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. Detroit ranks eleventh in population in the US.  If the ten cities larger than Detroit had the same error rate, we’d be talking about 5,000 false convictions per year in our 11 largest cities alone just from bogus firearms forensics.  (For those doing the math with me: weight by population.)  Not every city in the top ten has the same underlying rate of violence, and we can hope they have better crime labs.  Nevertheless, I bet 5,000 per year is a good guess for the number of false convictions per year in the nation attributable in part to bogus ballistics.

The audit is full of zingers.  For example, a “review of case records showed that 90% of the file jackets failed to contain a property receipt.”  In other words they have no chain of custody.  Equipment is not calibrated, records are not kept, technical reviews are performed by the examiners doing the original work, and so on.  One item reveals a trick used to maintain the lab’s epistemic monopoly.  The “audit team learned the results of some analyses are only provided verbally to investigators.  If needed, a report is authored after the fact.”  Without a lab report, let alone bench notes, how is the defense team going to question the results of the crime lab’s “analysis”?  Legal discovery is supposed to give the defense access to the prosecution’s evidence.  No report, no discovery.  No discovery, no review.  No review, no challenge to the police monopoly on forensic evidence.  F. A. Hayek saw that the “interaction of individuals, possessing different knowledge and different views, is what constitutes the life of thought.”  Monopoly forensics puts an end to truth because it blocks different views from entering.

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