Archive for the ‘Resisting Science’ Category

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.

 

The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the law schools at University of Michigan and Northwestern, reported last week that in 2012, law enforcement cooperated in some way in a higher percentage of cases than in the past.  Does this mean less resistance of science by law enforcement?

The answer is that we can’t tell from this data.  But the report is worth looking at nonetheless.

Here is what the report says about law enforcement cooperation (I have removed the bullets, spacing, etc.):

In  2012 there was a dramatic increase in the number and the proportion of exonerations that prosecutors or police participated in obtaining.  Of the 63 exonerations in 2012, prosecutors or police initiated or cooperated in 34, or 54%. Over the past 24 years, prosecutors and police have cooperated in 30% of the exonerations we know about (317/1050). Last year for the first time they cooperated in a majority of exonerations, and the number of such cases is a large increase from the previous high (22 of 57 in 2008, or 39%).

This is all to the good.  But there are some aspects of the findings that counsel caution.  First, the author(s) of the report freely admit they don’t know why  this is happening.  It could have many causes.

This increase [in cooperation] may be due to a confluence of related factors: changes in state laws that facilitate post-conviction DNA testing, the emergence of Conviction Integrity Units in several large prosecutorial offices, and, perhaps, a change in how law enforcement officers view the possibility of false convictions at trial.

And just to be clear, it’s good that they admit that it’s not clear what the cause or causes could be.  Too often, those working with statistics take an opposite tack.

As far as resistance to science, however, the report may indicate that the cases where science and forensics matter most still do not get cooperation for law enforcement.  The first clue is that 57% of the exonerations in 2012 were homicide cases, and another 24% were sexual assaults — 81% in all.  These are the types of cases in which resistance science on eyewitness identification, interrogation, and  forensics can matter the most.  These cases also have the highest public profile.  And there, perhaps, is the rub: “Official cooperation is least common among exonerations for highly aggravated and publicized crimes – murders with death sentences and mass child sex abuse prosecutions – and most common among exonerations for robberies and drug crimes.”

The best way to answer whether this increased cooperation represents any lessening of the resistance to science would be to look at the individual exoneration cases for 2012: do they feature law enforcement cooperation over these science-based issues, or is it something else — for example, information on a witness interviews illegally withheld from the defendant in a previous trial?

Perhaps we will see that in the next report from the Registry.

On Thursday April 4, and Friday April 5, I’ll be in Cincinnati for two discussions of Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (2012).  Both are free and open to the public.

On April 4, I’ll be discussing the book at 7:00 p.m. at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center, 3711 Clifton Avenue, Cincinnati OH 43220.  The event is sponsored by the ACLU of Ohio.

On April 5, I’ll present at talk at the University of Cincinnati College of Law at noon.  The address is  2540 Clifton Ave, Cincinnati, OH 45221.  The event is in Room 114.  The event is sponsored by the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Institute for Justice/Ohio Innocence Project.  The event has been approved for CLE credit for attorneys.

Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (NYU Press, 2012) has been reviewed in Chemical and Engineering News, the publication of the prestigious American Chemical Society.  The review, entitled “Why Criminal Law Ignores Science,” is both enthusiastic and nuanced.  Here’s a slice or two:

The [criminal justice] system desperately needs changes, and it needs them fast. In his book, “Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science,” David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, discusses the three most common causes of wrongful convictions, makes recommendations to help right the ship immediately as well as long term, and takes on law enforcement and prosecution that refuse to implement any meaningful changes—even in the face of scientific proof that doing so would decrease the number of wrongful convictions.

This “resistance to sound, science-based police investigative methods” is the theme of “Failed Evidence.” The book is an easy and informative read best suited for policymakers, scientists, advocates, judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, defense attorneys, and anyone with a general interest in the American criminal justice system. Truth be told, anyone who might find themselves sitting in the chair of a juror should read Harris’ book before sitting in judgment of a fellow human.

….

Harris paints a picture suggesting that together we can make a difference. We will never be perfect, but we can do things much better. “Ignoring science, when doing so increases the risk of wrongful convictions, simply does not square with justice or fairness,” he writes. Positive change must happen and as Harris concludes, “Justice demands no less.”

You can read the full review here.

Michael Mermel, formerly a lawyer in the State’s Attorney’s office in Lake County, Illinois, became famous as a the prototypical prosecutor resisting science — even DNA.  Readers will remember Mr. Mermel from my post “Resistance, Thy Name is Mermel” back in June of 2012.  When DNA results in four of the office’s cases did not support the guilty verdicts, Mermel made clear that the DNA results meant nothing to him.  Mermel eventually resigned from the office  after telling The Chicago Tribune: “The taxpayers don’t pay us for intellectual curiosity. They pay us to get convictions.”  Mermel’s boss,  State’s Attorney Michael Waller, was replaced after the last election by Mike Nerheim, who made restoring the damaged integrity of the office one of his top priorities.

Now Nerheim has acted.  He has appointed a special “case review board” to examine possible cases of wrongful convictions.   In a video clip posted on YouTube, Nerheim explained that since “Lake County, Illinois, unfortunately,  has been identified as having an issue  with wrongful convictions,” he had appointed a panel of “independent” lawyers  All of the six appointees “have no ties to these cases or to the office.”   According to Nerheim, an independent “fresh set of eyes” was critical in order to  “restore the public’s trust and confidence in the State’s Attorney’s Office.”

