Bad Forensic Evidence. Again.


A year ago, it was revealed that the Department of Justice had done a review of hundreds of cases involving hair and fiber analysis and found that hundreds of people may have been wrongfully convicted as a result of shoddy and overclaimed work at an FBI crime lab. They didn’t bother to report that to the defendants or their lawyers, but now one man is getting a retrial after 32 years in prison.

A Maryland judge has thrown out the murder convictions and ordered a new trial for a man imprisoned for nearly 32 years in a notorious 1981 double killing in Harford County, faulting scientific errors in the testimony of several FBI forensic experts.

Frederick County Circuit Court Judge G. Edward Dwyer Jr. made the ruling after a new DNA test in March refuted key FBI statements in the 1983 trial of John Norman Huffington, who is now 50.

The genetic testing contradicted testimony by an agent with the FBI Laboratory who said that he found Huffington’s hair in the bed where one victim was killed, claiming an accuracy rate of 99.98 percent.

“Due to the substantial weight given to the microscopic hair analysis by the jury . . . as well as the results of the DNA test . . . there is a significant possibility that the outcome of Petitioner’s case may have been different,” Dwyer wrote in a May 1 order that Huffington’s lawyers received Wednesday.

And this happens as a man in Mississippi came within a few hours of being executed after being convicted on the same type of evidence. The state supreme court had initially refused to order DNA testing that could confirm the conviction or exonerate the defendant, but they issued a last minute stay after the DOJ intervened and sent a letter explaining the problems with that testing found in other cases.

Comments

  1. unbound says

    But, but…if you watch CSI and Hawaii Five-O and Bones, etc., you know that torture / intimidation and scientific analysis are always 100% effective. How dare you contradict what people see on their fictitious shows…

  2. says

    This sort of thing is my biggest reason for being against the death penalty. I don’t see much point in arguing over the ethics of executing those guilty of horrible crimes when I lack confidence in the system’s ability to determine that guilt in the first place.

  3. says

    This is one of the reasons the death penalty is not used in Canada anymore.

    Too many mistakes during trials, and too much ‘expert’ opinion gone awry.

    We had a forensic child pathologist (now disgraced) who was responsible for ruining many, many lives.

    Don’t ever confuse justice and fairness.

  4. says

    This, beyond anything else, is why we must oppose capital punishment: it is a Final Solution (analogy intended) that does not allow for miscarriages of justice to be corrected.

  5. says

    This is why I’m only theoretically supportive of the death penalty. I believe that for some types of criminals, the kindest thing you can do for them and society is to put them to death.

    And as soon as there is some way to be both 100% positive someone committed the crime and that someone is beyond redemption, I’ll actually support the death penalty. Until then, not so much.

  6. says

    @WithinThisMind #7 – I believe that if we are going to execute people, then every single person involved in getting that sentence — judges, jurors, prosecutors, police officers, everyone — must be present at the time sentence is carried out. Make them watch as the person they helped to kill is killed. Putting people to death should never be an easy, out of sight/out of mind experience.

  7. says

    Synfandel “And all crimes are solved in 42 minutes plus commercial time.”
    Commercial time or…[takes off sunglasses]…commercial crime?

  8. Doug Little says

    I believe that if we are going to execute people, then every single person involved in getting that sentence — judges, jurors, prosecutors, police officers, everyone — must be present at the time sentence is carried out. Make them watch as the person they helped to kill is killed. Putting people to death should never be an easy, out of sight/out of mind experience.

    Since we are talking hypothetically I think that there should be real ramifications (like life in prison) if they get it wrong.

  9. cry4turtles says

    Perhaps there should be some sort of peer-review process with forensic evidence.

  10. CaitieCat says

    One of the small social-justice issues that Tolkien got right (love the books, hate the racism/sexism/classism of the author).

    Gandalf (speaking to Frodo about Gollum deserving death now, being rather a bad fellow): “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

    That it’s, isn’t it? We can’t give life, only death. Meaning we have to be sure, if we’re going to do it in the name of the people. Until we can be sure, we can’t be putting people to death. We can’t do much about false imprisonment except to make sure they have a comfortable life in what they’ve got left. But we can’t do anything about false execution.

  11. David C Brayton says

    I’ve always been uncomfortable with the argument that we should impose the death penalty only if we are sure of the verdict. (See comment #2, #4, #5.)

    It seems that people are arguing that the current error rate in convictions is OK if we don’t killing the alleged perpetrator . It’s as if sending an innocent person to prison, a soul-sucking, violent place, for 50+ years is fine.

    No it isn’t. The system must do better. It must produce good results before the punishment is considered.

  12. naturalcynic says

    Perhaps there should be some sort of peer-review process with forensic evidence.

    That’s why the defense can call its own expert witnesses. If they can afford them.

  13. says

    Perhaps there should be some sort of peer-review process with forensic evidence.
    IIRC there was a NOVA on forensic evidence that concluded just about exactly that. Most experts agreed that the only actual scientific evidence shown in court is DNA evidence because the method was developed outside forensics so it was exposed to actual peer review, testing, etc.
    Even finger prints fail blind testing. And there is no real accreditation for forensic experts.
    The entire ‘expert testimony’ in the legal system relationship needs to be massively overhauled. And the people responsible for bringing bad science into the court room need to be held accountable.

  14. lochaber says

    cry4turtles>

    It would never get published, and we can’t go questioning our law enforcement officials, now. :(

    I’ve heard a few different places (can’t remember where…) that even our fingerprinting methods wouldn’t hold up to the standards as peer-reviewed research.

