No clear way to track down junky bite-mark cases
The Dallas News has a high-powered team - Brandi Grissom and Jennifer Emily - covering the Steven Chaney bite mark case and the Forensic Science Commission review of bite mark cases. They reported Monday that "Tracking down dozens — maybe hundreds — of other potentially innocent victims of junk science won’t be ... easy. There is no central repository of cases in which bite-mark testimony was key. There’s no database of dentists who testified about bite marks. And the cases are mostly decades old, and experts, defense lawyers and prosecutors have moved on or died."
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered an examination into overstated ballistics testimony from an expert in Arthur Brown, Jr.'s 22-year old capital murder trial, in which he was prosecuted along with an already-executed accomplice for a quadruple killing in a botched drug transaction. Reported the Houston Chronicle:
Brown was scheduled for execution in October 2013 but received a stay to allow for forensic testing of evidence. An accomplice, Marion Dudley, 33, was executed in 2006.See the court's order.
On Wednesday, the appeals court judges acted on Brown's November 2014 appeal in which he asserted that Houston Police Department ballistics expert C.E. Anderson "testified falsely or in a materially misleading manner" in his case. Judges held that the claim met state standards warranting review.
Paging Antonin Scalia: On the right to confront the boss of your accuser
The Court of Criminal Appeals also ruled that the requirements of the Sixth Amendment's "Confrontation Clause" may be met for "batch DNA testing" by a crime lab supervisor testifying based on computer printouts instead of the lab workers who conducted the analysis. Judge David Newell is of course correct that neither the CCA nor SCOTUS have ever "squarely answered this question." SCOTUS said that sworn affidavits are insufficient, but not whether a supervisor can testify based on the work of her subordinates. But one certainly wonders what Antonin Scalia might say about it. It's hard for this non-attorney to understand why relying on data generated by non-testifying lab analysts is different from relying on an affidavit to which they did not testify.
Are black-box calculations problematic for DNA mixtures?
Next year, the Department of Public Safety and most other Texas labs will shift to "probabilistic genotyping" to analyze DNA mixture evidence, a method which supposedly is superior even to the adjusted calculations which are currently available. However, that method relies on proprietary programs with black-box systems for which the makers will not release their code, similar to the situation surrounding proprietary breathalyzer algorithms which accuse defendants based on computer code which their attorneys and the court cannot see nor evaluate. See good discussions of the topic from Slate and Ars Technica. Moreover, as Grits reported earlier, because of the nature of the calculations, results based on probabilistic genotyping will be different every time - they're not replicable, in addition to not being transparent. So, while the fact that the DWI equipment is still in use makes me think Texas courts would ultimately find a way to allow this sort of proprietary opacity, Grits continues to wonder if probabilistic genotyping is the best tool for the job when it comes to providing courtroom testimony, given that there are other methods available where the calculations are both transparent and replicable.
Finding housing with a felony record
There's a good article in the Houston Chronicle on the struggles poor people have renting an apartment with a felony record. Houston is closing a dangerous low-income apartment run by a slumlord who they've sued over "atrocious living conditions." Reporter Emma Henchliffe decided to pay attention to what happened to the ousted tenants, finding that the ones with a felony record had a terrible time locating new places that would take them. "Individual owners have the right to accept and reject applications as they choose, but the lack of alternatives for tenants who do not meet owners' standards causes many former offenders to end up at places like Crestmont," she wrote. "Some apartments where [one tenant] applied took her application fee and never got back to her." When you consider the volume of felons Texas produces - we release more than 70,000 prisoners from TDCJ every year - this is a much more important issue than one would think from the amount of coverage it receives. I was glad to see this article.
No surprise: 'Stingrays' really do intercept content
Turns out, contrary to public assertions by law enforcement, Stingrays are indeed able to intercept calls as well as cell-phone metadata, it's now been proven. This was obvious to anyone who thought about it: The devices trick your phone into routing through a fake cell phone tower; clearly they were intercepting the whole call, not just metadata. And experts have been telling us this for a while. Still, nice to see it confirmed, it's one less thing to argue about.
NOTE: A brief item about a murder case in Denton was removed from this roundup after a commenter informed me that the underlying news article improperly attributed a court action to DNA mixture protocols when the real issue was unrelated. Grits apologizes for the error and will perhaps revisit the topic when more accurate information is available.