Saturday, September 19, 2020

Police and Prosecutor misconduct: (Part 2): National Registry of Exonerations report; Two troubling findings relating to forensic 'expert' evidence and the state of forensic science in America's criminal justice system. (I'm not surprised by the second one - but find it quite alarming. HL.) Read on!

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: Earlier this week, The National Registry of Exonerations released  a report   on the role police and prosecutor misconduct plays  in cases leading to exoneration - based on information in its database of wrongful convictions from the first 2,400 exonerations. Of particular interest to this Blog is a finding that:

 "Law enforcement officialspolice officers or forensic analysts who work for police agenciessometimes testify as experts in forensic science and explain the significance of trace evidence and other physical evidence connected to the crime. In about 3% of exonerations (75/2,400), they deliberately presented false evidence against the defendants or concealed or distorted true evidence that might have cleared them."

But lest the reader feel some comfort at what would appear to be a  a small number of  the exonerations  - 3 % - involving  deliberate presentation of false evidence against the defendants or the distorting or concealing of true evidence that might have cleared them, another section of the report may bring us back to reality.

"False or misleading forensic evidence contributed to the false convictions of a quarter of known exonerees (590/2,400). In most of those cases, forensic experts did not engage in misconduct but rather made mistakes or relied on scientific procedures or beliefs that had been, or later were discredited. In other cases they did commit misconduct, but not fraud; most often, they concealed forensic information that might have helped the defendant.

The three percent figure is disturbing enough  as  the deliberate conduct by experts is likely found in the most serious criminal cases - such as murder, rape and child sexual evidence - where the consequence to the wrongfully convicted person are severe. But the extremely large number of cases in which false or misleading forensic evidence contributed to the false convictions - that's a quarter of exonerates -  confirms the reasons for the existence of this Blog -  that there are huge problems with the state of forensic science in the American criminal justice system, many of which case be found in other jurisdictions throughout the world.

Here is the Report's section on 'Forensic fraud.' (I have included the relatively in text footnote's out of consideration for footnote freaks such as myself. HL.


  • “Forensic evidence” is a collection of different types of expert evidence that are used in criminal cases for a variety of purposes: to identify people using biological samples or traces they left behind (DNA, fingerprints, blood type, hair, bitemarks); to identify objects from traces or from marks they left (tool marks, fibers, tire treads, shoe prints); to describe the composition of substances (chemical analyses of drugs or poisons); to describe pathologies (illness, injury, trauma); or to assign causes to events (deaths, injuries, fires).

    False or misleading forensic evidence contributed to the false convictions of a quarter of known exonerees (590/2,400). In most of those cases, forensic experts did not engage in misconduct but rather made mistakes or relied on scientific procedures or beliefs that had been, or later were discredited. In other cases they did commit misconduct, but not fraud; most often, they concealed forensic information that might have helped the defendant.

Forensic fraud, as we use the term, is an aggravated form of intentional misconduct by state actors: the deliberate falsification of forensic evidence by a law enforcement officer in order to help convict a criminal defendant. We do not count fraud by privately employed forensic experts, nor cases in which misstatements about forensic evidence might have been deliberate but we don’t know enough to be confident.

We know of forensic fraud in 3% of exonerations (75/2,400). In 83% of those cases the fraud was committed by a forensic analyst, including two cases in which a prosecutor also participated in the fraud (62/75). In 16% of the cases, forensic fraud was committed by a police officer (12/75), also including two cases in which a prosecutor participated. And in one case, a prosecutor committed forensic fraud on his own.

Reviewing these cases, several themes emerged:

  • False forensic matches.” In more than a third of the forensic fraud cases analysts and other witnesses falsely linked the defendants to crime scene evidence (27/75), most often by claiming that their hair matched” hair from the crime scene (10/27). For example, at Glen Woodall’s 1987 rape trial, West Virginia State Police Trooper Fred Zain testified that it was "highly unlikely" a hair found in the victim’s car could have come from any source but Woodall’s blond bearddespite the fact that in a concealed report he wrote three months earlier, Zain described that sample as a pubic hair.

    In several other cases, the forensic experts falsely reported that blood or semen from the crime scene had the same blood type as the defendants’ blood (7/27), or that crime scene DNA matched the defendant (3/27). At Bernard Webster’s 1982 rape trial in Maryland, for example, the forensic analyst testified that the rapist had type A blood, as did Webster; in fact, there was no way to determine the blood type of the rapist from the mixed sample that was availableas that same expert had testified earlier.

    In a few cases forensic analysts testified falsely that bitemarks on the victims matched the defendants’ teeth (4/27), or that tools owned by the defendant damaged the victim’s property (2/27), or that a fiber found near the crime was linked to the defendant (1/27).

