversely, it would actually be good strategy for a defense attorney to hire Hayne. The sheer number of times he has already testified for prosecutors likely make him seem credible to a jury unfamiliar with his history. And in Mississippi in particular, there’s a good chance the prosecutor a defense attorney is opposing has used Hayne in prior cases, meaning he isn’t likely to delve into Hayne’s lack of certification, his impossible workload, or the dubious testimony he has given over the years.

I know that a lot of defense attorneys read this site. I’d be interested in hearing your opinions on the ethical issues in play here.  Defense attorneys in Mississippi and Louisiana by now know, or  at least should know, about his credibility problems. But using him may well also benefit their clients.

Back to Mississippi

Monday, December 6th, 2010

My column this week is a round-up of the latest developments in the ever-strange saga of Steven Hayne and the Mississippi death investigations system.

Texas Officials Continue Coverup of One Possible Wrongful Execution; Fight To Proceed With Another

Friday, October 15th, 2010

A Texas appeals court has ordered a halt to a district court’s inquiry into whether Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 for setting a 1992 fire that killed his three daughters, was innocent. The stay was sought by Navarro County District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson. It’s merely the latest attempt by Texas officials (Thompson’s office prosecuted Willingham), including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, to stave off any formal inquiry into Willingham’s execution. Arson specialists now say Willingham was convicted based on flawed and outdated science, and there’s little forensic evidence to support the theory that the fire was set intentionally.

Meanwhile, Texas District Attorney Lynn Switzer told the U.S. Supreme Court this week that the state should be able to execute Hank Skinner without first turning over crime scene evidence for DNA testing that Skinner says will prove his innocence. The Court has already ruled that there’s no constitutional right to DNA testing in such cases. Skinner is arguing that the state is obligated to turn over the evidence under federal civil rights law. (I previously wrote about Skinner’s case here and here.)

The striking thing about both cases is that Texas government officials are staking out a position of ignorance. That is, they don’t want to know if either man is innocent. That’s not how they’d phrase it, of course. But in the Willingham case they’re thwarting efforts merely to investigate the possibility that the Wilingham might have been innocent. In the Skinner case they’re fighting a DNA test—which Skinner’s attorneys have offered to pay for themselves—that if prosecutors are correct would undeniably establish Skinner’s guilt. But there’s a chance it could implicate someone else, or complicate their case against Skinner. So they’d rather not test.

Of course in both cases they know that a finding of innocence would further undermine support for the death penalty (which is now under fire even from establishment conservatives). So it’s better just not to know.

Perry, Thompson, Switzer, and their cohorts should consider the possibility that their callous indifference in the face of considerable doubt about both men’s convictions—and that even after the Willingham fiasco they’re still fighting to execute Skinner without being absolutely sure of his guilt—only confirms suspicions that we have a flawed system stacked with perverse incentives, all of which not only encourages the pursuit of convictions at the expense of justice, but then pressures state actors to double down rather than admit to the possibility that they made mistakes.

Put another way, in fighting to keep us all in the dark about Skinner and Willingham’s actual guilt, these staunch capital punishment supporters are providing data points for the strongest arguments against the death penalty.