Category: junk science
Junk science in the courtroom
By Alan Bean
A feature length investigative piece in the Washington Post reports that FBI forensic experts regularly present overblown and inaccurate testimony at trial. The problem is especially acute, the article suggests in the case of hair examination testimony. When DOJ studies uncovered flawed forensic testimony, the article claims, the information was turned over to prosecutors and was often kept from defendants and their attorneys.
Here are some highlights from the five-page article: (more…)
“The real CSI”: Forensic science in the courtroom
If you tune into any popular television crime drama these days, you are likely to find a familiar formula — a murder occurs, an investigation ensues, the perpetrator is identified using some forensic evidence, and justice is served. In the end, everything is wrapped up in a neat little bow.
Although this popular plot format may make for good ratings, it isn’t rooted in reality. In the real world, most cases aren’t clean-cut, investigations can drag on for years, and forensic science tools can be unreliable. In some cases, questionable forensic evidence can lead to wrongful convictions, leaving innocent people behind bars.
In “The Real CSI,” which airs Tuesday, April 17, 2012, at 10 P.M. ET on PBS (check your local listings), FRONTLINE and ProPublica take an in-depth look at the use of forensic science in the courtroom. Check out the press release below for more information. MWN
FRONTLINE AND PROPUBLICA EXAMINE FORENSIC SCIENCE IN THE COURTROOM
“THE REAL CSI”
Tuesday, April 17, 2012, at 10 P.M. ET on PBS
Evidence collected at crime scenes—everything from fingerprints to bite marks—is routinely called upon in the courtroom to prosecute the most difficult crimes and put the guilty behind bars. And though glamorized on commercial television, in the real world, it’s not so cut-and-dried. A joint investigation by FRONTLINE, ProPublica and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley examines the reliability of the science behind forensics in “The Real CSI,” airing Tuesday, April 17, 2012, at 10 P.M. ET on PBS (check local listings).
FRONTLINE correspondent Lowell Bergman finds serious flaws in some of the best known tools of forensic science and wide inconsistencies in how forensic evidence is presented in the courtroom. From the sensational murder trial of Casey Anthony to the credentialing of forensic experts, Bergman documents how a field with few uniform standards and unproven science can undermine the search for justice. (more…)
Ernie Lopez: “Free, but not cleared.”
by Melanie Wilmoth Navarro
Last year, Friends of Justice wrote a post about the NPR and PBS Frontline research on child death cases. Based on the dozens of cases investigated, NPR and PBS Frontline found that flimsy evidence is often used to convict individuals in child death cases. They found numerous individuals who had been wrongfully convicted based on faulty forensic science.
Ernie Lopez was one of those individuals.
Lopez, a child care provider, was watching six-month old Isis Vas in October 2000 when the baby collapsed. Lopez called 911 and Isis was rushed to the hospital, but she died the next day. Baby Isis was bleeding and bruised when she arrived at the hospital, and forensic scientists testified that Isis had been abused before her death. According to NPR, “Lopez was indicted on capital murder and sexual assault charges. Prosecutors tried him on the sexual assault count, and he was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison.”
The extensive research conducted by NPR and PBS Frontline, however, uncovered a previously unknown factor in Lopez’s case: “Isis Vas had a severe blood clotting disorder, one that caused bruising and bleeding that mimicked the signs of physical and sexual abuse.” (more…)
Improving Criminal Investigations
By Lisa D’Souza
On the national front, a bill pending in Congress seems to have stalled. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), acting under statutory authority from Congress, published a blistering report on the state of forensic science. The report criticized crime labs for their reliance on improper or unproven scientific techniques and for exaggerated expert testimony, both of which can lead to wrongful convictions. The report called for the creation of an independent agency to govern forensic science standards.
While the bill in Congress calls for implementation of the report’s recommendations, it would house the forensic science agency within the Department of Justice. A Pro Publica’s article explains why this would create a conflict of interest and do little to achieve the progress envisioned by the NAS report.
The U.S. Congress asked our preeminent scientific body to investigate the state of forensic science in our country. Congress received clear recommendations for improvement, but there is still no federal action. (more…)
The hardest cases: When children die, justice can be elusive
The following story, produced in collaboration with PBS “Frontline” and NPR, is based on the investigations of dozens of cases in which flimsy evidence was used to wrongfully accuse and convict individuals in cases where children were killed. Child death cases are never easy. Often, the desire to “get to the bottom of the case” and obtain justice for the victim can cloud the judgement of those involved in researching and investigating the case. The stories of the individuals below highlight the need for more thorough investigations and stricter regulations around the use of forensic pathology to ensure a fair and just criminal justice system. MW
The Hardest Cases: When Children Die, Justice Can Be Elusive
by A.C. Thompson and Chisun Lee, ProPublica, and Joe Shapiro and Sandra Bartlett, NPR
Her name was Isis Charm Vas and at 6 months old she was a slight child — fifth percentile in height and weight.
