Let’s start with a quick review of a few cases related to the subject of forensic science failure and accompanying misconduct (Section 1). This involves law enforcement officers, CSIs, prosecutors and prosecutorial experts in the multiple criminal justice systems: All seem random to most media writers (and certainly to the “protectors” of forensic sciences’ integrity: as they commonly use the “bad apple” defense, but not surprisingly, there is a factual continuum. My editorial (Section 2.) on these subjects follows and focuses on the semi-secret world of forensic science information control against legitimate innovators and forensic science reformers, that is never in public view. Section 3. is for those wanting more fodder for their own interests, as it contains “hot off the press” media events of March 24, 2014.
1. What’s the evidence of problems in forensic science world?
Florida “very aggressive DA” fires her office IT technician over releasing evidence not disclosed to the defense in the Zimmerman shooting case. A true tale of ethics and morals in combat with “aggressive” practices that are favored by some prosecutors.
A trace evidence scientist making bad career choices.
A UK expert totally fabricating his credentials. From 2011.
The interface between factual truths and forensic science not being a true “science” in some instances. Purveyors of lousy to not existent research failed to come close to a level of competence and true facts. Absent outright “cooking the books” they escape personal accountability by government (as in the FBI crime lab) employers.
Human nature strikes again at a police crime lab.
A case of wrongful termination at the FBI crime lab.
Faulty and therefore prejudicial forensic bitemark IDs have led to dozens of wrongful convictions and arrests. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences still recognizes the few dentists who use these techniques. Criminal courts still allow this forensic drivel into trials. These dentists are clueless about scientific validation necessary to even approach any bit of reliability. Currently they are desperately re-studying whether they can even agree about what IS a human bitemark (after 60 years of US court admissibility). If the results are bad for them, it will conveniently disappear or they could take the researcher’s data and hide its bad parts.
The costs of cases wrongful convictions and later exoneration is huge. Statistics are sketchy but nonetheless are astonishing.
Editorial: Suppression of data, free speech and the right (its not a privilege) to promote reform and progress WITHIN the forensic community are alive and well.
There are two current investigations going on regarding forensic science standards and practices: Senator Jay Rockefeller’s Commerce Committee and the National Commission on Forensic Science.
The NCFS members compose many of the disciplines which directly practice either as forensic experts or are in the legal infrastructure that depends on forensic expertise.
The Commerce Committtee, in its past forensic review iteration, invited a generous portion of guest speakers possessing the same profile. I suspect the Senator will arrange for similar opinion presentations in his current efforts to graft some organizational and quality assurance measures into national legal and/or statutory life.
All in the name of “progress” and, as already been said by countless criminal justice types, to “prevent wrongful convictions” and “improve the public’s opinion of the reliability of forensic sciences” and its interface with public safety. (i.e. convicting the right person).
Progress is largely a historical term used to label events and accomplishments occurring at an earlier point in time. It can be chronologically measured in centuries or years. Months and days don’t count. Progress must be solid and established. Most writers refrain from announcing anything as an incontrovertible example of progress until all scores have been counted and consistent events have been compiled. The tabulation involves some sort of “weight” given to both random and interconnected improvements or events in order to bolster an opinion of positive social or scientific movement. This trip may lead to its ultimate arrival as a recognized progressive change in life or science. It may not arrive at all. It all depends.
Scientific thought and interpretive research in this day and age may have a quicker path towards a distilled conclusion of progressive change than most other subjects, but the benchmarks or steps are generally the same for subject or concept.
A measure of concern regarding forensic science progress
Studies of human nature, in the face of opined changes in a subject’s status quo, deserves observation. It should also be applied to forensic science. Its history shows that the last century’s rapid forensic developments utterly changed the make-up of criminal investigations, public perceptions on crime and punishment and judicial thinking. But this is not a smooth rising curve of discovery, innovation and acceptance. The curve has dips and refractory moments of confusion. That means ideas were wrong, or were wrongly used, problems occurred, and later, measures were taken to re-establish an equilibrium of sorts within the forensic professions.
My opinion is: Forensic science is experiencing the most turmoil in its modern existence. Major challenges exist that shouldn’t be ignored any longer. Since the 2009 NAS report on Forensic Sciences (and it precursors via media and a few critics from within the forensic boundary), the entire forensic community has been either been rocked onto its heels (or reluctantly watched as some colleagues or methods became “forensic bad guys”) by irrefutable proofs of inaccuracy, incompetence (or worse) in its midst (i.e. FBI crime lab bullet and hair analysis debacle; 25 cases of dentists making the wrong people into criminal defendants with some ending up on death row; fakery and poor crime lab performance in some jurisdictions’ “certified” police labs ).
Obviously, my comments are not meant to compile any of forensic sciences’ accomplishments. Others can do that. In fact, in 2012, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences published a hard cover tome on its member disciplines’ accomplishments under the AAFS “umbrella” of certification. This included the bite mark believers. These dentists have no identifiable public “mea culpa” in their DNA as they mumble about “not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” Other than allowing a short piece co-written by myself and one other colleague taking note of bitemark IDs contributing to wrongfully convicting people being sent to prison or worse, their future was written as all rosy.
I want to touch on the human nature component of the forensic community. As we all know, human nature isn’t perfect as shown by the generally accepted notion of ‘trial and error.’ Opinions change within groups at different rates. Many times change occurs from outside a particular forensic discipline by people studying a subject without the internal biases present in a field’s practitioners. Change within any group is a foggy process at best. Forensically, it is mostly by committees (“stakeholders” is the PC term used by Rockefeller and the NCFS) tasked to reach a consensus to retire the “outdated” and innovate protocols and procedures better and more accurate for reliance by society in general (in forensics it’s law enforcement and the courts). Scientists might call this the effects of “empirical research changing a paradigm,” but interpretation is a human process. Human’s filters abound and are tangible. They involve discord about “what is progress” versus “I am being attacked.” To name a few other filters, mostly negative, lets try “caution, conservatism, lack of scientific training, no critical thinking skills, doubt, anger, skepticism, self-entitlement, arrogance, over optimism, threats to a person’s interests, loss of professional status and/or income, and nastiness.”
