Continuing information on the battle of #ForensicScienceReform and #WRONGFULCONVICTIONDAY

Edited by Julie Fry
Written by Celia Givens

Law enforcement officials in at least 4 states have been collecting voluntary DNA samples from people who are not suspected of or charged with a crime 


Over the past ten years, law enforcement officials in Florida, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and North Carolina have increasingly been collecting DNA from people during “routine” stops by asking them to volunteer their DNA. While there are clear legal precedents concerning collecting criminal defendants’ DNA, ProPublica notesthat “the notion of collecting DNA consensually is still so new that the ground rules remain uncertain. Who can give such consent and what must they be told about what they’re consenting to? Who decides how long to keep these samples and what can be done with them?”

These “voluntary” samples have helped police expand local law enforcement DNA databases and are even added to private DNA databases—which, unlike federal or state databases, are not subject to regulation or oversight. While larger cities can afford to run public forensic laboratories, smaller cities have partnered with private DNA labs that “offer such fast, cheap testing that police can afford to amass DNA even to investigate minor crimes, from burglary to vandalism.” One lab director added that, “The lower standards for DNA profiles included in private databases could lead to meaningless or coincidental matches…No one knows what the rules are about what they’re going to upload into these private DNA databases or not. Mixtures, partials—what’s their criteria? It varies.”

Forensics in the News


FBI, DOJ and NDAA issue statements against PCAST report declaring they will not adopt any of the report’s forensic science reform recommendations (The Intercept)

After the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released their report on forensic science reforms in criminal courts last month, both the FBI and DOJ have issued statements blasting the report’s findings and refusing to adopt the committee’s recommendations. The FBI issued a press release on September 20th that called the PCAST report’s criteria “subjectively derived and [therefore] inconsistent and unreliable,” while in a statement given to the Wall Street Journal, Attorney General Loretta Lynch remarked, “We remain confident that, when used properly, forensic science evidence helps juries identify the guilty and clear the innocent, and the department believes that the current legal standards regarding the admissibility of forensic evidence are based on sound science and sound legal reasoning. While we appreciate their contribution to the field of scientific inquiry, the department will not be adopting the recommendations related to the admissibility of forensic science evidence.”

The National District Attorney Association (NDAA) has also released a very critical letter against the report calling the reform recommendations “scientifically irresponsible,” which, according to Salon, has “lent credence to a longstanding criticism that American prosecutors are more concerned with winning than in establishing a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Former Orange County Senior Forensic Scientist Mary Hong accused of “doctoring key DNA analysis by giving conflicting testimony that aided prosecutors win two homicide trials” (OC Weekly)

STRmix DNA analysis software under intense scrutiny after being used in high profile U.S. cases, including the Oral Nicholas Hillary trial, where the DNA evidence was precluded from trial after not being properly validated (Stuff.co)

Hundreds of Massachusetts criminal cases could be thrown out after 8 guns, $70,000 in cash, and large quantities of drugs were found missing from a police evidence room. Officials discovered the missing evidence after an audit was ordered last spring and the officer in charge committed suicide shortly before the review was to begin. State judges have already dismissed five drug cases at prosecutors’ requests citing mishandled evidence (Boston Globe)
Related: Op-Ed: Time to get serious about protecting evidence

Opinions and Commentary


In an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “Rejecting Voodoo Science in the Courtroom,” Judge Alex Kozinski writes about the latest PCAST report on forensic science reforms in criminal courts:

“Americans have long had an abiding faith in science, including forensic science. Popular TV shows like ‘CSI’ and ‘Forensic Files’ stoke this confidence. Yet the PCAST report will likely upend many people’s beliefs, as it should. Why trust a justice system that imprisons and even executes people based on junk science?…Even methods valid in principle can be unreliable in practice. Forensic scientists, who are often members of the prosecution team, sometimes see their job as helping to get a conviction. This can lead them to fabricate evidence or commit perjury. Many forensic examiners are poorly trained and supervised. They sometimes overstate the strength of their conclusions by claiming that the risk of error is ‘vanishingly small,’ ‘essentially zero,’ or ‘microscopic.’ The report calls such claims ‘scientifically indefensible,’ but jurors generally take them as gospel when presented by government witnesses who are certified as scientific experts.”

In his latest blog post Jay Stanley, Senior Police Analyst for Privacy and Technology at the ACLU, asks (and answers) the question: “The police want your DNA to prove you’re innocent. Do you give it to them?” (ACLU Blog)

“5 Kinds of Junk Science Prosecutors Have Used to Send People to Prison” (Attn.com)

ABC 20/20: Oral Nicholas Hillary Trial


ABC News 20/20 featured the trial of Oral Nicholas Hillary, who was acquitted last week of the 2011 murder of Garrett Phillips. Hillary’s acquittal marks the final chapter of a nearly five year-long case in which the prosecution produced little physical evidence, relying mostly on circumstantial evidence.

The NY Times noted that the state “produced little, if any, hard evidence linking Mr. Hillary to the crime — no DNA, no fingerprints, no hair or fiber samples — leading him to suggest a far more pernicious explanation for the prosecution: his race. Mr. Hillary is black; Garrett was white, as is his mother and most of the surrounding St. Lawrence County…Seen through a prism of racial bias, the investigation and trial drew widespread attention at a time when law enforcement’s relationship with black Americans is under increased scrutiny after a string of shootings by police officers. But the case was also steeped in raw emotion and drama: the violent, unsolved murder of a child, an unheard-of crime in a small town, and a long and imperfect search for a killer.”

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About csidds

Dr. Michael Bowers is a long time forensic consultant in the US and international court systems.
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