When the ambulance sped her to Northwest Texas Hospital on a Saturday morning in October 2000, doctors and nurses feared that someone had done something awful to her delicate little body.
A constellation of bruises stretched across her pale skin. CT scans showed blood pooling on her brain and swelling. Her vagina was bleeding, as well. The damage was so severe that her body’s vital organs were shutting down.
Less than 24 hours later, Isis died.
An autopsy bolstered the initial suspicions that she’d been abused. Dr. Joni McClain, a forensic pathologist, ruled Isis’ death a homicide and said the baby had been sexually violated. McClain would later describe it as a “classic” case of blunt force trauma, the type of damage often done by a beating.
The police investigation that followed was constructed almost entirely from medical evidence. In the end, prosecutors indicted one of the child’s babysitters: Ernie Lopez.
Today, Lopez is serving a 60-year prison term for sexual assault and is still facing capital murder charges.
But in the years since Lopez was sent to the penitentiary, a growing body of evidence has emerged suggesting that McClain and the hospital staffers were wrong about what happened to Isis — and that her death was not the result of a criminal attack. (more…)
Innocent man: Why has the system left my prosecutor free to re-offend?
By Alan Bean
Sometimes innocent people go to prison even though everyone in the legal system behaves with integrity. But what happens when a wrongful conviction results from a prosecutor sitting on a pile of exculpatory evidence? Shouldn’t the man we pay to represent the state be held accountable?
I wish this was a hypothetical question; it isn’t. In this gripping op-ed for the New York Times, John Thompson tells us how it feels to come within a whisker of the electric chair. He also explains the prosecutorial misconduct that placed him in that situation and wonders aloud why the Supreme Court of the United States thinks its okay for prosecutors to withhold evidence.
The Prosecution Rests, but I Can’t
I SPENT 18 years in prison for robbery and murder, 14 of them on death row. I’ve been free since 2003, exonerated after evidence covered up by prosecutors surfaced just weeks before my execution date. Those prosecutors were never punished. Last month, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 to overturn a case I’d won against them and the district attorney who oversaw my case, ruling that they were not liable for the failure to turn over that evidence — which included proof that blood at the robbery scene wasn’t mine. (more…)
Rick Perry’s Atheist Pope
Eighteen months ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry appointed Williamson County DA John Bradley to head up the Texas Forensic Science Commission. It was like turning over the Vatican to Richard Dawkins. Bradley, like most Texas prosecutors, thinks forensic scientists have one role: helping the state convict bad guys; Perry’s atheist pope likes forensic testimony crafted to the needs of the prosecution.
Governor Perry put Bradley in charge of the TFSC to keep the Cameron Todd Willingham debacle out of the headlines during his primary fight with Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Perry also tried to stack the commission with people who share Bradley’s worldview, but things haven’t worked out to the governor’s liking. As Rick Casey demonstrates in this informative column in the Houston Chronicle, Bradley is unlikely to receive Senate confirmation. (more…)
“The Confessions”: Frontline highlights the case of the Norfolk Four
I was out-of-town on a speaking engagement when “The Confessions” originally aired on Frontline. I strongly urge you to watch the entire program online. It won’t be a pleasant experience. Listening to this twisted saga kept taking me back to the recent trial of Curtis Flowers–the stories are very different in some respects, but wrongful convictions follow a familiar pattern.
Two of the attorneys representing the defendents in this case, by the way, are Des Hogan and George Kendall, key members of the legal “Dream Team” involved in the fight for justice in Tulia, Texas.
The story of the Norfolk Four revolves around aggressive interrogation, false confession, and prosecutorial tunnel vision. Once the detectives responsible for the investigation latched onto a theory of the crime, they clung to it tenaciously–facts be damned. (more…)
Texas Court Halts Controversial Hearing
To the surprise of no one, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has halted a controversial hearing in Houston designed to consider the constitutionality of the Texas death penalty. Prosecution and defense counsel have fifteen days to present arguments.
District Judge Kevin Fine is aware that the US Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Texas death penalty, but needs to be convinced that the statute can be fair in the case of John Edward Green Jr.
Bob Loper, one of the attorneys representing John Edward Green Jr, believes the hearing (originally scheduled to last two weeks) will continue. “We’re confident we’ll get a ruling in our favor,” Loper told the Associated Press. “We think our cause is just.”
This quote reminds me of the “expert” who told NPR recently that the TCCA would likely turn a deaf ear to Tom Delay’s appeal because “the court has a conservative reputation.” (Delay was recently convicted of conspiracy and money-laundering by an Austin, Texas jury.) The ulta-conservative tilt of the state’s highest court is precisely why Tom Delay has a good chance of getting a reversal and why and the hearing in Judge Fine’s court is unlikely to resume. (more…)