How science is helping eliminate false convictions

In my post on the documentary The Thin Blue Line, I mentioned how in so many jurisdictions in the US the police, the prosecutors, and even the medical examiners offices are so determined to pin the crime on someone that they are willing to manufacture evidence or overlook or even actively suppress evidence that suggests that they might have the wrong person. Fortunately, there has been an increase in private individuals and pro bono lawyers who have taken an interest in such cases and there have been some high-profile releases of wrong incarcerated people.

But you have to wonder how many cases are still unresolved or where the convicted person has even been executed despite being innocent, and as a consequence how many murderers are walking the streets free to commit other crimes. If the fact that innocent people may die at the hands of the state is not enough to persuade people that the death penalty should be abolished, I don’t know what will.

Jordan Smith writes about Kristin Lobato’s case where, based on scientific testimony, she was freed in October 17 years after being convicted of a particularly grisly murder.

Lobato was twice convicted of the gruesome murder of a 44-year-old homeless man named Duran Bailey, whose body was found behind a dumpster off the Las Vegas Strip just after 10 p.m. on July 8, 2001, covered in a thin layer of trash. Bailey’s teeth had been knocked out and his eyes were bloodied and swollen shut; his carotid artery had been slashed, his rectum stabbed, and his penis amputated. It was found among the trash nearby.

Despite a crime scene rich with potential evidence, Las Vegas detectives Thomas Thowsen and James LaRochelle ignored obvious leads and instead focused their investigation on 18-year-old Lobato, based solely on a third-hand rumor.

Lobato, who was a stranger to Bailey, had an alibi for the day of the crime: She was at home with her parents in the small town of Panaca, nearly three hours northeast of Las Vegas near the Utah state line. Still, detectives and prosecutors insisted that Lobato had been in the city during the early morning hours of July 8, killing Bailey before setting off in her old Pontiac Fiero for the long drive up the unlit, mountainous highway, making it home in time to get cleaned up before being seen around the neighborhood later that morning.

In an earlier report on the case, Smith described the tortuous reasoning used by the prosecutors in order to get a conviction

Prosecutors conceded that she was in Panaca for most of that day, but argued that Lobato had been in Vegas in the wee hours of July 8 when she came across Bailey, who she savagely beat and murdered before hopping in her Pontiac Fiero and blazing a trail up an unlit, two-lane mountainous state highway for home. Under the state’s convoluted theory, Lobato made it home so quickly that she was seen goofing off around the neighborhood on a four-wheeler late that morning.

Although ludicrous, the state received significant help in peddling its lame tale via the Clark County medical examiner, Lary Simms, who autopsied Bailey’s body and came up with an estimated time of death. Though his original opinion would all but exclude Lobato from committing the crime, by the time he testified at her 2006 trial, he had widened the time-of-death window just enough to allow the prosecutors to charge Lobato with the crime. It worked.

In an appeal, Lobato argued that her lawyers should have called in expert forensic pathologists to more accurately determine the time of death and the Nevada Supreme Court ordered that a lower court should examine her claim. When that happened, what convinced the judge that the case against Lobato was false was evidence from expert scientists about what we can infer from the absence of certain features in the crime scene.

Over a week in October, that hearing was held in Miley’s courtroom in downtown Las Vegas. Represented by lawyers from the Innocence Project, Lobato presented strong evidence that the state’s time-of-death estimation was off by hours. According to three distinguished forensic entomologists presented by Lobato’s lawyers, there was no way that Bailey’s bloody body had been left outside all day in the Vegas heat before being found. Had he been he would have been covered with blowfly eggs — nature’s ubiquitous first responders to scenes of death. But there was no such evidence on his body, leading them each to conclude that Bailey was killed sometime around sunset that evening, after the blowflies had wrapped up their work for the day.

But the prosecutor’s office tried to argue against this evidence by arguing, with no supporting evidence, that flies in Las Vegas behave differently from flies everywhere else in the world.

Given that entomology is based on centuries of research and knowledge, it would be hard to argue with the scientists’ conclusions, but that didn’t stop prosecutor Sandra DiGiacomo from giving it a shot. The scientists hadn’t studied blowfly activity in Las Vegas, she argued, so they couldn’t actually say what the local blowflies would or would not do. And, she argued, it just so happens that in Las Vegas, not every dead body attracts flies — even though she had scant evidence to support her claim. In short, DiGiacomo’s defense of Lobato’s conviction was that in Vegas blowflies are exceptionally picky.

Why are prosecutors so determined to keep innocent people in jail or even sentence them to death? One possible it is that they want the public to view the justice system as infallible. Another possible reason is that the state can be sued for wrongful convictions and have to pay out huge damages. And I hope they are sued for huge sums of money. True, it is the taxpayers who will pay for the disregard for truth by the members of the justice system. But it is only then that they will be more cautious about sending innocent people to prison or death.

And as far as we know, the brutal murderer of Duran Bailey is still walking around freelyy. Who know how many other crimes, even murders, he has committed since?


  1. says

    But the prosecutor’s office tried to argue against this evidence by arguing, with no supporting evidence, that flies in Las Vegas behave differently from flies everywhere else in the world.

    At least they’re not Magic Grits:

  2. says

    “Why are prosecutors so determined to keep innocent people in jail or even sentence them to death?”

    Because their employment depends on having a high rate of conviction — as long as they got somebody locked up, that’s a point in the “win” column regardless of factual guilt or innocence.

  3. says


    Which is why having elected officials in a justice system completely wrecks the idea of “justice”. One of the most galling things I’ve ever seen was an elected judge commercial in the States where the candidate mentioned his conviction rate and all I could think was THAT’S NOT A JUDGE’S FRIGGIN’ JOB! Conservatives in particular love to whine about “unelected judges” but give me those any day. Of course, the reason they complain about them is that unelected judges are free to follow the actual constitution (or charter of rights up here in Canada).

  4. jrkrideau says

    @ Tabby Lavalamp
    “an elected judge commercial in the States”
    I used to watch Due South occasionally and one of the funniest one-liners was when the district attorney whose ads we have seen plastered all over the city during the program shakes hands with Constable Benton Fraser (Paul Gross) and says he’s running for reelection.

    Gross replies, perhaps a bit dryly, “I know”.

    As an aside, I never did manage to convince that fellow in Scotland that Due South was a documentary.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *