Interviewing Brady Mills
Here's an interview with Brady Mills, the man in charge of all Texas DPS crime labs, from Forensic magazine in May on the topic of confronting flawed forensic science. Grits learned from the article that Mills is past president of
Rapid DNA and 'black box' software
In that interview, Mills discussed "rapid DNA," which refers to systems where a machine analyzes a swab and spits out a result without human interpretation. The other day, some of the nation's leading experts cautioned against using "black box" software systems alone to analyze DNA, insisting that human interpretation was required to understand where certain assumptions may lead to error. (Once assumptions become embedded in code, they become invisible and thus harder to detect and correct.) Rapid DNA sounds like it's headed in the black-box direction, perhaps problematically automating judgments that require more nuance than code can afford. That's certainly a concern on mixture cases, given what we now know about them. So far, no Rapid DNA system has been validated for use in forensic labs, but several companies are trying.
Indulging schadenfreude, or, we're screwed up but we're not Massachussetts
The Annie Dookhan fiasco in Massachussetts, where a crime lab worker intentionally framed defendants through faked forensic results, depicts the worst case scenario for a crime lab, with thousands of defendants potentially eligible to have their convictions overturned. Now, it turns out another forensic chemist in Massachussetts stole drugs and replaced them with counterfeit, potentially calling into question thousands more cases. These episodes call to mind the Jonathan Salvador mess in Texas, but that was on a much smaller scale. He handled about 5,000 cases and only a quarter to half of those were called into question. As that debacle demonstrated, though, just because hundreds or even thousands of people are eligible for relief doesn't mean that many will eventually get it. The systems for notifying defendants and getting them lawyers just aren't there.
Not West Virginia, either
In the New York Times Magazine this week, Emily Bazelon previewed a case at the West Virginia Supreme Court which will determine whether the state is obligated to turn over exculpatory DNA evidence after a defendant has entered a plea. Under Texas statutes and case law, the answer would clearly be "yes," there's an obligation to turn it over under the Michael Morton Act. Moreover, a guilty plea would not preclude a future innocence claim (Ex Parte Tuley). But Bazelon mentioned that, "The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [which includes Texas] has repeatedly ruled that 'a guilty plea waives the right' to claim that your right to exculpatory evidence has been violated." So maybe it's not perfect, but thank God for the Michael Morton Act, and in the case of Ex Parte Tuley, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals!
Might flawed field tests contribute to Harris County drug exonerations?
Texas has witnessed dozens of cases out of Harris County where defendants are exonerated months or years after they plead guilty because a crime lab determines the substance they were charged with possessing wasn't drugs. Nobody knows for sure why this is happening, except that people plead guilty - often to time-served or probationary sentences - because they can't afford bail to get out of jail. But why are so many falsely accused in the first place? A theory presents itself from a couple of stories about erroneous field test results. One test can confuse soap or candy for drugs, while in Australia, a man was jailed when epsom salts were confused for meth. I wonder if faulty field test results help explain the rash of Harris County drug-case exonerations? They're up to more than 80 so far and insiders tell Grits to expect dozens or even hundreds more before the situation is resolved.