Monday, December 14, 2015

Forensic commission praised over bite-mark review

The Texas Forensic Science Commission received national kudos in Saturday's New York Times ("Lives in Balance: Texas leads scrutiny of bite-mark forensics") for its review of flawed bite-mark testimony and other questionable forensics. Grits readers have heard most of it before, but here are a few notable tidbits:
Forensic science more broadly is in turmoil as prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges confront evidence that many long-used methods, like handwriting analysis and microscopic hair comparisons, were based more on tradition than science and do not hold up under scrutiny. Even fingerprint and certain kinds of DNA matches are not quite as certain as many once believed, scientists say

But no lingering technique is under stronger attack than the analysis of purported bite marks, a method first thrust into fame in the televised trial of Ted Bundy in 1979.

The Texas agency has won national praise for its examinations of the reliability of all sorts of forensic methods and testimony. Initially it responded to complaints about evidence in individual criminal cases. It has moved on to also evaluate whole fields, like bite-mark matching.

“Some aspects of forensic science have never been validated,” said Vincent Di Maio, a retired doctor and medical examiner who has been chairman of the Texas commission since 2012. “That’s a problem that had to be addressed, and nobody else was going to do it for us.”

The commission’s recommendations, expected in February, will be the first formal finding by any state or federal agency on the validity of bite-mark evidence, said Chris Fabricant, the director of strategic litigation at the Innocence Project. He added that they might help speed up inquiries into hundreds more convictions around the country as well as discourage dubious testimony in the future.
Texas Monthly's Michael Hall has been nosing around a story on the Forensic Science Commission for the past few months which will give the agency an even higher profile in the coming year. Yes, they have their critics. And some of them inevitably show up in the comments on Grits whenever they're mentioned to flame them for all they haven't done. But what the have done IMO has been impressive, especially for a small, understaffed agency, and their policy of individual case reviews to identify discredited testimony in un-validated disciplines is light years ahead of what's going on in other states, or for that matter at the federal level.


Anonymous said...

Why didn't Dallas DA Craig Watkins' Conviction Integrity Unit investigate bite-mark analysis from the Steven Chaney case (Yes, you...Mike Ware formerly of the CIU and currently of the Innocence Project of Texas)?

Texas Monthly (October 2015) "...The truth is, there was never any conclusive data or rigorous studies to back up bite mark evidence, which has been under fire from scientists and defense lawyers ever since it was first allowed in court in 1974. Tests of bite mark evidence reliability have found error rates between 12 and 64 percent..."

The sad truth is, this should have been handled a couple of decades ago, even before Watkins took office.

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