When you have junk science in a case, it’s like pouring poison into a punch bowl. You aren’t going to get the poison out. So you have to pour out the punch, clean the bowl, and start all over again. ~ Texas Attorney Kathryn Kase
usually believe expert witnesses. Unfortunately, juries rarely
the expert testimony they hear, and don't know what weight -- if any --
give to terms like "consistent with" and "matching" and "virtually
The lawyers and the judge rarely understand the science that is
by these experts, either. Our criminal justice system is
and often dog-eat-dog. When the expert falls short of the minimum
of the profession, or worse, is an outright fraud, it can spell
for the wrongly accused.
"Must" ReadingImproving the Practice and Use of Forensic Science: A Policy Review, (click title for report in pdf) provides an overview of the problems with certain forensic science policies and procedures, offers solutions to these problems, profiles cases of injustice, highlights states with good laws and procedures, and includes a model policy for the states.
DOJ's New Standards for Forensic Science
Terms such as “reasonable scientific certainty” can no longer be used, DOJ labs have to post internal validation studies online, and forensic scientists will be expected to uphold a 16-part “Code of Professional Responsibility for the Practice of Forensic Science,” announced Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney General, in a memorandum dated September 6, 2016. While this directly affects federal labs, it will be hard for state and local labs to argue why they should not comply with the same standards.
A new publication from The Justice Project
Invalid Forensic Science Testimony and Wrongful Convictions, by Prof. Brandon Garrett and Peter Neufeld, examines the flawed testimony by forensic experts that led to conviction of innocent defendants. The pair studied the transcripts of 137 trials in which prosecution forensic analysts testified, and the defendants were exonerated years later by post-conviction DNA testing. They found that in 60 percent of those wrongful conviction cases, forensic analysts gave invalid testimony that overstated the evidence."
The report found that markings on bullets and shell casings are not unique, which means that one can't prove — beyond a reasonable doubt — that a bullet came from particular gun. Flawed techniques in fingerprinting, hair and bite-mark analysis, and firearms identification produce Unreliable Results.
A Comprehensive Investigation of Death Investigation
Virginia. It was a horrific crime. In 1982, in Newport News, VA, a young man in a sailor's uniform broke into a local home, beat a man to death, then spent hours raping his wife while their three small children slept in the next room. Keith Harward was convicted based on bite mark evidence sworn to by two dentists, and his identification by a security guard who police had hypnotized first. Bite mark analysis is junk evidence, as demonstrated by recent DNA tests that exclude Mr. Harward as the perpetrator. But that should be no surprise to the original prosecutors, because they had simple blood test evidence that excluded him back in 1982. They withheld it from the defense and sought the death penalty. No Rules When Crimes are Truly Terrible.
UPDATE: 4/3/16 - The real killer and rapist was Jerry Crotty, a sailor stationed on the USS Carl Vinson at the time. He was identified in a DNA cold hit. Crotty died in prison in Ohio in 2006. One of the bite mark "experts" says he stands by his findings, but must "respect" the DNA findings.
UPDATE: 4/8/16 - The Virginia Supreme Court granted Harward's actual innocence writ and he was immediately released from prison. He repeatedly referred to the police, prosecutors and forensic scientists who helped convict him as criminals. Asked if he blamed anyone for his ordeal, he said, “In my case, the egos of those criminals, and I say criminals because I’m talking about those people in Newport News … (who) went out of their way to convict me, they weren’t looking for the truth. They were looking for a conviction.”
North Carolina. Prosecutors in Charlotte, NC have dismissed indictments against Timothy Bridges, who spent 27 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. The victim gave varying descriptions of her attacker and never identified Bridges. He was convicted on the strength of microscopic hair comparison of two strands of hair, which an FBI-trained forensic technician testified came from Bridges. If offered today, the hair evidence would be inadmissible, and without the hair evidence, there was insufficient evidence to convict Mr. Bridges. It's just plain wrong.
Texas. On February 12, 2016, the Texas Forensic Science Commission recommended banning bite mark analysis in criminal cases. Texas leads the way.
Texas. Steven Chaney became the twenty-sixth person in Texas to be wrongly convicted or indicted based on bite mark evidence. The two dental experts who testified against him have also testified in numerous other cases—and they’ve been wrong before. Bite marks cannot be matched.
Mississippi/5th U.S. Circuit. Since the onset of DNA testing in the 1990s, we’ve been slowly learning that our criminal justice system frequently comes up short when it comes to keeping junk science and quack experts out of the courtroom. From bite mark matching to hair and fiber analysis to “shaken baby syndrome,” the courts have done a poor job of demanding that experts be qualified and credible, theories be grounded in science, and statements of certainty be verified with statistical sampling before allowing such expertise to be heard by a jury. And while the criminal justice system can’t seem to keep bad science out of its courtrooms during trial, once someone has been convicted, the same system then puts a premium on the “finality” of a guilty verdict. The innocent are trapped by junk science that is repeatedly upheld by the courts in the name of "finality." Final Injustice.
Michigan. NBC News examines the junk science that put David Gavitt behind bars for 26 years, for crimes that never happened. Trial by Fire.
United States. At least 24 men convicted or arrested based largely on murky bite-mark evidence have been exonerated by DNA testing, had charges dropped or otherwise been proved not guilty. Many spent more than a decade in prison, and one man was behind bars for more than 23 years before he was exonerated. One man is still in prison as an appeal works through the courts. The Associated Press compiled this list using court records, news reports and the help of the Innocence Project, organized by the state in which the crimes occurred. Bite mark wrongful convictions.
