Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Hair and fiber review needn't center on death-penalty debate

It would be a shame if culture war debates over the death penalty were to overshadow an important inquiry by the Texas Forensic Science Commission into possible false convictions based on erroneous testimony by forensic analysts regarding hair and fiber comparisons. Yamil Berard at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Sunday offered up a story on the Forensic Science Commission's review of hair and fiber evidence (see here) for possible innocence cases, citing the case of a man executed in 2000 based solely on hair-comparison testimony. The article opened:
Claude Jones had always claimed that he was innocent of the 1989 murder of an East Texas liquor store owner. But DNA testing wasn’t available in time to save his life.

Not until a decade after Jones was executed did scientists using DNA analysis confirm that a hair found at the crime scene did not belong to Jones. It was the murder victim’s.

Across the nation, more than 70 exonerations have involved the improper use of hair sampling — a practice, now considered “junk science,” in which a strand of hair is examined under a miscroscope to identify the people who were at a crime scene.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission wants to determine whether anyone has been wrongly imprisoned by identifying older criminal cases in which microscopic hair fibers were used to convict people of rape, murder, robbery and lesser crimes. The goal is to use DNA to find out whether any other miscarriages of justice have occurred.

“We have a moral responsibility to find out,” said Arthur J. Eisenberg, a forensic science commissioner who is a DNA expert and a co-director of the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth.

The state’s top forensic watchdog agency is surveying crime labs large and small to learn the methods used to conduct hair analysis that did not involve verification with DNA. The Forensic Science Commission’s review is part of a national effort by the FBI and the Justice Department to clear up any false convictions due to improper hair comparisons.
The commission hopes that labs will self-report examples of miscroscopic hair analysis and dig up old reports, transcripts and testimony.
See a 2010 story from Dave Mann at the Texas Observer for more background on the Jones case. According to Mann, "His murder conviction was based on a single piece of forensic evidence recovered from the crime scene—a strand of hair—that prosecutors claimed belonged to Jones."

Long-time readers will recall how the commission's focus on the Todd Willingham case caused the Governor to intervene to stop the commission's review of old arson convictions. Rick Perry appointed since-ousted Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley to chair the FSC. Bradley immediately halted the arson inquiry, claiming it amounted to an end-run by death-penalty abolitionists. The episode delayed and nearly ended the arson review, which only resumed in earnest after the Texas Senate refused to confirm Bradley's appointment.

Really, though, the commission's inquiry into flawed arson science wasn't death-penalty specific and neither is the review of faulty hair analysis. Grits becomes frustrated that the media and some advocates prefer to frame every criminal justice issue in terms of the death penalty when the vast majority of convictions based on flawed forensics aren't capital cases. Mr. Jones' case may have been a travesty, but nothing the FSC does now will benefit him. The focus should be on boosting the integrity of the justice system in all cases, not rehashing tired culture war memes that distract from goals they can actually accomplish.

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Anonymous said...

Prosecutors love hair comparison. Especially when that's the only evidence they can concoct against an innocent defendant. I believe it would be completely impossible to revisit the thousands of cases since the 1970's where hair was the deciding factor. And lest we forget that it's not uncommon for police to plant blood, etc. at the scene to help their case when necessary:

Anonymous said...

While we are debunking junk science how about those unscientifically validated field sobriety tests that have been shown not to be good predictors of people being over .08. Yet they are still allowed in court in the most frequently tried type of case, DWI. I have had more than one judge admit that HGN IS "CRAP". It is crap based NHTSA'S own raw misinterpreted data. What needs to happen for courts to take notice of this nonsense like they have in shaken baby, arson, hair fiber and to a certain extent fingerprint evidence cases. Breath test machines are likely no more reliable than polygraphs, but we keep convicting people with them. Its not ok just because most of these demonized offenders don't go to jail for years absent an accident with injury or death. If we are falsely convicting 1 out of 10 tried cases and no telling how many pleas due to bad testing is that ok? Any pause? Not everyone can afford 8 to 10k for a top notch DWI defense to show the jury thru experts that the "science" and technology is often unreliable. States that have said HGN is not admissable have done so not because they were fooled, but because they have inquired more closely about the nature of this evidence instead of placing faulty tools in place to get more convictions.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@10:13, the Forensic Science Commission's jurisdiction was expanded this last legislative session and now would cover HGN, breath test machines, etc.. If you've got specific instances in mind, maybe a complaint to them would get them to investigate. I'd suggest contacting them to make sure you get the form of the complaint right so it meets their criteria, but that stuff is under their jurisdiction after September 1st when it wasn't before.

Blue_in_Guadalupe said...

I can see why advocates use death penalty cases when discussing convictions based on junk science since it is the most serious consequence of false conviction. In order to use it on DWI which the public sees as a conviction with a less serious consequence you need to show a lot more false convictions or a big celebrity to get attention.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BiG, I can see why children stick their fingers in moving metal fan blades but that doesn't make it wise to do so.