The Passions and the Interests in Forensic Science

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. Continue reading

We should pay more attention to Radley Balko

by Roger Koppl

On June 14th, Radley Balko posted an article on Huffington Post entitled “Private Crime Labs Could Prevent Errors, Analyst Bias: Report.”  He explains some of the problems of forensic science in the US.  He suggests that “rivalrous redundancy” could improve the system and links to my 2007 Reason Foundation Report explaining how rivalrous redundancy works. 

For years, Radley has documented shocking problems in the American criminal justice system from no-knock warrants, to the snitch system, to forensic science.  He contributed to the July 2011 special issue of Reason magazine on “Criminal Injustice.”  The criminal justice system is the great fulcrum point where the power of the state meets the people.  We need to be more conscious of the problems of our criminal justice system and the risks to our liberties created by those problems.  And liberty loving scholars need to think harder about the nature of the problem and what to do about it.

Epistemic monopoly is still a bad thing

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?  Continue reading

Flaming torches and pitchforks

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.  Continue reading

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

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

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?

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. Continue reading

CSI: Detroit

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.  Continue reading

See “How to Improve Forensic Science” Live on the Internet

by Roger Koppl

On December 4th BrightTalk is running a “Forensic Science and Law Summit.”  I’ll be giving a talk at 1:15 p.m. Eastern time.  I’ll be using the slides from my presentation to the National Academy of Sciences committee on “Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community.”  It’s free and you can type in questions in real time as I present.  I will discuss a suite of reforms that would break the fornsic science monopoly.

I don’t expect to discuss the fingerprint scandal in Los Angeles in my BrightTalk presentation.  But I would like to talk about it here.  In October of this year an internal audit revealed problems with fingerprint identifications in Los Angeles.  The report, says the LATimes, “highlighted two cases in which criminal defendants had charges against them dropped after problems with the fingerprint analysis were exposed.”  These two were cases that were caught in time to avoid a false conviction. 

How many cases are we really talking about?  Continue reading

Truth-challenged police forensics in Baltimore

by Roger Koppl

Most people think DNA evidence is bulletproof.  Molecular biologist and forensic scientist Dan Krane has very nice presentation on some of the problems that can arise in this area.  When the biological sample is mixed, degraded, or small, the evidence can be ambiguous, which allows subjective judgment to enter.  Recent events in Baltimore point to another problem that has nothing to do with such ambiguity.

On September 27th, the Baltimore Sun reported, “In at least nine homicide, sex assault and burglary cases, Baltimore police detectives instructed crime lab technicians not to follow up on convicted criminals’ DNA found on evidence at crime scenes because they determined it was not relevant to their investigations.”  The police have a plausible explanation.  “Police spokesman Sterling Clifford played down the significance of the discovery, saying detectives routinely make judgment calls on evidence.”  Moreover, says Clifford, “Very often those crime scenes are enormous, sometimes covering entire city blocks.”  Continue reading