Friday, May 25, 2012

Just Another Day at the Office

Fingerprints, shoe prints, bite mark comparisons, hair and fiber comparisons, ballistics. They're all bullshit.  Oh, the claimed matches might be right.  Then again, maybe not.
The folks who do them claim perfection.
When I've concluded that the fingerprint couldn't belong to anybody else in the world, then it's a match. . . . There is no error rate because once I'm certain it can't be anyone else in the world, then it's done.
That's from an actual trial transcript.
As I say, it's bullshit.
It's not that the folks who do the comparisons are dishonest (though too many are) or incompetent (though too many are).  It's that there are no standards.  All those forensic examinations? They're just the work of paid lookers. 
You know, they get a fancy microscope and look at two things.  If they look enough alike, they're a match.  You may not see the similarity, but you aren't a trained looker.  And you don't understand that there can't be errors because each fingerprint, each fiber and hair and striation and mark is unique and unchanging.
Except, well, we don't actually know that.  And even if it's true, we don't know how to tell when two of these things are so similar that they match.  I mean, how close is close enough?  And, of course, we're not talking about matching two pristine exemplars.  At least one was taken in the rough, after all.  That's the one they want to match, to be able to say
This guy left this smudged partial finger/palm/boot/tire/bitemark/whatever at the scene of the crime and we know it was him because the smudge has similarities to this carefully made version with vastly more detail made in the lab.  You can't tell that just by looking, but I can.  Because I'm a trained looker.
Or something.
Which, as I said, is bullshit.
Just ask Brandon Mayfield.  He's the lawyer in Oregon who didn't leave a fingerprint on the bag holding the detonating devices cops in Spain found after the Madrid train bombing.  You know, the guy that three of the FBI's top fingerprint analysts identified because his print matched the smudge.
It was, they said, 100%.
Which is, as it happens, exactly the percentage by which those crackerjack experts were wrong.
Because it's bullshit. (Have I mentioned that?)
The Philadelphia police department has 12 trace evidence analysts in their crime lab.  Six of them were recently given a routine competency test.  Three flunked.  The agency that gives the test hasn't told the Philly PD which three.
So we know that at least a quarter of the time the analyst's reports are altogether unreliable. We just don't know which ones those are. No doubt that will make the folks who are doing time as a result of the quackerie feel better.
Michael Short worked as a criminalist at the Stark County Crime Lab in Canton, Ohio for 21 years.  He was fired last week for, according to Ed Balint in the Canton Repository, 
falsified reports . . .  improper job performance and insubordination.
The thing is, this stuff isn't really news.  It happens regularly, and it's a real problem.  Hell, I've written about it repeatedly.
And of course, it isn't just forensics.
Consider confessions.  
The night of April 19, 1989, Patricia Meili went for an evening run in Central Park. Along the way, she was attacked, raped, tied up, viciously beaten, and left for dead, which she nearly was when her moaning body was found several hours later lying in a pool of mud and blood. Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana, Jr. all confessed to participating in the rape and beating.  
Sarah Burns, in The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (different subtitle for the paperback) tells how the cops gulled them into the confessions.  Their stories were inconsistent, didn't match the facts, made almost no sense.  Oh, and the DNA wasn't from any of them. But they confessed. The cops believed the confessions. The prosecutors believed the confessions. The jurors believed the confessions. The media believed the confessions.
As it happens, the confessions were so much bullshit.
The cops didn't beat them (though there may have been a slap).  The cops didn't torture them.  The cops just preyed on their gullibility and their youth.  (Korey was 16, the others 14 and 15.) 
Tell us you're guilty and you can go home.
So they told.
And they went to prison.
For years.  And years.
For a crime committed by Matias Reyes, which the cops would have figured out had they been paying attention at the time.  And if they could have imagined they could have been mistaken. Burns writes, tellingly.
Despite a prosecutor's obligation to seek justice, it seems that at that moment [when the DNA results came back], winning the case trumped investigating the evidence.
After all, they had these five kids.
Who confessed.
A true story
The state's whore expert had just testified that he'd done a chemical analysis of the powder and it was, in fact, cocaine. He was, he explained, experienced.  He did about 10,000 tests a year.  During cross-examination, here's what happened.
Defense Attorney:        Ten thousand tests a year?  Is that what you said?
Expert:                         Yeah, about that.
Defense Attorney:        Did you do any of them right?

1 comment:

  1. Persecutor: Objection, Yerhonner! That ambulance chaser is trying to cast aspersions on my Expert.
    Judge: Sustained.

    Our system of (in)justice never ceases to amaze me. Truly, it takes a government to screw something up this badly.

    While it's certainly true that the system is FUBAR, there is plenty of blame to go around. The parents fail to teach their children the truth about the police, what a policeman will help you with and what you should talk about if you're ever arrested.

    My other gripe is with the attorney, who (we all hope) knows how the law works and how it really works, but also knows all about forensic evidence. How many criminal attorneys defend someone in a gun crime or a crime involving firearms but have never once been to the range and don't have the faintest idea about the very real differences between the Glock a cop carries in NYC and the Glock his client hauled out of the sock drawer at three in the morning and used to ventilate a choir boy led astray? When was the last time you went out to the range, Jeff?

    Then there's the absolute CRAP about Linda S. Cook, who never did any time at all for her crime. Sure, she's disbarred in Ohio, but so what? That lady belongs in the big house.

    And I'm not even going to say the 'Z' word...