Here is my title thesis rewritten as: “Data Suppression in forensic science.” A form of scientific misconduct. This is composed of a process similar to what occurs in academia and is rarely discussed in any professional literature. Aspects of this (in no particular order) are the consequences to those who work to reform aspects of forensic science:
1. Biased organizational criticism, 2. fraudulent administrative investigations, 3. semi-slanderous public ridicule, 4.retaliatory opponents’ research (either incompetent or profoundly inaccurate ) and misleading lectures, comments, and report writing, 5. bad faith censure, bad faith demotion, and removal of access to research facilities and research funding, and 6. yet unpublished research constructs biased in their approach and pre-conceived conclusions (they usually do not publish and excoriate any research that turns out unfavorable. . Some legal protections exist for those personally targeted, but often this list (and there’s more) occurs at a sub rosa level disguised as purely allowable administrative functions or self-serving protected speech spurred by legitimate “concern.”
One aspect of forensic science, unheard of in academia, is the adversarial environment where practitioners oppose one another in courts. This stands as a unique aspect of the forensic culture. Rules of Evidence prevent anything being said in a court of law to be actionable by a fellow forensic opponent. This acts as a “free speech protection” favoring the presentation of expert opinion before judges and juries. You can be sure that, in court, data suppression and falsification occurs as well.
Esteemed Investigators: “CAVEAT EMPTOR”
Dr. Mike Bowers is a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. He is the author/editor of “Forensic Expert Testimony: Science, Law and Forensic Evidence.” 2013. Available on Amazon.com.
Forensics in Focus @cisdds NEWS for March 24, 2014
Radley Balko takes the stage with his ‘Morning Links” at Washington Post’s’ “The Watch.” He hits on criminal justice, MRAPS for local law enforcement, and one more amazing forensic related fact. As I tweeted on Sunday (@csidds), TSA has spent $1 BILLION on “face-reading” for “honesty or lying” training for their officers. The world is surely going to the dogs (as in dogs sniffing ‘positive’ for drugs at traffic stops when there aren’t any drugs) when another unreliable ‘forensic technique” is added to law enforcement methods producing a “reasonable suspicion” or “probable cause” to detain a subject. After arrest and asset forfeiture, suspects get a DNA sample taken and (depending on which of the 27 US states which allow custodial DNA collection for arrestees ) off to a database it goes. Quite a neat income train, I must say.
Cops accused of staging suspect’s appearance to convince witness to ID. Judge said “harmless error.” He prefers other “strong circumstantial evidence” proving guilt. This is now on appeal to the 4th C Court by the Duke Innocence Project.
Simplistic expose: 20 years of forensic bloodstain analysis in Ontario (With video). You won’t see such mundane blood evidence demos in the Pistorius case in South Africa where the blood “moved” according to the defense attorney.
Preliminary report on using crime scene (or from other locations) DNA profiling to predict certain facial features of unknown persons. Ability is limited due to certain ethic features. More images here. ‘New Scientist’ article with citations to original papers. Some call it “accurate” others call it “crude” but the implications are big if extensive research continues. What’s typical is that a co-investigator from U of Penn (the other team is at Belgium’s Catholic University of Leuven) states he is already using the protocol on two cold cases. Uhm.
Forensics in Focus @csidds NEWS for March 14 , 2014
FORENSIC SCIENCE UNDER SCRUTINY: New update from today
A work in progress in a White House.gov listing of the “forensic commission’s accomplishments ” from the government’s, LEOs, crime lab agencies and forensic orgs’ POVs to Bowers’s response to the NCFS. Very weak on research factors.
Costs of a bad bitemark conviction. I would venture most are suspect without DNA.
The Anatomy of a Wrongful Conviction and 19 years to Exonerate
Black Man Wrongfully Convicted By All-White Jury Freed After Nearly 3 Decades On Death Row
The Innocence Project – Fix the System: Priority Issues: Exoneree Compensation
DNA EXPERTS AND CRIME LABS
Nora (and Keith Inman) are veterans of the days when forensic DNA was being established in California criminal courts. They continue to be a recognized authority with an emphasis on educating those of us who are not scientists and straightening out biologists who flub up.
WI: State tweaks DNA collection statute at the last minute. It keeps local cops from archiving their own databases of DNA. Makes sense.
5 month crime lab delay = Police: Seattle rape suspect still on the loose
Mass. State DNA Crime Lab Explains Delays: There are ‘only’ 1538 backlogged.
WY: “New lab” costs $120,000? Doesn’t do DNA. Hopes to be certified in a couple years. Hope they learn from others.
Besides DNA, cold cases also helped by social media.
News from the “Wrongful Convictions” blog.
Prints on two stolen passports of lost Air Malaysia being compared to US terrorist database.
Shady cops = Balko: Exonerations Not Just a Mistake, but the Result of Unchecked State Misconduct |
Those resisting Prosecutors hate public discussion from anyone about anything.
Blowback on DOJ prosecutorial misconduct.
Incentivising witnesses w $$. Durham group says police illegally paying informants in drug cases
Making us all feel safer? Damn those pot smokers who have ALS.
Backing off on pot convictions: Some Marijuana Convictions Can Be Overturned Under New Law
Deeper look into Florida’s killingest DA. Some agree with her despite history of unbridled overcharging and reversals.