Archive for the ‘Failed Forensics’ Category

On May 28, 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court published two opinions about whether juries could hear from experts.  In Commonwealth v. Walker, the Court said an expert could tell the jury about the traps and weaknesses involved in eyewitness witness testimony.   But in Commonwealth v. Alicia, the Court  said an expert could not tell the jury about problems with the truthfulness of confessions.   Each opinion featured a different 4-2 vote among six of the Court’s Justices.

This juxtaposition seems so bizarre that the press in our state has noticed.  How does one court, on one day, publish two opinions on virtually the same issue, and end up facing in two completely opposite directions?

The explanation that jumps out from the opinions is the recognition of research and science.    In the Walker majority opinion, Justice Debra Todd discusses how much scientific work on eyewitness testimony has taken place in the last twenty years, since the Court last examined the issue.  In those decades, she says, “advances in scientific study have strongly suggested that eyewitnesses are apt to erroneously identify a person…when certain factors are present, ” and she cites the 2011 opinion of the New Jersey Supreme Court in New Jersey v. Henderson, widely regarded as one of the leading cases on the subject.  The scientific consensus is strong:  “it is beyond serious contention that the statistical evidence on eyewitness inaccuracy is substantial…”  Over the course of the last thirty years, forty-four states have recognized this scientific work and decided that trial courts may allow experts to testify about the problems of eyewitness identification.  Ten of the eleven U.S. Courts of Appeals have done so as well.  (False eyewitness identifications have occurred in almost seventy-five percent of all DNA-based reversals of wrongful convictions.)  Thus Justice Todd and the other Justices in the majority in Walker said that Pennsylvania must recognize the evidence that science has brought to bear.

In contrast, what does the Alicia opinion say about the science on the interrogation of suspects, and how various interrogation techniques may lead to false confessions? (False confessions have occurred in about twenty-five percent of all DNA-based reversals of wrongful convictions.)   Considerable scientific consensus exists on these issues as well; the leading scientists who work on the issue of false confessions published a standard-setting white paper, “Police-Induced Confessions: Risk Factors and Recommendation”  for the journal Law and Human Behavior five years ago. Somehow, this scientific work never even comes up in the Alicia opinion.  It is as if the research on false identifications simply does not exist.

Chief Justice Ronald Castille is at least consistent in these two cases: he wants no experts in court on either eyewitness identifications or confessions, so he dissented in Walker and joined the majority in Alicia.  Castille’s dissenting opinion in the Walker case gives us some insight into the thinking of those who want none of this science before the jury.  In his dissent, Chief Justice Castille scorns the very idea that there could be real scientific work on these subjects.  Indeed, he puts the words science or scientific in derisive quotation marks eight times in just the first three pages of his opinion.  While he admits that “a properly trained chemist can usually reliably explain the chemical composition of a substance,” science about human beings cannot claim any reliability: “studies of human beings, human nature, human perception, and human recollection inevitably have a heavy dose of subjectivity.”   Justice Castille’s position betrays a strong misunderstanding of what science is, and of the process of doing scientific work and of using the scientific method to test a hypothesis.  The real question is not whether we are dealing with so called “hard science” — work done with beakers and bunsen burners.  Rather, the question is whether the work is done reliably and rigorously, according to the scientific method, and in accord with principles and protocols that protect against human biases in the laboratory.  So for now, juries in Pennsylvania will have to do without the best scientific knowledge on why we might have false confessions.

But, even more important, the issue of whether experts can testify on these subjects is not a new one; courts in most jurisdictions resolved this issue years ago.  Instead, every institution that forms part of our criminal justice system in PA should be focused on prevention: establishing protocols for police to follow that will keep dangerous mistakes  eyewitness testimony and interrogation from happening in the future.   The research is there; the best practices are known.  Nevertheless, we remain stuck in the past, arguing about expert witnesses.

 

In my last post, I discussed the significance of the new US DOJ policy, effective July 11, that creates a presumption that all federal law enforcement agencies — the FBI, the DEA, ATF, and all the rest, will record interrogations of suspects.  This will put these federal agencies on par with the several states and many hundreds of state and local departments that have recorded interrogations for years, as a matter of course.

I commented that, without access to the DOJ memorandum itself, there was no way to know whether the new policy would require recording of the whole interrogation, or just part of it (usually, the part that shows a confession, but not what lead up to it).  I promised to post again when I had more information.

The full DOJ memorandum is now public, and it requires that the agency records the full interrogation: not just the confession, but the whole session.  Here’s what the memorandum says:

I. g.   Scope of Recording.  Electronic recording will begin a soon as the subject enters the interview area or room and will continue until the interview is completed.

