Thursday, July 17, 2008

Forensic Roundup

I wanted to point out several stories this morning related to topics in forensic science that deserve Grits readers' attention:

Response published to crime lab criticisms
The organization Crime Lab Report published this week a rebuttal to critics ("The Wrongful Conviction of Forensic Science," pdf) of crime lab errors, re-analyzing data on DNA exonerations first crunched by the Innocence Project in NYC. (Conflict alert: I'm a paid policy consultant for the Innocence Project of Texas.) Some interesting data here, but also some paranoid speculation (e.g., they think the Innocence Project directs when and what stories are published in the New York Times!) and more than a little defensive posturing. For instance, their top finding was that "Of the 32 instances of forensic science malpractice shown above, only 1 was found to have occurred in an accredited laboratory." In Texas, though (I can't speak for other states), accreditation wasn't required until recently, after a slew of errors were discovered, so that observation from my perspective falls into the category of "true but trivial." In addition, they conclude that "forensic malpractice" was the "sole systemic error in only two overturned convictions," but fail to acknowledge that forensic errors and malpractice have more frequently combined with other causes to generate system failure. They also insist that "bad lawyering" is responsible for more wrongful convictions than previously estimated.

Ironically, the sense I get from reading this critique of the Innocence Project's analysis is that everybody admits the system made mistakes, but the lawyers are more likely to blame the scientists and the scientists are more likely to blame the lawyers. Go figure! My take on the (mostly Texas-based) innocence cases I've looked at is that - with the notable exceptions of faulty eyewitness identifications or false confessions - a single error is rarely the sole cause of a wrongful conviction. More frequently outright systems failures occur when errors or neglect compound one another, often coupled with a "team spirit" mentality.

Houston FBI opens new digital forensics lab
Calling the process of removing digital evidence from electronic equipment a "hard science," the FBI this week announced they're opening a new digital forensics lab in Houston. They've begun soliciting requests for assistance from area law enforcement on their website. I'm just a little skeptical, however, of the futuristic concept of "self-serv" forensics. Reports the Houston Chronicle:

The laboratory's operations are overseen by a board of directors that includes investigators and commanders from the Harris County Sheriff's Office, the Houston, Pasadena and Richmond police departments and other area law enforcement agencies.

Participating agencies provide staff members, who process digital evidence from their own departments as well as others.

Forensic examiners also will travel to known or potential crime scenes to examine computers and other equipment.

The lab has four examiners who specialize in examining cell phones or PDAs, said sheriff's detective John Pohutsky, who helped conduct tours of the laboratory.

Such devices provide the "fastest-growing form of digital evidence," he said.

Eventually, the laboratory will offer self-service kiosks to speed up examinations of cell phone data for area law enforcement, Pohutsky said.

"An investigator from an agency would be able to bring a cell phone in that he's acquired as evidence," he said. "With a little bit of help getting started, he can basically process his own phone."

Champagne tastes and a 'near beer track record'
BlogHouston recently criticized HPD Chief Harold Hurtt for proposing ambitious upgrades at the HPD crime lab when they can't get the basics right:
It was just this past January that HPD's crime lab was in the news as the head of DNA testing resigned after a cheating scandal. So now Chief Hurtt wants to go from disgraced and dysfunctional to state-of-the-art and tops-in-the-U.S. I'm guessing Houstonians would settle for just processing DNA samples successfully. Period. You know the old saying, "champagne taste on a beer budget"? Chief Hurtt has champagne taste, with a near beer track record.
National FBI crime lab profiled
CNN offered up a feature on the FBI's much-vaunted national crime lab at Quantico, Virginia, an effort launched in 1932 by J. Edgar Hoover with the hiring of a single handwriting expert. Today more than 500 agents, scientists and staff work at the facility.

TX property room techs have their own association
An ad on page 2 of latest issue of The Property Times, the publication of the Texas Association of Property and Evidence Inventory Technicians, depicts a brutal NASCAR car crash with the bold headline, "Evidence Mismanagement is One of the Leading Career Killers in Law Enforcement."

The group's site links prominently to the Denver Post series on evidence mismanagement, so I'm glad to see recent critiques of property room practices are on their radar screen, though evidence rooms in Texas still have their own problems. I was unaware the organization existed but they've been around for ten years and have a substantial membership for such a narrow field.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"a single error is rarely the sole cause of a wrongful conviction. More frequently outright systems failures occur when errors or neglect compound one another, often coupled with a "team spirit" mentality."

After reading many postings in this blog for a couple of months now, I pretty much understand what you mean by "outright systems failures", but still I think a separate and more complete article on that subject explained in plain Texan would be helpful.

"The group's site links prominently to the Denver Post series on evidence mismanagement"

Just as there is misinformation and disinformation, I think there ought to be not only mismanagement but also dismanagement.

This is similar to the distinction between "incompetence" and "deliberate incompetence" which is not incompetence at all.

Maybe we need a new glossary.