Texas. A state police crime lab scientist whose shoddy work may have tainted thousands of drug cases had been promoted despite a history of problems doing accurate and timely work, according a review by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. A little over 1/3 of his test results were wrong -- or plain faked -- but he still got raises.
Washington. Kevin Fortney, the manager of the state crime lab in Cheney, WA resigned after authorities determined he lied about performing work in several cases, the Washington State Patrol announced. His cheating shouldn't have been a surprise. In 2000, he was suspended for 2 days for surfing porn when he was supposed to be working. Once a liar, always a liar.
Illinois. A Chicago Tribune investigation finds that Chicago police have long ignored voluntary standards for polygraph exams, even as those methods and the examiners themselves have factored into cases costing the city millions of dollars in damages. Polygraphs and false confessions in Chicago.
Related: How the polygraph works.
Massachusetts. Add the name Annie Dookhan to the Forensic Hall of Shame that includes Fred Zain, Michael Malone and Joyce Gilchrist (to name just a few). Ms. Dookhan was a chemist with the state drug lab who thought it was her job to give the state what it needed for convictions, whether the evidence was there or not. About 1,100 inmates are currently in prison based on her findings. What is amazing is that Ms. Dookhan has been charged criminally. The state drug lab has been shut down, and the investigation is continuing. What else will they find?
Illinois (but coming soon to a courtroom near you!) When Cook County prosecutors brought Cleveland Barrett to trial in 2012 for the predatory criminal sexual assault of a 9-year-old girl, they presented the jury hearing the case testimony from the alleged victim plus the kind of evidence that long has won convictions with its scientific certainty: DNA. But this DNA was different. It was not from semen, as is often the case in rapes; instead it came from male cells found on the girl's lips. Fact is, the DNA profile from the cells on the victim's lips could have matched hundreds of thousands of men in the Chicago region. Tailored to fool juries, it's junk masquerading as science.
Washington, DC. Federal prosecutors have acknowledged errors in the "scientific" evidence that helped send a Washington man to prison for 28 years for murder and took the extraordinary step of agreeing to have his conviction overturned. U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. cited DNA evidence in also agreeing to drop the murder charge against Santae A. Tribble and never try him again. But even as the prosecutor said the evidence that convicted Tribble was flawed, Machen stopped short of declaring him innocent.
Washington. It seems disingenuous to single out the State of Washington, because the problems revealed with outright falsified certifications by the State Toxicology Lab, and the uncertainty of testing methods considered "accurate and reliable" occur in police labs around the country. Attorney Ted Vosk has examined these problems in depth in two articles published in The Champion, published by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). (Both articles are in .pdf format. You need Adobe Acrobat Reader (free) to read them.)
Pennsylvania. In the 12 years he has been on Pennsylvania's death row, Daniel Dougherty has maintained that he did not set the fire that killed his two young sons in their Northeast Philadelphia home on Aug. 24, 1985. His fight to prove his innocence is now in a Common Pleas courtroom. His lawyers are trying to show that the lethal blaze was not arson but a tragic accident - and that Dougherty should be given a new trial. Junk science paving the way to Death Row.
Minnesota. Ramsey County is investigating the work of Dr. Michael McGee, who has served as the county's chief medical examiner for 26 years, after a Douglas County judge found he gave false testimony in a murder trial. McGee's testimony helped secure the conviction of Michael Hansen for the murder of his infant daughter in 2004. Douglas County Judge Peter Irvine found in July that McGee gave false testimony about infant skull fractures and about an accident that occurred six days before the baby died. Or was Dr. McGee just doing what was expected of him?
U.S. Army: 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 problem was bigger than just a lone analyst. While a McClatchy Newspapers 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 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. Hiding Egregious Errors.
USA: We've heard a lot about the "CSI effect," an alleged change in expectations of the power of forensic science among viewers of the wildly popular television series. Forensic Science Magazine takes a comparative look at the "CSI effect:" Fact or Fiction?
Ohio. After 20 years in prison, a woman convicted of murder might receive a new trial because a former Franklin County toxicologist lied about when he received his degree. Retired chief toxicologist James Ferguson, 63, of Johnstown, admitted he testified under oath that he received his biochemistry degree in 1972 when he actually received it in 1988, according to court records. But stay tuned: T
North Carolina. State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) agent Michael Deaver stands with a foot in each camp -- junk science and egregious police misconduct. He can take a great deal of credit for Greg Taylor's conviction for a crime he didn't commit, because Deaver selectively reported -- and testified to -- finding blood in Taylor's truck, when he knew that more sophisticated tests showed the substance wasn't blood at all. SBI Director Robin Pendergraft stands behind Deaver, but there is a growing call across the state: Re-examine Old Cases.
UPDATE - 3/5/10: Ex-FBI Officials to Probe NC Crime Lab Practices.
UPDATE - 8/19/10: Scathing audit of NC Crime Lab says 230 cases tainted by shoddy investigations. No rules, bad science.
UPDATE - 1/27/10: North Carolina crime lab withheld test results in more than 200 cases.
UPDATE - 12/15/11: Novelist Michael Peterson will get a new trial in the death of his wife because Michael Deaver, a key prosecution witness, misled jurors about the strength of bloodstain evidence.
UPDATE - 12/18/11: Deaver's 23-year pattern of pro-prosecution bias.
