Sunday, August 16, 2015

95% Error Rate

They call themselves criminalists or forensic scientists or something with a fancy name.  They come into court explaining that they've done these tests hundreds of times.  There are, they say, a whole bunch of points of comparison.  And when they find a match, they can point to those points.  

You probably can't see those things certainly not without the forensic scientist pointing them out.  That's because you haven't been properly trained.  Had you been, just like those forensic scientists, you could see them.  And like those forensic scientists, you'd know.  Because, as they like to say on the witness stand, they're never wrong.

Except, of course, they are.  

Nearly 20 years ago, Fred Whitehurst blew the whistle on FBI's flawed, and sometimes dishonest, forensic work.  The Inspector General issued a scathing report.  The Department of Justice promised to review everything, opening case after case.  And then to right the wrongs.

In 2004, no wrongs having been righted, they stopped.  No flies on them.  Until they investigated again.  And concluded that just maybe.

I've written before about the FBI's "stunning" admission that hair comparison, the very hair comparison its forensic guys testified to thousands of times, is bullshit.  And while they claim they're getting the word out to the boatloads of folks who were convicted based on that testimony, well, we'll see how that goes.

While we wait, turn to Al Jazeera America Monday night for Fault Lines.*  Monday's show is "Under the Microscope: The FBI Hair Cases," and it tells that story.  

More, it tells of Joseph Sledge who spent 37 years in prison for a pair of rape murders he didn't commit.  It was an horrific crime scene.  Blood everywhere.  Everywhere except on Joe Sledge.  There were palmprints in the blood.  They weren't Joe's.  But there were also a handful of hairs.  Those, the FBI's crack hair analysts said, those were just like Joe's.  There are 16 points of comparison.  They matched up at all 16.

It tells the story of Kirk Odom, arrested at 18 for a rape he didn't commit.  But the hair, the hair.  And Santae Tribble.  He was 17 when the cops got him for murder.  There were 13 hairs.  It was a murder case.  The FBI had two of their forensic scientists look at them.  Match his hair, they both said.  

You know what happened next.  DNA testing on the hairs.  On the hairs that convicted Joe and Kirk and Stantae.  On the hairs that weren't theirs.  In Santae's case, one of the hairs that sent him down for murder, one of the 13 hairs hairs that the crack guys from the FBI told the jury was just like his, so, you know, . . . . That hair came from a dog.

A fucking dog.  Who he says probably committed the crime.

The bureau's released some preliminary reports on its latest round of reviews.  26 out of 28 of the forensic scientists made false claims at trials.  David Colapinto, General Counsel of the National Whistleblowers Association explains, 
We can now say, based on a statistically sizable sample of cases they have reviewed, [the FBI] were wrong 95% of the time.
They concede that their experts said things that weren't so in helping convict Odom and Tribble. They didn't find a problem in what their folks testified to in sending Joe Sledge to prison for murder.  It just happens that when DNA from the hairs in his case was analyzed, well, they were wrong.  Wasn't him. Just like he'd been saying since he was arrested.  

Because hair comparison, even when done right and testified to accurately, is bullshit.  The comparison microscope is a lovely thing.  But the FBI forensic folks who use it, they aren't scientists. And what they're doing isn't science.  

If you read this blog, you know all that.  You should watch the show anyhow.  It brings home the human dimension and slams home the real science.  And how else will you learn Joe Sledge's answer to the question:
What can they do make this right for you?

*Lest there be any confusion, Al Jazeera America's Fault Lines is not affiliated (so far as I can tell) with Lee Pacchia and Scott Greenfield's group blog Fault Lines at which I've been writing lately. 

NB: Thanks to Al Jazeera America for making the show available to me for review.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, I'll watch.

    What amazes me (and at the same time does not, for I hold most of the government in complete contempt) is the completely callous, unsolicitous attitude of the justice system when dealing with appeals like this one. As you know, I'm not an attorney, but I've put some hours of study and research into the appeal process, and I am truly dismayed by what I learned. Impartial? Dream on.