For proponents of recording interrogation, this is good news.   A partial recording could only give a partial picture of what went on in the interrogation room.  At worst, a partial recording could be downright misleading; at the very least, a recording that only contained the confession at the end of the interrogation would tell us nothing about the context — about how the police obtained the interrogation.  So the Scope of Recording requirement is a very important part of an effective recording system.

Following up on my last post, in which I asked why there were still no national standards for forensic science five years after the National Academy of Sciences’2009 report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States, and with scandal after scandal in U.S. crime labs all over the country, there may be light on the horizon.  On January 10, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)  and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) announced the formation of the National Commission on Forensic Science.

According to the announcement issued by DOJ and NIST:

Members of the commission will work to improve the practice of forensic science by developing guidance concerning the intersections between forensic science and the criminal justice system. The commission also will work to develop policy recommendations for the U.S. Attorney General, including uniform codes for professional responsibility and requirements for formal training and certification.

John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that the Commission “will help ensure that the forensic sciences are supported by the most rigorous standards available—a foundational requirement in a nation built on the credo of ‘justice for all.’ ”

The formation of the Commission could be the a significant milestone in the march toward the use of real science and defensible national standards in forensic labs.  But it may be limited in what it can achieve just by its creation and structure: it is not a body created by Congress with power to come up with and implement standards or to regulate anything.  Rather it is a federal advisory committee, formed under the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972.  (A quick primer on the Act is here.)   It investigates and debate designated topics, and then reports its recommendations to the relevant federal department(s) that formed it (in this case, the DOJ and NIST).  Those agencies could choose to embrace and follow, or could choose to reject, some, all, or none of the Commission’s suggestions.

Still, this is a hopeful sign that we might be heading in the right direction.  At the very least, we will see a national conversation between the very large number of Committee members; they come from a variety of backgrounds in government, science, the legal system, and elsewhere.  See the list of more than thirty Commission members at the bottom of this announcement.

I hope readers will weigh in on the following question: realistically, what will come from the Committee?  Will the government adopt these recommendations?  Will the recommendations include national standards to regulate forensic testing, assure quality control, and the like? In the end, will the work that you foresee coming from the Commission improve the U.S.’s largely unregulated system?

Here we are, more than a month after chemist Annie Dookhan, formerly of the Massachusetts State Drug Laboratory, entered a guilty plea to producing fraudulent forensic testing results, and went to prison.  The scandal, potentially involving tens of thousands of cases, has resulted in the release of hundreds of convicted persons. All of this has reportedly cost the state of Massachusetts more than 8 million dollars, and the state has budgeted almost 9 million more for the continuing damage.    Readers have seen coverage of the Massachusetts scandal, and several others, here and here and here.

But Dhookan and the Massachusetts Drug Laboratory are far from alone.  According to a report by National Public Radio, there have been  twelve major crime lab scandals in the U.S. in just the last two years.  With all of this damage  — to individual cases and defendants, to state and local budgets, and to the public trust — occurring all over the country, how have policy makers at the national level responded?

Well, they haven’t.  At least not yet.

Almost five years after the release of the National Academy of Sciences’ report “Strengthening Forensic Science in the U.S.: A Path Forward,” which recommended (among other things) the establishment of national industry standards for forensic labs and a National Institute of Forensic Science,  as well as the independence of every crime lab from police agencies and prosecution offices, none of this has happened.  Nor is accreditation of laboratories required.

According to National Public Radio, Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Patrick Leahy of Vermont “are working to introduce legislation this year” which could address some of these problems.  But nearly five years after the NAS report, and with the parade of crime lab scandals  continuing without let up, why has it taken five years to get to this very preliminary point?

Readers, would mandatory national standards help?  Are they appropriate?  What about requiring accreditation?

If you are from outside the U.S., does your country set mandatory national standards for crime labs?  Is accreditation required?

The time has long since passed for us to do something about this set of problems in the U.S.  We just can’t afford the damage to the credibility of our criminal justice system and the costs of  reviewing cases and releasing convicted prisoners — some of whom may very well be guilty, but whose cases are tainted.

The use of DNA identification as a forensic tool, beginning in 1989, changed the way that we think about guilt, innocence, and traditional police investigation.  It isn’t just the 311 wrongful convictions that DNA identification has confirmed; it’s the far more numerous cases in which DNA has determined guilt — sometimes in cases years or decades old.

Now DNA identification is about to change: it will become even more powerful than it is now.  A new way of processing and interpreting DNA has arrived that will make our current DNA techniques look weak by comparison.