Oregon. The State of Oregon's case against Scott Cannon for the execution-style murders of three people in 1998 rested on now-discredited bullet lead analysis and the testimony of the victims' landlady, who told police Scott was the last person at the residence and the only one who could have committed the murders. The landlady has been implicated in the killing of her husband and the murder of her boyfriend, and is serving a prison sentence in the latter shooting death. The Legacy of Junk Science.
UPDATE: 8/14/09--Salem, Oregon prosecutors have decided not to try to defend bullet lead analysis in Scott Cannon's case. They have stipulated to reversal of his conviction. Scott Cannon to get a retrial.
UPDATE: 12/18/09--Prosecutors have dropped all charges against Scott Cannon, admitting that the State destroyed the evidence in the case. Note: The State does not say what this evidence was, since the little there was in the first place has been discredited, and a reasonable person must suspect the authorities are lying to save face. Meanwhile, Scott Cannon is Free.
Florida. William Dillon spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit based on fraudulent "evidence" from dog handler John Preston (discredited in 1984) and perjured "snitch" testimony from another jail inmate. Now that the snitch testified at a legislative hearing about how Brevard County detectives got him to lie under oath, the Brevard County Sheriff's Office reopened the homicide investigation. Isn't it a bit late?
FIVE TEXAS ARSON CASES UNDER SCRUTINY
Five men charged with crimes that never happened. Five men's lives ruined. Two men freed. One man executed. Two innocent men still locked up. This doesn't just happen in Texas. It happens everywhere. It can happen to anyone. It can happen to YOU.
Florida. Wolverine prosecutors travel in packs. Former prosecutor, now Broward County Circuit Court Judge Robert Carney's successor, Carolyn McCann, launched a full-court (no pun intended) effort to assault the credibility of Edward Blake and his lab, Forensic Science Associates. Why? Blake not only found DNA in the Anthony Caravella case, but his tests cleared Caravella of rape and murder charges. In 2001, the Broward County Sheriff's crime lab "couldn't find" any DNA evidence. They travel in the same pack. Seek the truth? No. Protect the conviction.
United States. A report from Israeli scientists that DNA evidence can be fabricated is the real thing, and the implications are terrifying. “You can just engineer a crime scene,” said Dan Frumkin, lead author of the paper, which has been published online by the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics. “Any biology undergraduate could perform this.” We have seen, over and over, in cases from around the country, that police and prosecutors will plant evidence in order to win convictions. Victims of planted evidence include George Lee III, Nicholas Sampson and Matt Livers, Madison Hobley, Kevin Cooper and Kenneth Hudson, to name just a few. Fabricating a Win for the State.
United States. The U.S. Supreme Court dragged crime labs toward transparency in its June 25, 2009 opinion that crime lab reports used in drug and other cases can be introduced as evidence at trial only if defendants can cross-examine the forensic analysts who prepared them. One less rock for incompetence to hide behind.
Oklahoma. Former Oklahoma City DA Bob Macy and police chemist Joyce Gilchrist have settled with Curtis Edward McCarty, who spent 20 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit, thanks to the "convictions at all costs" efforts of Macy and Gilchrist. The settlement terms with Macy are sealed, but not the settlement with Gilchrist. The Oklahoma Gazette has peeled away the layers of "spin" to reveal inner workings in the DA's office and crime lab that are shocking. A scoop for the Oklahoma Gazette.
Texas. Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Deputy and bloodhound trainer Keith Pikett has been sued in federal court for the second time in less than a year over a scent line-up involving his dogs. The dogs were trumped by DNA in the most recent case, and by the guilty plea of a rapist/murderer in the earlier case. So why continue such blatantly bogus tactics? The dogs are generating income.
UPDATE: 9/27/09 - Curvis Bickham does not know for sure whether Pikett's dogs, used to connect him to a triple murder in southeast Houston last year, made a mistake, produced a false “hit” because their handler encouraged them or responded correctly to scent that was deliberately placed on items from the murder scene. All he knows is that he was accused of capital murder, a crime that could have cost him his life. Former Harris County prosecutor Vic Wisner, an assistant district attorney for more than 24 years, has a one-word summation of scent evidence: "Ludicrous."
UPDATE: 9/23/10 - A man convicted of murder after three bloodhounds allegedly matched his scent to the victim should be set free because the evidence against him was not legally sufficient, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has ruled. The court acquitted Richard Winfrey Sr., reversing his 2007 conviction in the murder of high school janitor Murray Burr in the small town of Coldspring, about 60 miles north of Houston. He cannot be retried.
UPDATE: June 1, 2013 -- It took another 2 1/2 years for Megan Winfrey, the daughter of Richard Winfrey, Sr. , also convicted of murder on the bogus bloodhounds evidence, to gain her freedom, although the evidence against her was the same crap used against her father. And she will have to sue to get compensation.
Illinois. When the U.S. government hired Michael Sheppo to help eliminate a crushing backlog in untested DNA evidence, he had all the right credentials. He's one of the federal officials responsible for eliminating the national backlog of 350,000 DNA samples in need of testing, and his claim to fame was that he had eliminated a 1,000 DNA specimen backlog in Illinois. But he didn't. Under Sheppo, the Illinois lab released false figures and fired two lab employees in retaliation for criticizing an ethically questionable contract. Sheppo knows how to make backlogs disappear.
Nebraska. David Kofoed, the commander of the Douglas County (Omaha) crime scene investigations unit is facing federal and state charges over accusations that he planted evidence in the car of two wrongly accused suspects in a Nebraska couple's murder. He was just making the evidence fit the coerced confession. Evidence tampering.
