Wednesday, April 22, 2015

FBI overstated forensic hair match crisis (The Emperor's Clothes): (4); Flawed Forensic's: Radley Balko starts off with a tribute to his Washington Post colleague reporter Spencer Hsu, noting " his great reporting on the continuing crisis in the world of forensic science," Over the weekend, Hsu broke the story that Justice Department officials now concede that “an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.” Balko then goes on with his own "brief history of forensics" which analyses the dubious, if not often harmful role played by forensic science in the courts, and looks at many questionable applications of forensic science, which, from tme to time, have been the subject of posts on The Charles Smith Blog. (Must, must read. HL);

POST: "A brief history of forensics," by Radley Balko, published by the Washington Post on April 21 2015.  (Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.")

GIST: My Washington Post colleague Spencer Hsu continues his great reporting on the continuing crisis in the world of forensic science. Over the weekend, Hsu broke the story that Justice Department officials now concede that “an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.” This is far from the first such story. It isn’t even the first such story from the FBI’s crime lab, long considered one of the most elite labs in the world. In fact,  over the last several years there seems to be a new crime lab in crisis about once a month. A big part of the problem is misplaced incentives. A couple years ago I reported on a study which found that in many states, crime lab analysts are actually paid per conviction. And few years before that study came out, one of its authors — Roger Kopple of Fairleigh Dickinson University — and I wrote a piece about how we could institute some meaningful reforms to get those incentives pointing in the right direction. But Hsu’s story seems like a good opportunity to post a bit of a history of forensics that I wrote a few months ago. This was initially part of my four-part series on the use of bite mark evidence in the courts. We cut it because the series was already pretty long. But I think it provides some useful context for these alarming stories we’re seeing today.........One notorious area of junk forensic science to come under scrutiny in recent years is arson investigation. In a landmark 2009 New Yorker investigation, investigative journalist David Grann delved into the peculiar professional culture of arson investigators. Many, Grann explained, had only a high-school education, and learned the trade on the job from “old-timers.” As early as 1977, a study had warned that there was no scientific research to validate the field’s dominant theories about the allegedly foolproof signs of arson. Yet the courts continued to allow those theories to be heard by juries, producing countless convictions. It’s only in recent years that some of those guilty sentences have been revisited. Many wrongful convictions are just now being discovered by journalists and legal advocacy groups. Many may never be. One of those cases was Cameron Todd Willingham, the subject of Grann’s story who was later executed by the state of Texas. In his investigation, Grann made a persuasive case that Willingham was innocent. One longtime critic of arson forensics, Gerald Hurst, told Grann, “People investigated fire largely with a flat-earth approach. It looks like arson — therefore, it’s arson. My view is you have to have a scientific basis. Otherwise, it’s no different than witch-hunting.” And the examples of dubious science keep coming: In 2003, an NAS research group exposed a long-held FBI theory that every batch of gun ammunition ever made carries its own unique chemical fingerprint. The FBI had long maintained that this signature meant an analyst could definitively state that a bullet found at a crime scene could only have come from the box of ammunition found in the suspect’s home. Again, the courts had accepted the theory without any scientific research to back it up. It took years for the science to disprove it, and only after it had been used to convict countless people all over the country   Other forensic specialties that haven’t held up to scientific scrutiny include “ear print” matching, footprint patching and blood splatter analysis. Even fingerprinting now has its critics, particularly after the false match of a partial print led to the wrongful arrest of Oregon attorney Brandon Mayfield for the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, Spain. Only a few critics would argue that none of these methods of analysis have any probative value at all. What most argue is that there has never been any effort to determine in a scientific manner precisely what that value is. A more recent Washington Post investigation identified more than 2,500 cases in which convictions may have been tainted by exaggerations made by hair and fiber analysts at the FBI — and the dozens of state and city crime lab employees across the country that those analysts have trainedOver the last several years, the “shaken baby syndrome” diagnosis has come under fire as researchers have cast doubt on its underlying assumption — that the presence of three symptoms in a deceased infant or toddler could only be caused by violent shaking.".........With bite marks, we know even less: We don’t even know if there are any distinguishing markers. There has yet to be any scientific research to support the notion that the marks we make when we bite with our teeth our unique. But even if we could somehow know that they are, we still wouldn’t know how those unique characteristics are distributed across all of humanity. And even if we knew those things, we still don’t know if human skin is capable of recording and preserving a bite in a way that would allow those markers to be identified. These are the questions at the heart of the bite mark debate and of the use of forensic analysis in general. They’re questions that should have been answered long before this evidence was ever put before a jury for the first time. Instead, the scientific community is just now starting to answer them, decades later. But answering them only matters if those answers are taken to heart by the courts. So far, the courts haven’t shown much interest. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider whether judges should be the ones making these decisions in the first place."
The entire post can be found at:


Dear Reader. Keep your eye on the Charles Smith Blog. We are following this case.
I have added a search box for content in this blog which now encompasses several thousand posts. The search box is located  near the bottom of the screen just above the list of links. I am confident that this powerful search tool provided by "Blogger" will help our readers and myself get more out of the site.

The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic" section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at:

Information on "The Charles Smith Blog Award"- and its nomination process - can be found at:
I look forward to hearing from readers at:
Harold Levy; Publisher; The Charles Smith Blog;