DNA “falsifiability” gets some airtime, CRIME LAB chaos in MA, “vigorous debate’ in SBS

The latest in scientific quandaries within forensics from the NY Legal Aid Society Newsletter.

Fool’s Gold:

Legal Aid Society DNA Unit featured in Atlantic Magazine article about the increasing use of unreliable DNA “science” in the criminal justice system

DNA analysis has always been the “golden child” in the forensic science family—whereas most forensic sciences were created by law enforcement to solve crimes, DNA science was developed by, well, scientists. But when DNA analysis left the lab and moved into the courtroom, it left a lot of the science behind.

Unlike medical DNA testing, forensic DNA relies on samples from crime scenes that are often degraded, contaminated or mixtures—“alphabet soups” of genetic information from different contributors. And while clean, single source DNA samples are easy to analyze, the science of DNA mixtures is shaky at best: “The analyst must determine how many contributors are involved, and which alleles belong to whom. If the sample is very small or degraded—the two often go hand in hand—alleles might drop out in some locations, or appear to exist where they do not. Suddenly, we are dealing not so much with an objective science as an interpretive art.”

To complicate things further, most DNA mixtures are now analyzed by “black box” software programs with secret algorithms, or as DNA expert William Thompson quips: “The data goes in, and out comes the solution, and we’re not fully informed of what happened in between.”

The Atlantic features quotes from Legal Aid Society DNA Unit attorneys Jessica Goldthwaite and Clinton Hughes—members of the Frye team that, in 2011, succeeded in challenging the admissibility of low-copy DNA evidence and the Forensic Statistical Tool (FST)—another black box software used to analyze DNA evidence at the NYC OCME. Despite both the OCME and courts denying defense access to FST’s source code, the DNA Unit has reverse-engineered the FST program with a team of computer science interns in order to show the software’s flaws.

Forensics in the News

MA-ACLU lawsuit reveals over 24,000 drug cases tested by forensic analyst Annie Dookhan resulted in convictions or “had other adverse dispositions” (ACLU)

In response to an ACLU lawsuit, Massachusetts prosecutors have disclosed (after nearly six years) lists of the 24,000 drug cases worked on by Annie Dookhan during her decade-long tenure at the Hinton State Lab. According to the ACLU, “Dookhan cases appear to account for an astounding 25 percent of all drug prosecutions that led to conviction in the seven counties that used the Hinton State Lab during Dookhan’s tenure, and one in six of such drug prosecutions in the Commonwealth over a 10-year period.”The majority of “Dookhan defendants” were not sent any official notice that evidence in their cases may have been tampered with: many defendants have remained incarcerated and others have even been deported. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has yet to release the names ofcases affected by forensic chemist Sonja Farak, who was sentenced to 18 months prison time after she admitted to tampering with evidence and stealing drugs while working on nearly 30,000 cases.

Federal judge rejects handwriting analysis “science” and expert testimony in forgery case (New York Law Journal)

Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York has dismissed the case of Almeciga v. Center for Investigative Reporting, granting the defendant’s motion to exclude expert testimony on handwriting analysis because of its unreliability as a “science.” In his opinion, Judge Rakoff—who was appointed by President Obama to the National Commission on Forensic Science in 2015—found that “handwriting analysis in general is unlikely to meet the admissibility requirements of Federal Rule of Evidence 702,” and that “there are no studies, to this Court’s knowledge, that have evaluated the extent to which the angle at which one writes or the curvature of one’s loops distinguish one person’s handwriting from the next. Precisely what degree of variation falls within or outside an expected range of natural variation in one’s handwriting—such that an examiner could distinguish in an objective way between variations that indicate different authorship and variations that do not—appears to be completely unknown and untested.”

Expert witness and TrueAllele software creator Dr. Mark Perlin accused by defense counsel of “cherry-picking” results in death penalty murder trial for “financial reasons” (WTAE News)
Related: Allen Wade Trial Summary (Ongoing)

Human Genome Project scientists convened “closed-door meeting” at Harvard to discuss the future of gene-editing amidst concerns about possible ethical violations that would occur with genetic engineering (NY Times)
Related: Newsweek

Scientists fight new White House initiative that would require researchers to obtain patients’ consent to use biological samples, even if identifying information is removed (STAT)

Virginia Department of Forensic Science to review 200 blood-typing cases between 1982 and 1990 after errors were found in recent wrongful conviction case (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Ninth Circuit denies writ petition in Gimenez v. Ochoa for defendant convicted of killing his daughter based on a “Shaken Baby Syndrome” theory. The panel held that, while a petitioner can allege a constitutional violation stemming from flawed expert testimony at trial, here the evidence presented by the petitioner only indicated a “vigorous debate” in the medical community regarding the validity of the triad-only “shaken baby” diagnosis.
Related: Caselaw SummaryNinth Circuit Blog

Opinions and Commentary

From the Grits For Breakfast blog: “The [Texas] Forensic Science Commission last month found ‘professional negligence’ occurred in the ballistics analysis at the Southwest Institute of Forensic Science (SWIFS). The examiner attributed too much significance to small striations on a bullet and inappropriately chose different ammunition for test firing. SWIFS believes that ‘confirmation bias’ and ‘expectancy bias’ contributed to errors by both the examiner and the technical reviewer.”

An Editorial from My SanAntonio explains the lack of remedies for defendants who have been wrongfully convicted because of junk science in Texas by examining the case of the San Antonio 4

Fauxrensics Video Series: DNA Evidence

From the National Forensic Science Technology Center: “The Fauxrensics video series is designed to ask the question, ‘Real or Faux?’ about forensic science and investigative techniques regularly shown in popular television crime dramas. They are commonly misrepresented and these short, fun videos help educate viewers on how the science works in the real world.”

Click the picture to play the Fauxrensics episode about DNA Evidence!

Subscribe to the DNA Newsletter for the latest on forensic news. 

Check out previous editions of the DNA Newsletter!

Feedback, articles, and suggestions pertaining to the DNA Newsletter can be emailed directly to Celia Givens.

About csidds

Dr. Michael Bowers is a long time forensic consultant in the US and international court systems.
This entry was posted in AAFS, criminal justice, criminal justice reform, CSI, DNA mixtures, DNA profiling, forensic science misconduct, forensic science reform and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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