UPDATE: 3/23/10 - A judge on Tuesday, March 23, 2010 convicted a top crime scene investigator of evidence tampering, after prosecutors argued that the investigator planted blood from a slaying victim in a car linked to two innocent suspects to bolster the case against them. Cass County District Judge Randall Rehmeier said he didn't believe Douglas County CSI director David Kofoed's excuse that the victim's blood ended up in the car because of a sloppy mistake. Rehmeier said there was enough evidence to show that Kofoed intentionally planted fake evidence. Guilty.
UPDATE: 3/25/10 - CSI director David Kofoed had a reputation as a man who could find things others couldn't. That reputation was destroyed when the Douglas County CSI director was convicted of planting blood evidence during a murder investigation. The conviction throws into doubt the legitimacy of other cases on which he worked, and some of those he helped put behind bars are likely lining up to appeal. Flood of appeals expected.
UPDATE: 6/2/10 - Former CSI director David Kofoed was sentenced to between 20 months and 4 years in prison for tampering with evidence. He plans to appeal.
Texas. Gary Richard of Houston has spent the last 22 years in prison, thanks primarily to the lab work of Christy Kim -- an analyst who never lets the prosecution down. Kim said Richard was the man who abducted and raped a woman in 1987. The rapist was a non-secretor. Richard is a secretor, so he could not have been the rapist. Business as usual.
California. Arron Layton, a toxicologist who did lab work on criminal evidence in thousands of cases, has admitted to fraud, forgery and perjury. Riverside County authorities have ordered the review of 3,000 cases that were handled by toxicologist Arron Layton. It's believed Layton handled evidence for hundreds of cases in San Diego County, where District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis is "circling the wagons." Protecting convictions.
United States. A first-of-its-kind study has found that forensic experts produced flawed evidnece in the trials of 82 men wrongfully convicted of rape or murder in the 1980s. Brandon L. Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, and Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, examined 137 trials in which transcripts exist and forensic experts testified for the prosecution. In 60% of the cases, they gave testimony overstating the evidence.
California. The Santa Clara County district attorney has opened the door to the possibility of wrongful convictions by failing to objectively investigate crime lab errors, the national Innocence Project has charged. The group, in a national report, singled out the local prosecutor for failing to hire an outside agency to investigate a formal complaint that followed the 2007 discovery that Jeffrey Rodriguez had been wrongly convicted of robbery based on faulty testimony from a crime lab analyst concerning a stain found on the defendant's pants. The problem with investigating yourself ...
Mississippi. Radley Balko, senior editor at Reason Magazine, has taken an in-depth look at Mississippi's doctors of death, Steven Hayne and Michael West. They actually videotaped themselves using a cast of murder suspect Jimmie Duncan's teeth to create bite marks on the body of the child Duncan was accused of killing. Jimmie Duncan is on death row. Manufactured Guilt.
Wisconsin. In 1985, when Robert Lee Stinson of Milwaukee was 21 years old, he was convicted of the murder of a 63-year-old woman who had been savagely beaten to death the previous year. Robert's conviction was based on bite mark evidence that didn't even match--he had a tooth missing where the bite marks indicated a tooth, a fact that didn't bother the state's "experts" at all. DNA evidence rules him out conclusively. Junk bite mark evidence should be barred.
Michigan. The Detroit Police crime lab is so plagued with problems that it can't be trusted to help deliver justice in criminal cases, officials said on September 25, 2008 as they announced its immediate closure. 10% Error Rate in Ballistics.
Wisconsin. Attorney Jerome Buting has filed a complaint about some of the big errors that have been uncovered at the Wisconsin Crime Lab. For example, an employee at the Milwaukee bureau of the crime lab made up results. He "falsified the data" in a case by saying a finger print didn't match anyone in a database before he knew whether it did or not. In March of 2006, an employee at the Madison bureau of the lab was suspended for being "intoxicated" on the job. That happens to be around the time the lab was testing evidence in one of the most high profile cases in recent memory: the murder trial against Steven Avery. The AG's office says it will review the complaint. Plain English: Don't hold your breath.
UPDATE - 10/31/08: As predicted, the Wisconsin AG's office has investigated itself -- the Wisconsin Crime Lab is part of the AG's office -- and has cleared itself. Placating the public.
Maryland. Baltimore crime analysts have been contaminating evidence with their own DNA -- a revelation that led to the dismissal of the city Police Department's crime lab director and prompted questions from defense attorneys and forensic experts about the professionalism of the state's biggest and busiest crime lab. Baltimore police are talking out of both sides of their mouths, saying, 'Oh, it's not a problem at all,' and on the other hand they have fired the crime lab director. How did this lab get accreditation?
California. In Bakersfield, the crime lab is part of the DA's office. There is no "firewall" between the prosecution side and the science side of the office. This creates a conflict that recently moved prosecutor Nick Lackie to tell a jury, "So what?" This conflict issue has come to a head in a recent case in which a lawyer, Daniel Willsey, stands charged with causing the death of Joe Hudnall, a local deputy by driving under the influence of methamphetamine and causing Hudnall to crash. Defense attorneys have learned that testing of the defendant's blood was conducted by a lab analyst who is a close friend of the dead deputy's family. Cops in lab coats.
