Saturday, October 10, 2009

Maybe We Could At Least Treat It Like Rocket Science

Seven people who went to my high school, two of them my classmates, are Nobel laureates in physics. Science was just something we took seriously, even those of us with little interest in or aptitude for it. We got the idea that it was real and serious.

When folks come into court and testify as experts about how they've reviewed the evidence and applied the science and the studies and that such and such is true to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, they're supposed to be who they say they are and testifying as independent experts, free of bias and prejudice. They're supposed to be the wise men who will go where the evidence takes them without fear or favoritism.

Excuse me while I giggle.

There are two problems.

Some of the stuff they testify about is closer to myth than science. That's the case with, say, fingerprint or ballistic or bite mark comparisons (prior post here). Maybe they're right and maybe they're not, but there are no developed reliable standards that have been tested and validated. The "experts" are no more than trained lookers who claim that they can see things we mere mortals can't and, well, those things just prove what they say they do because, darn it, they do. And we, of course, must trust them. They are, after all, the experts.

At the worst, those mountebanks and charlatans send men to prison. Well, no, at the worst, they send men to death row. Actually, still no. At the worst, the men they send to death row based on myth and fantasy get executed in reality and then the governor who signed off on the death warrant after the charlatans have been exposed squelches the investigation of what might have happened. See here and here.

There's another sort of scientific fraud, too. They're the ones who just testify to what the government wants without ever, er . . . . My introduction was Ralph Erdmann. When I went to law school and began practice in Lubbock, Texas he was the county coroner, the forensic pathologist who examined the dead bodies and gave expert testimony about how they got that way. He also served as the contract coroner in many nearby counties in the panhandle.

Coroners are supposed to be those disinterested, pure scientists. Few of them are. They work closely with police, deal with the consequences of crime, and want to help. They work in a law enforcement atmosphere and it has a subconscious impact on even the best of them. Too many aren't the best.

The criminal defense bar knew Erdmann was no good. His testimony was skewed, routinely. He'd somehow support whatever cockamamie theory the state came up with. Some of it was obvious nonsense and way beyond his area of expertise. There was, for instance, the case of the woman who had been stabbed to death. She'd also had sex. It was, Erdmann testified, rape by a stranger rather than sex with her husband. How did he know? The semen was very close to the opening of the vagina, indicating, Erdmann said, that the man ejaculated early - which could, he said, only be a consequence of the excitement of a rape.

(On cross-examination he was asked if he'd ever heard of premature ejaculation. His answer was that he didn't have that problem.)

Shortly after I left Texas, Erdmann got caught. He testified about having weighed a man's spleen after removingt it during the autopsy. Nope. Erdmann didn't know that the man had had a spleenectomy some years before. Why didn't he know? Because he'd never actually cut open the body. (Story here.)

You know, autopsies are hard work and unpleasant. Much easier just to find out what the desired testimony is and give it. Saves everyone so much trouble.

Erdmann's not alone in doing shoddy (or non-existent) autopsies. In fact, it's a virtual epidemic in Texas. (See here.) But it's elsewhere, too. There's Charles Smith of Ontario, who may have been more incompetent than dishonest. Not so Dr. Eupin Choi in Chicago who simply lied in his autopsy reports or Michael Stelter of Winnebago County, Wisconsin, lied on the witness stand. And it's not, of course, just pathologists. See here for an impressive, if incomplete list of some of the forensic "experts" who got caught.

All of which probably helps explain why criminal defense lawyers are jaded. And why we take a certain mildly guilty satisfaction from seeing some of their bad guys get burned.

So with thanks to Paul Kennedy for pointing it out, a moment of silent schadenfreud, please, in honor of Deetrice Wallace who just got sentenced to a year in prison for faking inspections of Intoxilyzers used by police in a number of districts in and around Houston. More than 1,200 DWI convictions will be set aside. According to Harris County (that's Houston, Texas folks) Assistant District Attorney Terese Buess
It's just a massive problem that is not going to go away.
She added,
It's a huge mess.
Ya think?

I'm just a criminal defense lawyer. Incompetent and dishonest government "experts" help me make a living. But I'll forgo some of that and just make a simple suggestion: Hire people with integrity rather than whores and true believers. When they tell the truth, whatever it is, everyone benefits.

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