A story on National Public Radio highlights one of the central themes of”Failed Evidence: how does the criminal justice system react to advances in science that throw past convictions into doubt? The answer will not surprise readers of this blog or Failed Evidence: they resist.
The story concerns the case of William Richards, convicted in 1997 of murdering his wife. The conviction came in a fourth trial, after two hung juries and a mistrial failed to result in a verdict. In the fourth trial, the prosecution introduced new evidence: testimony by a forensic dentist, who said that marks seen in a photograph of the victim’s body were human bite marks . The marks, he said, were unusual enough that they were likely to have been made by the defendant’s distinctive teeth. Ten years later, another forensic dentist corrected a distortion in the photo of the marks, using photo editing software. Now, the first forensic dentist says the marks weren’t from human teeth at all, and he says that he should not have testified as he did. Yet the defendant remains in prison, serving 25 years to life.
There’s a lot that is familiar here — too much.
First, the idea that bite mark identification should ever play a role — let alone the key role — in convicting someone and sending them to prison is just intolerable. I have posted about the weakness of bite mark analysis before (here), and Richards’ case demonstrates the point all over again. The forensic dentist who put Richards in prison testified that the bite mark (that turned out not to be a bite mark) was so distinctive that he estimated that only one or two out of a hundred people could have made it. The idea that such an estimate — not at data-based study, but his personal estimate — of such a low probability could ever be considered for admission in a court should make everyone shiver.
Second, the story gives us the reaction of Jan Scully, past president of the National District Attorneys Association and the elected District Attorney of Sacramento County, California. Scully says there is something more important than the fact that the central evidence in the case has been fatally undermined. According to the NPR story:
“We need to have finality of verdicts,” she says. “There is always a new opinion or there might be a refinement in our forensic science areas. So, just because something new occurs doesn’t mean that the original conviction somehow was not valid.”
In other words, it’s the same old story from the NDAA: there is no significance to the demonstrated falsity of the “science” that was used to put a man in prison. It is more important for the verdict to remain undisturbed.
It’s hard to imagine a story that captures the ideas in Failed Evidence more strongly. Go to the story, and check it out.