But wait -- there's more. When Daniel Willsey's defense attorneys went back to court to argue motions related to mishandling evidence by the DA office's crime lab, everyone got a big surprise. The crime lab had "inadvertently" destroyed the sample of Willsey's blood that the lab claimed tested positive for methamphetamines. Gosh, it's not like the DA wanted to make sure Willsey's defense attorneys can't have a private lab test the sample. Ooops -- Butterfingers.
Wisconsin, Washington and South Dakota -- So Far. Saami Shaibani often testified for the prosecution in big murder cases, taking the stand as an expert in what he called "injury mechanism analysis" — a combination of physics, trauma medicine and engineering that he used to determine whether, say, a woman fell down the stairs or was beaten. But after years of helping lock up killers, Shaibani could be the one in trouble. The physicist lied under oath about his credentials, and now some of the convictions he helped secure are in jeopardy. At least one has been overturned so far. Resume-Padding comes home to roost.
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Eighty-six years after Colin Ross of Melbourne, Australia was hanged for the rape and murder of 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke, he has been officially pardoned. The pseudo-science of microscopic hair comparison put Colin on the gallows, despite his protestations of innocence. Recent tests show that the hairs found at Colin's home, said to be from young Alma, weren't even from the same head. Bad science, irrevocable results.
Pennsylvania: Emerson McCauley is anything but a sympathetic figure. A thief and forger, he told Pennsylvania police that he witnessed two men rape a woman and throw her off a 44-foot-high Juniata County bridge in 1977. He was looking for a break for himself by making up lies to frame others, and it backfired. Emerson was charged with the murder, and former star junk scientist, police chemist Janice Roadcap, clinched the conviction when she testified that a "uniquely shaped" hair on the victim's leg came from Emerson's chest. But DNA has cleared Emerson, who appears to be what he has said all along that he is -- innocent of murder. Roadcap Redux
California: A judge has dismissed charges against Cynthia Sommer, who was convicted of killing her Marine husband with arsenic, after new tests showed no traces of poison. Prosecutors who were preparing for a second trial found that previously untested samples of Marine Sgt. Todd Sommer's tissue showed no arsenic. A recently retained government expert speculated that the earlier samples were contaminated, prosecutors wrote in a motion filed in San Diego Superior Court. The expert said he found the initial results "very puzzling" and "physiologically improbable." Contaminated Conviction.
Canada - but relevant in US: As part of a probe into autopsy errors by pediatric pathologist Charles Smith that precipitated wrongful charges and convictions, the Goudge Commission is focusing on the role of experts in the court system. The inquiry has been told that judges allow experts too much latitude.
Texas: On January 24, 2008, the Houston Police Crime lab DNA Section was shut down for the second time due to incompetence, cheating and mismanagement. A 73-page report details just how bad the "reformed" lab was.
Lest anyone forget how bad the lab was before the fictional rehabilitation took place, we have moved the links to earlier reports to this section, so you don't have to search for them.
Houston Police Crime LabThe HPD Crime Lab is back in the news, not because it cleaned up its act, but because it continues its tradition of sloppy testing and perjured testimony.
Doubt Cast on Lawrence Napper Molestation Conviction
Lawyer Questions Truth of Lab Scientist's Testimony
HPD Chief Promises Review of George Rodriguez Case
Officials Urge Special Probe of Crime Lab
UPDATE: George Rodriguez, exonerated by DNA, wonders "Why am I Still in Prison?"
UPDATE: HPD has discovered 280 boxes of evidence "lost" in its property room. Time for Probe?
UPDATE: Tests Find Christy Kim's Analysis Just Plain Wrong in Yet Another Case
UPDATE: HPD Admits It Failed to Review Suspect Work
Few people listened when Ronald Gene Taylor declared himself innocent of a rape charge 14 years ago. But the Harris County District Attorney's Office finally agreed with him on October 3, 2007, acknowledging that the scandal-plagued Houston Police Department crime lab was responsible for sending yet another wrong person to prison. The crime lab said there was no semen on a sheet taken from the rape scene. New tests yielded the DNA profile of another man, a sex offender currently in prison, who looks very much like Taylor. Another Blow to Lab.
In 1998, a rape victim identified Josiah Sutton as one of her assailants when she saw him on the street, and the Houston, Texas crime lab claimed DNA tests implicated him. The crime lab has been shut down because of the poor quality of its work, and new DNA tests have excluded Josiah. 4 1/2 Years in Prison -- for Nothing
Christy Kim, the Houston Police Department Crime Lab DNA analyst whose faulty work sent Josiah Sutton to prison for rape, has been fired, 9 months after new tests exonerated Josiah and led to his release. It's About Time
Never mind. A city panel has reinstated Christy Kim, adopting the theory that individual lab analysts who testify as expert witnesses have no personal responsibility for their work. Meanwhile, Josiah Sutton is still waiting for a pardon. Another Free Pass
Small wonder the DNA analysts at the Houston Police Crime Lab did such a poor job. None of them were qualified by education and training to do their jobs. The founder of the DNA lab, James Bolding, retired rather than be fired. Among other things, he failed both algebra and geometry in college, though he later passed both, and he never took statistics. Interim update on Houston Police Crime Lab.
New DNA tests on evidence from four cases originally processed by the Houston Police Department's troubled crime lab have found significantly weaker links between the evidence and the defendants than the first results. Crime Lab 'Just Way Off' in Calvin Jermany Case
No indictments were returned, but a Harris County grand jury completing its investigation of the Houston Police Department crime lab Friday criticized how officials dealt with the problem that shook public confidence in the criminal justice system. Plato was Right - Science without Virtue is Immoral Science
Two grand juries investigating problems in Houston's police crime laboratory have widened their inquiry to include local prosecutors, asking about their potential culpability for winning convictions with Tainted Evidence .