  • Concealed tests that excluded the defendant from suspicion. In about a quarter of the cases, forensic witnesses falsely reported that the defendants might have been the source of crime-scene blood, semen or fingerprints, while concealing forensic tests that had already shown that was impossible (17/75). For example, in 1988 Calvin and Larry OllinsOmar Saunders and Marcellius Bradford, ages 14 through 18, were convicted of rape and murder in Chicago. At their trial, forensic analyst Pamela Fish testified that semen found on the victim’s body and undergarments could have come from three of the four defendants. In fact, she knew from blood tests that she had conducted and hidden that none of the defendants could have been the source of the semen.

  • Planted evidence. In four exonerations, police planted the evidence that was tested by forensic analysts. In three cases from upstate New York, state troopers planted defendants’ fingerprints on objects from the crime scene, and then “collected” and “analyzed” those prints themselves;113 and in Desmond Ricks’ case in Detroit, officers substituted a slug fired from a gun found in Desmond’s house for the slug that killed the victim in order to lead another officer and an independent forensic analyst to falsely conclude that Desmond’s gun fired the fatal shot.

  • Various lies. The remaining third of forensic fraud cases are a mixed bag (27/75). In three cases, for example, the forensic analyst lied and said that there was insufficient trace evidence for forensic testing when in fact there was sufficient evidence to test and, when tests were eventually conducted, they cleared the defendant. And in a two- defendant murder case, an examiner testified falsely that there was no blood spatter on the pants of the primary alternate suspect; testing 18 years later found that there was a spatter of blood on the pants—the victim’s blood.

    At William Dillon’s murder trial in Florida in 1981, a dog handler who was later labeled “a charlatan” by the Arizona Supreme Court testified to a rigged “dog sniff identification” that appeared to implicate Dillon. And in Adolph Munson’s 1984 murder case in Oklahoma, Medical Examiner Ralph Erdmann first testified that the victim was killed by a large caliber bullet; then the prosecutors told him that they needed it to be a small .22 caliber bullet, so he revised his testimony and said that maggots had enlarged the .22 caliber holes.

    A third of known incidents of forensic fraud involved notorious bad actors (25/75). Dr. Erdmann, for example, eventually lost his medical license and pled guilty to several felonies after it was discovered that he had filed reports on hundreds if not thousands of autopsies that he never conducted. Pamela Fishwho is responsible for 10 of the forensic fraud cases we list— was removed from criminal case work by the Illinois State Police after several cases in which her perjury was exposed ended in exoneration. Fred Zain, who presented fraudulent evidence in seven trials that led to exonerations, was the subject of major investigations for massive patterns of forensic fraud in both West Virginia and Texas, and was eventually indicted for fraud. And Joyce Gilchrist, who committed forensic fraud in three exonerations (and provided false or misleading evidence in three others) was ultimately investigated by the FBI and fired.114

    113 In the first case, State Police Trooper David Harding testified at Shirley Kinge’s arson trial in Tompkins County, New York in 1990, that he found Kinge’s fingerprints on a gasoline can at the site of the fire. In 1992, Kinge was exonerated after Harding pled guilty to perjury and admitted planting fingerprint evidence in Kinge’s case and others; he was sentenced to 4 1⁄2 years in prison. Two years later, William Labolt Jr. was exonerated after an investigation revealed that a Lieutenant in Harding’s unit had planted a fingerprint that led to his conviction for burglary; and in 1995, Mark Prentice was exonerated when Trooper Harding admitted to planting the fingerprint that led to his conviction for robbery.

    114 For additional references on Pamela Fish, Fred Zain and Joyce Gilchrist, See infra Sections X.2.c, XII.1.c, XII.2.b.i, and XII.2.c.ii(b).

    No doubt repeat offenders contribute more than their share of misconduct in this setting, as in others. But we are also more likely to learn about incidents of forensic fraud by serial perjurers who eventually get caughtafter which their entire work history is likely to be reexamined— than about similar acts by colleagues with more discretion or better luck."


    The entire Report can be read at:


    PUBLISHER'S NOTE: I am monitoring this case/issue. Keep your eye on the Charles Smith Blog for reports on developments. 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: Please send any comments or information on other cases and issues of interest to the readers of this blog to:  Harold Levy: Publisher: The Charles Smith Blog;
    FINAL WORD:  (Applicable to all of our wrongful conviction cases):  "Whenever there is a wrongful conviction, it exposes errors in our criminal legal system, and we hope that this case — and lessons from it — can prevent future injustices."
    Lawyer Radha Natarajan:
    Executive Director: New England Innocence Project;
    FINAL, FINAL WORD (FOR NOW!): "Since its inception, the Innocence Project has pushed the criminal legal system to confront and correct the laws and policies that cause and contribute to wrongful convictions.   They never shied away from the hard cases — the ones involving eyewitness identifications, confessions, and bite marks. Instead, in the course of presenting scientific evidence of innocence, they’ve exposed the unreliability of evidence that was, for centuries, deemed untouchable." So true!
    Christina Swarns: Executive Director: The Innocence Project;