Posts Tagged ‘experts’

The Passions and the Interests in Forensic Science

April 17, 2012

by Roger Koppl

A front-page article  in yesterday’s Washington Post underlines the importance of establishing a substantive defense right to expertise in the US.

The article says, “Justice Department officials have known for years that flawed forensic work might have led to the convictions of potentially innocent people, but prosecutors failed to notify defendants or their attorneys even in many cases they knew were troubled.” The DoJ begin investigating in the 1990s “after reports that sloppy work by examiners at the FBI lab was producing unreliable forensic evidence in court trials.” As the Post article chronicles, the investigation was very narrowly drawn in spite of evidence that problems were likely more widespread. Read the rest of this entry »

Epistemic monopoly is still a bad thing

January 16, 2010

by Roger Koppl

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services has been distributing my op ed with Dan Krane on “Science rules the FBI should obey.”  We discuss an example of epistemic monopoly in action, namely, the FBI’s failure so far to release anonymized data from its vast NDIS (National DNA Index System) data set.  The NDIS data set contains the genetic profiles of more than 7 million people, most of whom have been convicted of serious crimes, such as rape.  It contains information on whether the practice of forensic DNA profiling aligns with DNA facts, but that information can be extracted only if scientists are allowed to study the data.  Why isn’t the FBI playing by the usual science rules requiring openness and data sharing?  Read the rest of this entry »

Now it’s official: forensic science is a mess

March 7, 2009

by Roger Koppl

The NAS released a much-anticipated report on forensic science last month.  The report said, “With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, however, no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”  That’s a much stronger statement than we might have expected.  The report identified several of the big problems with forensic including attachment to law enforcement.  The report advises Congress to create a new home for forensic science: the National Institute for Forensic Science (NIFS).  Basically, NIFS would take over forensic science and make sure everybody plays fair and does the right thing. 

The NAS proposal to create NIFS is a much better idea than many ThinkMarkets readers might at first imagine.  You might think it’s a bad idea to create another bloated government bureaucracy centralizing authority in Washington.  But we need to remember where authority exists today and what constrains that authority.  As the NAS report notes, the current system is “fragmented.” The opposite of liberty is arbitrary authority, and in many parts of our “fragmented” system, local authorities have unchecked discretionary authority.  Reason magazine’s Radley Balko gives us a jaw-dropping example of the abuse of forensic-science authority in Mississippi.  Sadly, other examples exist.  NIFS will have problems of its own, but it should be better than such arbitrary local authority.

The report is far from perfect.  It recommends research on “observer effects” in forensic science, but fails to recommend “sequential unmasking” as a corrective.  Nor does it recognize the importance of epistemic monopoly and the need for a defense right to forensic expertise.  It makes it impossible to pretend all is well in forensic science, however, and that’s a good beginning. 

A Gem in the Folded Palm of Forensic Science

January 15, 2009

by Roger Koppl

I’ve been railing against epistemic monopolies for a while now, particularly in forensic science.  This project complements Peart and Levy’s work on experts.  (See their symposium the 2008 Eastern Economics Journal, vol. 38 starting page 103.)  I keep insisting that we need redundancy to reduce error rates.  Economists, forensic scientists, and philosophers have all pressed me for data on error rates.  How big a problem is this really?  Read the rest of this entry »

Flaming torches and pitchforks

January 10, 2009

by Roger Koppl

Forensic scientist Brian Gestring laments “The Dawn of the ‘Forensic Science Provocateur’” in the latest CAC News.  That’s the newsletter of the California Association of Criminalists.  He objects to the “peripheral waves of lawyers and business professors that have . . . found a new calling, that of Forensic Science Provocateur.”  But wait, there’s more!  “Like a flock of peasants with flaming torches and pitchforks, their rhetoric abounds and obscures substace.”  