The head of the DNA division of the Houston Police Department's crime lab has offered testimony in at least three cases that has later turned out to be wrong, according to court transcripts. "They intentionally mislead," said Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, the former head of the DNA lab at the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office who now often works as a consultant for criminal defense teams. "And in all the cases I've been involved in, they always mislead in favor of a conviction." Houston Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton says, "We have a name for that in Texas, and that is Perjury ."
When handled, analyzed and interpreted correctly, DNA evidence works to exclude the innocent and convict the guilty. But when the same evidence is handled and analyzed in shoddy lab conditions and by incompetent lab staff, the consequences can be dire. One consequence is that the innocent are convicted. But another consequence is that the real perpetrators go free and continue to commit crimes. Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld tell the Houston Police crime lab: End This DNA Debacle
"There were two different problems in the crime lab — scientific incompetence and corruption," Law Professor David Dow of the University of Houston said. "That's a deadly combination. Once you have corruption, there is no reason to think that this is limited to DNA cases or cases where there is scientific evidence of any sort." The Houston Police Crime Lab
Mississippi: The Innocence Project has asked the state to fill the long-vacant position of State Medical Examiner, and to stop using state pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne. Dr. Hayne's work lies at the heart of the wrongful convictions of Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. His credentials and the results of his work have been solidly discredited for several years, but he is under no oversight because the State Medical Examiner position has been vacant for more than a decade. How many more wrongful convictions before the state acts responsibly?
But Dr. Steven Hayne is only half of the despicable duo. Forensic odontologist Dr. Michael West found "bite marks" no one else could see on the bodies of the little victims in both cases, and in both cases, testified that Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks were each guilty. "If you fabricate evidence in a capital murder case, where you know that if the person's convicted they are going to be executed -- as far as I'm concerned that's the crime of attempted murder,'' says Peter Neufeld. "He's a criminal."
West Virginia: The murder case against Jeffrey Galford of Elkins, WV for the death of an infant in his care has been dismissed. The child died in 2003. State Medical Examiner Dr. James Frost conducted an autopsy and ruled the death homicide as the result of shaken baby syndrome. The report, however, was not sent to the prosecutor until 2006, and Galford was indicted in 2007. In early 2008, just before trial was scheduled to begin, Dr. Frost reviewed the child's full medical history -- something he had made no effort to do before declaring the death a homicide or in the years thereafter. The baby's complex medical history led Dr. Frost to conclude no intentional act against the child could be proven. Why the 5-year wait to review the baby's medical history?
Mississippi: Kennedy Brewer of Macon, Mississippi, a mildly retarded, Black defendant, was convicted of raping and killing a 3-year-old girl and sentenced to death in 1992. In 2002, he was cleared by DNA, but he wasn't released. He has spent the past 5 years in the local jail, awaiting retrial. Because you can bet, the local authorities plan to get another conviction and another death sentence. The Sheriff says he can't look for a DNA match because Mississippi doesn't have a DNA database -- which is news to the state's crime lab director. The prosecutor will bring back his star witness, dentist Dr. Michael West, whose bite mark testimony has been disproven by DNA in other cases, and who resigned from professional forensic dentistry groups to avoid expulsion. Prosecutors are so sure they're right about Kennedy's guilt that they're Willing to Bet His Life on It.
UPDATE: 2/9/08 - Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, both convicted of killing 3-year-old girls in Noxubee County, Mississippi, and both cleared by DNA, are slated to be released. What did it take to reach this point? Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood had to take the prosecutions of these murders away from the Noxubee County DA, something almost unheard of in the state's history. The Attorney General has charged Albert Johnson with the murders of both children.
Massachusetts Crime Lab Neglected 16,000 Cases. Evidence samples from thousands of crime scenes across Massachusetts, including nearly 1,000 homicides and other deaths and 6,500 sexual assaults, were never analyzed by the State Police crime lab, according to an investigation of the lab ordered by the state. The lab's failure to process potentially crucial DNA evidence from 16,000 cases means that killers and rapists could be walking free, while innocent people remain imprisoned.
Victims of Faulty Diagnoses by Dr. Charles Smith
Toronto, Ontario (Canada)
In Toronto, Ontario (Canada), errors were found in 20 of 45 autopsies, dating back as far as 1991, performed by former provincial pathologist Dr. Charles Smith. Twelve of those cases resulted in criminal convictions and one in a finding of not criminally responsible.
The first to be exonerated was William Mullins-Johnson, who spent 12 years in prison for the rape and murder of his niece. A 2005 review of Dr. Charles Smith's autopsy and diagnosis found the the child had not been raped or strangled, but choked to death on her own vomit caused by a chronic stomach ailment.
UPDATE: 10/15/07 - Mullins-Johnson officially found innocent.
Sherry Sherrett, one of the 12, convicted of killing her own infant son, is seeking a full public inquiry into Dr. Smith's work. The 2006 review shows her son was not murdered.
Louise Reynolds spent 2 years in jail awaiting trial after Dr. Smith said she stabbed her 7-year-old daughter, Sharon, to death with scissors. Charges were dropped after it was demonstrated little Sharon was mauled by a pit bull.
In 1998, Dr. Smith accused Louise and Marco Trotta of suffocating their 4-month-old son, Paulo. Louise served 5 years in prison; Marco was sentenced to 15 years, and had served 9 years when the review indicated little Paulo suffocated on his bedding.