On Friday, Nov. 8, I attended an incredibly interesting talk by Dr. Ria David.  Dr. David is one of the co-founders of Cybergenetics, a company based in Pittsburgh.  Cybergenetics has perfected computer-based techniques and technologies that will change the way that DNA is analyzed.  With Cybergenetics’ TrueAllele (R) system, the analysis relies the power of computers instead of interpretation done by humans.   The talk was sponsored by the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship (CWE) at Chatham University.  (Disclosure: my wife runs CWE; my wife and I know Dr. David and her Cybergenetics co-founder, Dr. Mark Perlin, but neither my wife nor I have any personal or financial ties of any kind to Cybergenetics.)

Most of us know that a DNA sample allows forensic scientists to say things like “the odds that this sample came from anyone other than the defendant are fifty million to one.”  Pretty powerful stuff — until you learn that Cybergenetics’ systems will allow prosecutors to offer juries odds of not tens of millions to one, but trillions or even quadrillions to one.  In addition, Cybergenetics will allow analysts to pull apart mixtures of DNA from different people, which is common at crime scenes, and which current DNA technology often can’t handle.  Readers of my book Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science can get a little more information in Chapter 7, pp. 186-190; you can get the book here.

Cybergenetics’ DNA system has found ready acceptance in the United Kingdom, but the process has been slower in the U.S. There has been considerable resistance — something readers of Failed Evidence are quite familiar with — particularly at the FBI, which governs current DNA protocols and use.

There is much more to how the Cybergenetics’ TrueAllele system works, and what it can do; I’d urge readers to take a good look at Cybergenetics web site, which gives details on what they do, and the many criminal cases and mass disaster identification cases (including the identification of remains at the World Trade Center site).  Once law enforcement sees what this new method of using DNA can do, and once resistance to change is overcome, DNA will be able to identify many more guilty criminals, as well as exonerate many more of the wrongfully convicted, and it will do so with more certainty that we ever thought possible.

 

For those in the Chicago area, I’ll be speaking about my book “Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science” on Wednesday, October 16, at 5 p.m. at Gage Gallery, 18 S. Michigan Avenue.  The event is free and open to the public.  The event is sponsored by Roosevelt University’s Joseph Loundy Human Rights Project, and is part of their annual speaker series.  The link to the event is here.

The next public event for “Failed Evidence” will be in Pittsburgh on November 6, at noon at the Harvard Yale Princeton Club, 619 William Penn Place, The talk will be sponsored by the Allegheny County Bar Association and the Pitt Law Alumni Association.  More details to follow.

In a newly-published study, researchers find that forensic experts rendering opinions may unconsciously bias their results toward the parties that employ them.  The results have potentially broad application across a wide variety of traditional forensic disciplines.

The journal Psychological Science has posted the study, called “Are Forensic Experts Biased by the Side That Retained Them?”  (I thank The Crime Report, from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, for bringing it to my attention.)  The authors, Daniel C. Murrie, Marcus T. Boccaccini, Lucy A. Guarnera, and Katrina A. Rufino, tested the idea that forensic experts called upon to evaluate evidence in an adversarial legal proceeding might respond differently, depending solely upon which party asked them to perform the evaluation.  Here’s the abstract to the study:

How objective are forensic experts when they are retained by one of the opposing sides in an adversarial legal proceeding? Despite long-standing concerns from within the legal system, little is known about whether experts can provide opinions unbiased by the side that retained them. In this experiment, we paid 108 forensic psychologists and psychiatrists to review the same offender case files, but deceived some to believe that they were consulting for the defense and some to believe that they were consulting for the prosecution. Participants scored each offender on two commonly used, well-researched risk-assessment instruments. Those who believed they were working for the prosecution tended to assign higher risk scores to offenders, whereas those who believed they were working for the defense tended to assign lower risk scores to the same offenders; the effect sizes (d) ranged up to 0.85. The results provide strong evidence of an allegiance effect among some forensic experts in adversarial legal proceedings.

If these results stand the test of time, the implications are potentially great,  As discussed in the National Academy of Sciences’ landmark 2009 report “Strengthening Forensic Sciences in the United States: A Path Forward,” most forensic disciplines (outside of DNA identification and those that use traditional chemical analysis) rely to a significant degree on human interpretation to generate conclusions.  The results of the Murrie et al. work suggest that all of these disciplines may be influenced by a very important piece of context — who pays for their work — regardless of which side of the case that is.  The study would seem to support one of the central recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences report: “removing all public forensic laboratories and facilities from the administrative control of law enforcement agencies or prosecutors’ offices” (p. 24).