    If only we could impartially examine evidence and see where it leads, instead of twisting and torquing it to fit prior assumptions

  15. says

    “That’s why the defense can call its own expert witnesses. If they can afford them.”

    Incorrect. Evidence that is not scientifically valid or witnesses that are not actual experts are supposed to be barred in the first place by the judge as they are prejudicial even with a rebuttal witness.

  16. says

    There was a study on fingerprinting where the exact same sets were given to the exact same examiners with a different crime listed (an obvious issue in the first place)
    50% changed their opinions as to wither they were a match.

    The FBI called fingerprints 100% reliable until they were openly proven wrong, and they did not change or challenge the procedure just changed the wording they use on the stand.

    Hair and fiber evidence is a joke.

    The FBI was matching bullets with multiple in-between bullets and calling the two ends a mach (think ring species)… then not telling the court how they came up with that match.

  17. says

    @9 – You misunderstand, but then, I didn’t really clarify either.

    Let’s take, for example, somebody who ‘got away’ with their crime. Let’s take Mengele. Let’s stipulate that his guilt is not in question.

    My support of the death penalty comes from this thought process –

    If he does not feel remorse for his crime, then he is irredeemable, and it is best for society that he be put to death. If he does feel remorse for his crime, then how can he possibly live with himself and it is best, for him, that he be allowed to die.

    Either way, I don’t really feel all the witnesses, prosecutors, etc… should need to be there for his execution anymore than I feel I needed to get everyone who ever played fetch with my dog down to the vet when I had my dog put out of his misery.

    Because it isn’t about revenge, or punishment. I think we focus too much on punishment when the goal should be rehabilitation.

    But that leaves us with the problem of those that cannot be rehabilitated. Which is less cruel if the goal is to keep someone out of society – life in prison with no chance of ever returning to the outside world and extremely limited contact with that world, or death?

    I believe everyone has the right to die if they so choose, so I believe a criminal has the right to select the death penalty if they feel they can no longer live with themselves. And I believe if someone cannot be rehabilitated or redeemed in any way, death may be the best option.

    But the second is a moot point, because there is currently no way to A) be that perfectly assured of guilt and B) tell the difference between someone who could, with the right help, be able to one day rejoin society, and those like, well, Mengele.

    So while I am in theory okay with the death penalty, I oppose it.

  18. ricko says

    I live in Wisconsin, we haven’t had the death penalty except for the one case when we first got statehood, and that was enough to get the good people here embaressed.

    I can’t stand people who are so confused on this issue: It’s not a defensible issue. You are taking a LIFE. The end. YOu would need a whole lot of support for that, and you don’t have it.

  19. Rip Steakface says

    @20

    It sounds more like you’re okay with it under an impossible set of circumstances, making your philosophical support practically useless, not to mention (unintentionally of course) providing ammunition to those who actually support it on a more broad basis.

  20. slc1 says

    Re RH @ #19

    Fingerprints are reliable, provided that the number of points of identification is sufficient (in California, 12 is required, in federal court, 9 is required, in Virginia, 8 is required). Unfortunately, fingerprint examiners are not always reliable. The trouble is that there has not been a definitive study on how many points of identification are really required to exclude everybody except the accused.

    Some of the early DNA, particularly first generation PCR, systems required the examiner to make judgements. This was particularly true of the DQAlpha system that many police departments employed in the 1990s.

  21. says

    @22 –

    That’s why I tend not to discuss it with the general public. It’s kind of shitty to do ‘thought experiments’ when real people are being affected.

    The death penalty is only a ‘good’ under an impossible set of circumstances, ergo, the death penalty should be done away with. It’s kind of like my stance on psychics – gee, it would sort of be cool if such a thing were real/possible, but since it’s not, certain folks need to go to jail for fraud.

  22. bad Jim says

    The problem with the death penalty, the reason Justice Blackmun said “I will tinker no more with the machinery of death”, I think, is that it is never fairly imposed. A black man who kills a white man is likely to be executed, but a white who kills a black is not. A poor man will meet a different fate than a rich man.

    The outcome inevitably has less to do with the enormity of crime than the socioeconomic status of the suspect, and that’s not fair. Right or wrong, it’s not fair.

  23. thumper1990 says

    @WithinThisMind #20

    Either way, I don’t really feel all the witnesses, prosecutors, etc… should need to be there for his execution anymore than I feel I needed to get everyone who ever played fetch with my dog down to the vet when I had my dog put out of his misery.

    Non-sequitur. The people who played fetch with your dog were not directly responsible for your dog’s death. The people who condemn a prisoner to death quite clearly are. Causing someone’s death should never be an easy thing to do, and being made to watch the execution would stop vengeful bloodthirsty morons from handing out death sentences like scouts hand out cookies.

  24. kermit. says

    thumper1990: . Causing someone’s death should never be an easy thing to do, and being made to watch the execution would stop vengeful bloodthirsty morons from handing out death sentences like scouts hand out cookies.
    .
    No, I’m afraid that if this were made part of the process, it would punish the sane and reward the bloodthirsty. Also, we would still have the problem of socioeconomic status of the accused having more to do with his sentence than the quality of the evidence. It is easier to watch or accept a lesser being die than, you know, one of us.
    .
    I’m all for killing people if it saves lives; the confusion, desperate nature, and time constraints of cop shootouts, self-defense, or war make killing reasonable in many situations. But once we have him in custody, that seems unnecessary. Even Hannibal Lector can be restrained or put into solitary as needed.

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