CBC In Depth takes a closer look at Dr. Charles Smith: The Man Behind the Public Inquiry
California Panel Calls for Standards for Scientific Analysis, Evidence. An influential California commission on May 3, 2007 said that forensic science errors are a major contributor to wrongful convictions and called for better training, more monitoring and stronger standards in the real world of "CSI." The report cited the Innocence Project at New York's Cardozo Law School, which identified forensic science testing errors in 63% of a set of nationwide DNA exoneration cases analyzed. The California commission also raised a red flag over the ability of the criminal justice system to expose mistakes in scientific evidence.
Are Innocent Imprisoned Because of Fingerprint Errors? Florida officials are reviewing hundreds of criminal cases because a fingerprint expert at the Seminole County Sheriff's Office botched at least two cases, including one involving a homicide. They dropped a burglary case because the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded that the expert, Donna Birks, was wrong to say a fingerprint found on a stolen wallet belonged to the defendant. The print was smudged and could not be adequately identified. In the other case, FDLE said Birks misidentified a print found on a shell casing at the scene of a 2006 Altamonte Springs homicide.
Perjury by Forensics Expert Throws Cases into Turmoil. In the six weeks since state police announced that longtime Baltimore, MD police gun expert Joseph Kopera had killed himself after being confronted with evidence of his falsified credentials, Baltimore County prosecutors have begun reviewing the more than 70 cases that included Kopera's analysis, and have asked the county police crime lab to retest ballistics evidence in cases in which his analysis and testimony were deemed "material" to a conviction. Baltimore City public defenders have identified 55 felony cases in which Kopera testified and have begun collecting the police reports, court transcripts and other documents needed to determine what role his analysis played in the defendants' convictions.
Victims of Bad Medicine In Toronto, Ontario (Canada), errors were found in 20 of 45 autopsies, dating back as far as 1991, performed by former proviincial pathologist Dr. Charles Smith. Twelve of those cases resulted in criminal convictions and one in a finding of not criminally responsible. Sherry Sherrett, one of the 12, convicted of killing her own infant son, is seeking a full public inquiry into Dr. Smith's work. The 2006 review shows her son was not murdered.
Justice Goes to the Dogs. On a warm August night in 2004, Michael Espalin and his dog watched Riverside, CA firefighters douse seven burning palm trees on a residential street. It was 1 a.m., an unusual time to be walking a dog, or so thought an arson investigator. After answering a number of questions, Espalin, then 31, was asked to rub his face and hands on a gauze pad and sent on his way. Half a year later, Espalin was charged as a serial arsonist, accused of lighting 21 fires, mostly trees and bushes, in Riverside. No eyewitnesses or traditional evidence linked Espalin to the crimes. But the Riverside County district attorney's office built a case against him based on a bloodhound allegedly picking up his scent on a charred incendiary device and cold crime scenes and matching it to the pad. After Espalin spent two years in jail awaiting trial, a jury deadlocked 9 to 3 in January for acquittal. Most jurors did not believe that the bloodhound, Dakota, found Espalin's scent at the scene of the fires days and weeks after they were set. Prosecutors say they intend to try Espalin a second time.
Expert's Lies Fall Apart. Defense attorneys for James A. Kulbicki offered a string of alibi witnesses, and he flat-out said he didn't do it. He was, after all, a Baltimore, MD police sergeant, and, he insisted, not a killer. But a state police ballistics expert named Joseph Kopera helped convict the officer by saying that bullet fragments found in his truck and in his mistress' head could have come from his gun - testimony that is now being questioned. Kopera recently killed himself after being confronted with evidence that he lied about his credentials. Kublicki's attorneys challenged Kopera's findings and assertions in court papers filed a year earlier, arguing that the firearms examiner's testimony did not match his notes. And that was before they discovered that Kopera claimed to have degrees that he never earned.
UPDATE: It's easy to understand why the Baltimore DA wanted to blindside James Kulbicki and his attorneys. They have to be steaming mad after Kulbicki's lawyers exposed the systematic forensic fraud committed by police ballistics expert Joseph Kopera. But their reach exceeded their grasp when they did DNA tests -- without court approval or notice to Kulbicki's lawyers -- on bone fragments that were contaminated 14 years ago when they were collected. Will One-Upsmanish Replace Law and Science? [Includes full texts of state and defense motions]
A joint project by the Washington Post and 60 Minutes reviews the conviction of James Kulbicki, in which key testimony and the science behind it has been discredited.
People around the world are learning how the U.S. legal system works based on James Kulbicki's case -- a web of lies woven around junk science and blatant prosecutorial misconduct, a politicized judiciary unwilling to correct injustice, and an apathetic public more interested in entertainment than in truth. As Ludwig De Braeckeleer capably demonstrates for South Korea's Oh My News, The Whole World is Watching.
Perjury on Behalf of the State. Thomas Siller and Walter Zimmer of Cleveland, Ohio were convicted of the 1997 beating murder of 74-year-old Alice Zolkowski, based in large part on the testimony of a third man arrested in the same incident. Police crime lab analyst Joseph Serowik testified the informant had only one drop of blood on his shirt, supporting the man's claim that he was an observer, not a participant in the crime. A lab audit found seven blood stains on the informant's shirt. Serowik either lied about or failed to conduct thorough blood tests on the clothing of an eyewitness who said Siller and Zimmer had beaten the woman into a coma. Serowik's testimony amounted to perjury on behalf of the state's case, Barry Scheck of the Cardozo Innocence Project said.