Gestring is having his rhetorical fun, but he is also engaging the so-called provocateurs.  I think many other forensic scientists, however, genuinely believe that only practicing forensic scientists have standing to “criticize” forensic science, where “criticize” tends to mean saying something they disagree with or don’t like.  Read the rest of this entry »

If redundancy is good enough for the rich and famous . . .

January 5, 2009

by Roger Koppl

According to Associated Press, “Bahamas using 2 experts for Travolta son autopsy.” (HT Ed Lopez.)  Actor John Travolta’s son Jett died tragically on Friday, January 2nd, after hitting his head in a fall.  (It seems he had an illness that left him subject to seizures.)  The E! News story says, “A government official confirms to E! News that the autopsy will be conducted in Freeport by two separate pathologists to ensure accuracy of the results.” 

I approve.  Neither pathologist should have an epistemic monopoly in this case.  I especially appreciate the use of pathologists who are “separate.”  They should not work together and each should remain ignorant of the other’s conclusions. 

The principle of redundancy in forensic science and medico-legal investigation is little more than common sense.  I often talk about it in terms of breaking the forensic or epistemic monopoly of our crime labs.  I also sometimes say, “My message to the forensic science community is simple: When you going motoring, put a spare tire in your trunk.”  It looks rather as if the authorities in the Bahamas have got the basic idea of redundancy in forensic science and medico-legal investigation – at least for the rich and famous.  Shouldn’t the same principle apply to indigent defendants in the criminal courts of the United States? 

Epistemic monopoly may let the bad guys get away

December 20, 2008

by Roger Koppl

The Chicago Tribune gives us another example of the trouble with epistemic monopolies.  They uncovered a case in which the police in the Chicago area city of Harvey, Illinois ignored a DNA match in a rape case.  In two other rape cases they did not submit the rape kit for analysis. 

Madison expressed the liberal dilemma in Federalist 51: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”  We should count the risks of epistemic monopoly among the dangers poised by the police powers of the state.  Short of full anarchy, which I don’t personally accept anyway, how could we introduce epistemic competition to municipal policing?

Who needs that new-fangled DNA anyway?

December 16, 2008

by Roger Koppl

It seems some police and prosecutors do not view DNA evidence as friendly to their cause.  I’ve come across two cases in which the police won’t use available DNA evidence.  Earlier I blogged about Baltimore, where the police were ignoring DNA evidence.  Now the Chicago Tribune reports, that in Lake County, Illinois, “authorities have sometimes pressed for convictions even when the DNA doesn’t match a suspect.”  The story recounts several episodes, including two in which the child victims “were found with semen in their bodies, and in both cases DNA tests revealed genetic profiles that do not match the defendants’ DNA.”  In one of those cases the authorities claimed the semen could have been picked up when the child played in the woods at spot known for romantic encounters. Read the rest of this entry »

The Technical Obsolescence of Forensic Fraud

December 6, 2008

by Roger Koppl

I gave a webcast yesterday on “How to Improve Forensic Science.”  Online questioners challenged me on a point that I now recognize to be underappreciated: The “ACE+V methodology” of fingerprint examination lets you shop your verifications.  Let me explain. Read the rest of this entry »

CSI: Detroit

December 3, 2008

by Roger Koppl

CSI: Detroit is looking a bit less glamorous than its TV cousins.  The Detroit Free Press reports that an audit of the Detroit Crime Lab was ordered when an outside expert discovered errors in the police forensics.  The audit reveals shocking deficiencies.  The forensics monopoly of the Detroit police was broken when one Detroit defense attorney, Marvin Barnett, introduced a little competition by hiring David Balash, a retired Michigan State Police firearms expert, to examine the prosecution’s firearms forensics.

In September the Michigan State Police released its preliminary audit.  They found a false positive error rate in ballistics of almost 10%.   The report notes that “the DPD firearms unit analyzes 1,800 cases per year,” which implies about 180 false convictions per year on bogus firearms evidence alone.  Read the rest of this entry »

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