For making integrity of convictions a high priority for his office, Mr. Nerheim deserves credit and applause.  The only thing that seems off is the make up of the case review board.  According to The Chicago Tribune, four of the six members are former prosecutors; one of these four was a prosecutor in the Lake County office.  Without in any way impugning the integrity of the board members, their backgrounds may cause members of the community to perceive the board as less than fair — that the deck is stacked deck in favor of the prosecution.  I take no position on whether this is true or not; the concern is that if the function of this  very worthy panel is to restore trust and integrity, some citizens of Lake County may be less than fully impressed with the independence of the group.  One possible remedy would be to do what DA Craig Watkins has done with his Conviction Integrity Unit in Dallas: he has made the Texas Innocence Project an integral part of the Unit’s work.

Still, it’s important to congratulate Mr. Nerheim and everyone he serves in Lake County, Illinois.  Now things can start to get better, even if they aren’t perfect.

The current issue of the American Criminal Law Review has a review essay of Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (2012).   According to the review, the book “engages…broadly with forensics” to explore “why law enforcement and prosecutors have shown such marked reluctance to incorporate a modern understanding of the scientific method.”  The review concludes that Failed Evidence “provides a thoughtful analysis of the scientific bases underlying forensics, current evidentiary and investigatory problems, and possible solutions. [The] suggestions are particularly well thought-out because they consider the problems faced by law enforcement when implementing ideal solutions in the real world.”

You can read the full review here.

Good news: Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science is the Feb. 4 selection by delanceyplace.com, a service that highlights and quotes new works for a large community of readers.  Delancyplace.com provides daily subscribers with “an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context. There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, primarily historical in focus, and will occasionally be controversial. Finally, we hope that the selections will resonate beyond the subject of the book from which they were excerpted.”  Other recent selections have included Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies; Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815; and Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever.

 

I will be presenting a talk on my book Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science on Thursday, Jan. 31 at noon at the University of Toledo College of Law.  The College of Law is located at 2801 W. Bancroft, Toledo, 43606.  The talk, in the McQuade Auditorium, is free and open to the public.  Copies of Failed Evidence will be available for purchase and signing.  Further details on the event are here and here.

The talk will be recorded by WGTE, Toledo’s public television station, for its “Knowledge Stream” programs.

One thing that makes this presentation different from all the others I’ve done on Failed Evidence: I taught at the College of Law for almost 18 years, so for me this will be a kind of homecoming.  I’m hoping for the chance to see many friends.

The current issue of Science magazine contains a review of Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (NYU Press, 2012).  Here is a brief excerpt from the review:

Although science has long been recognized as our most reliable pathway to truth, people are sometimes reluctant to accept scientific evidence, particularly when it challenges established practices or cherished beliefs. In Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science, David A. Harris accuses police and prosecutors of unwarranted skepticism toward science and tries to explain their perspective. His provocative book will interest those concerned broadly with rejection of science as well as those interested in the U.S. criminal justice system.

Science is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

An article titled “Lawyers, Saying DNA Cleared Inmate, Pursue Access to Data” tells the story of the case of Joseph Buffey, a man imprisoned in West Virginia for 70 years for rape.  And Buffey’s story tells us something disturbing: control of DNA evidence in most states is in the hands of law enforcement.  Unfortunately, this can block defense efforts to get at the truth.

Buffey’s case features something common to more than a quarter of DNA exonerations: he confessed, and later entered a guilty plea and apologized, at the urging of his lawyer.    But Buffey then recanted his confession and maintained his innocence.  Years later, defense lawyers got the physical evidence tested, and the DNA did not belong to Mr. Buffey.

Defense lawyers then asked the state to run the sample against the state’s DNA database (known as CODIS, which stands for Combined DNA Index System).  The idea, of course, was that the DNA might have come from a person whose DNA was already in the database.

The state of West Virginia’s reaction: no thanks.  According to the article, the authorities in West Virginia said that “the state does not believe such testing will or can prove the defendant’s innocence after his guilty plea.”  West Virginia is one of the other thirty-one that do not give a defendant the right to have the sample run through the DNA database.

After 18 months of legal wrangling, West Virginia agreed to the test.  The result: the DNA belongs to a man incarcerated in another state prison with a history of assaulting women.

Naturally, Buffey’s lawyers are now working to get him out of prison.  But the more important thing to notice is that in West Virginia, as in most other states, DNA databases, constructed at great public expense, remain in control of one party to criminal cases: the prosecution.  They, and they alone, decide whether testing will be done, and under what circumstances.  And while we can certainly hope that requests to run DNA through the database will be granted, it can also be withheld when the state simply decides that this is not in its interest.

But the article contains something I had not seen before.  Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association is quoted as saying that he sees the failure to run DNA samples through CODIS as a problem that must be solved.

We, as law enforcement and prosecutors, are obligated to seek the truth and follow the evidence, and DNA should be entered into Codis,” said Burns.  “It seems like there should be laws for it, and I agree that the defense should be given the information.

Hats off to Mr. Burns and the NDAA if this is their official position.  (I say “if” because they have not always been open to such changes.)  In the next few days, I will attempt to confirm that the impression given by the story — that the organization would join in an effort to assure that DNA in a case like Buffey’s should be run — is correct.