Low Standards in Lowcountry. The Charleston, SC Family Court relies on Robert Bennett's findings to decide crucial issues of custody and divorce. His words can ruin reputations, wrest children from their parents and cost people their jobs. But a Post & Courier investigation shows Bennett's credentials, methods and the reliability of his findings are suspect or controversial.
Unreliable DNA Down Under. About 60 convicted criminals could have their cases reopened amid claims the DNA evidence used to incriminate them was unreliable. Ron Grice, a former Queensland Health Scientific Services scientist, said he was haunted by memories of submitting potentially unreliable DNA evidence to the courts. He believed about 5 per cent of the 1200 cases he had handled relied on samples too small to be retested.
Sloppy Work at NYPD Lab. The NYPD is reviewing some 1,400 cases where a lab technician may have bungled fingerprint evidence. Officials pulled all cases handled by the lab tech after a sample review of 132 of them revealed she botched the evidence-collection process 20% of the time, police sources said. "The common perception is that technology is always right, whether it is fingerprints or DNA, but this shows technology is only as good as the person who does the work," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Why Experts Make Errors. [Note: You need Adobe Acrobat to read this.] An article by Itiel E. Dror and David Charlton of the School of Psychology, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK, published in the Journal of Forensic Identification, 2006.
Abstract: Expert latent fingerprint examiners were presented with fingerprints taken from real criminal cases. Half of the prints had been previously judged as individualizations and the other half as exclusions. We re-presented the same prints to the same experts who had judged them previously, but provided biasing contextual information in both the individualizations and exclusions. A control set of individualizations and exclusions was also re-presented as part of the study. The control set had no biasing contextual information associated with it. Each expert examined a total of eight past decisions. Two-thirds of the experts made inconsistent decisions. The findings are discussed in terms of psychological and cognitive vulnerabilities.
Impact of Report in Scotland. Fresh doubts over the accuracy of fingerprint evidence in courts has been raised by new research showing experts can be easily swayed in their judgements by "background" information.
Cops & Crime Lab, Working Together . In 1994, Chicago cops used a "reverse lineup" (in which a suspect is asked to identify his victims), along with threats and physical abuse, to coerce 17-year-old Lafonso Rollins into confessing to the rape of an elderly woman. He was convicted and sentenced to 75 years prison, but he was freed in 2004 when DNA proved his innocence. He sued. Discovery in his civil suit disclosed that the police crime lab had excluded him based on blood type before Rollins was ever tried. Oops. The great teamwork cost the city $9 million.
The Search for Truth
Like alchemists cooking up recipes to turn lead into gold, men in lab coats look to technology to replace investigation. Junk by any other name is still ... junk.
CIA and FBI Use of Polygraphs . In the popular mind, fueled by Hollywood representations, polygraphs are lie-detection machines that can peer inside people's heads to determine whether they are telling the truth. The scientific reality is far different: A recent study concluded, "Its accuracy in distinguishing actual or potential security violators from innocent test takers is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies."
CVSA - How to Coerce False Confessions . The Computer Voice Stress Analyzer, or CVSA, purportedly measures FM radio waves produced by muscles around the larynx. Yet, independent experts have consistently found the instrument to be dubious, at best. "It's complete nonsense," said Richard Leo, a professor of psychology and criminology at the University of California-Irvine who specializes in police interrogations. "It's junk science with a capital J. I think these CVSA machines are dangerous, and they are contributing to the process that elicits false confessions."
'Nothing More Than a Prop' A Pentagon study obtained by ABC News finds that a new kind of voice lie detector used by the U.S. military and American police departments is no better than "flipping a coin" in detecting lies. Until the Pentagon ordered a halt to its use, the Voice Stress Analyzer was being used by military intelligence interrogators at Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq.
6/1/10 - The widely awaited ruling on the admissibility in court of fMRI for lie detection purposes has come down, and it's bad news for proponents of the novel brain-scanning technology. In a potentially landmark opinion, a federal magistrate ruled that the technology is unreliable and has not been accepted by the scientific community. Judge Tu Pham held that the novel scientific technique has been subjected to testing and peer review, but is not general accepted by scientists nor are its error rates established. The judge's ruling also highlighted the distinction between laboratory research and performance in real-world settings. Lorne Semrau, a psychiatrist facing trial on multiple counts of Medicare and Medicaid fraud, had sought to introduce his fMRI results as evidence of lack of fraudulent intent. The full ruling is online HERE.
The Evidence for Shaken Baby SyndromeThe theory of shaken baby syndrome rests on core assumptions: shaking is always intentional and violent; the injury an infant receives from shaking is invariably severe; and subdural andretinal bleeding is the result of criminal abuse, unless proved otherwise. Retinal haemorrhage is one of the criteria used, and many doctors consider retinal haemorrhage with specific characteristics pathognomonic of shaking. However, in the March 27, 2004 issue of the British Medical Journal, Patrick Lantz et al examine that premise and conclude that it "cannot be supported by objective scientific evidence."
Read the British Medical Journal Case Report and Editorial (pdf files - use Adobe Acrobat Reader)
Explore This Issue in Depth at
A Guide for Non-Scientists
What Everyone Needs to Know About Forensic Science
by John Houde, B.S., D.A.B.C.
Profiler Brent Turvey's archive of cases involving alleged, admitted and/or demonstrable forensic fraud (not mistakes, mishaps or misidentifications).
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