Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bad forensic science can come back to haunt you

Coupla Austin forensics stories caught my eye and may interest Grits readers:

First, a fired crime-lab scientist has sued Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo for defamation; see the Austin Statesman for details. Truth is a defense for libel, so this civil suit could result in a sterner vetting, even, than the Forensic Science Commission will provide regarding whether allegations of drylabbing are legit.

Meanwhile, here's an example of how one bad forensic scientist can come back to haunt counties for years: District Judge Jon Wisser has recommended that the Court of Criminal Appeals overturn another conviction because former medical examiner Dr. Robert Bayardo overstated and biased testimony to favor the prosecution. His unscientific zeal has led to more than one false conviction; the most recent one before this (to my knowledge) was Michael Morton. This time, the defendant, Cathy Henderson, was convicted in an infamous local child-abduction/death case that I remember well. She said the child died from a fall and panicked, burying it and running. Bayardo testified decisively that the injuries could only have come from a concerted blow. It was one of those super high-profile cases that was in the newspaper every day, involved movie-worthy drama, and there was an extraordinary amount of pressure on police, the DA and apparently the medical examiner to both convict and max out the sentence. Bayardo has now changed his opinion to conform to the defense experts, and without Bayardo's linchpin testimony, Judge Wisser found "no reasonable juror would convict her and he recommended that the Court of Criminal Appeals dismiss her conviction and return the case to Travis County to face whatever charges prosecutors may choose to pursue." Now this hairball has been barfed up into DA Rosemary Lehmberg's lap, and I suppose could end up back with another jury: Thanks Dr. Bayardo.

1 comment:

steve henderson said...

I've known Cathy Henderson for many years (related by marriage; visited her in Gatesville many times) and I know a few of the details of the case. I think this is related more to the case of Todd Willingham than Michael Morton. I don't know about Dr. Bayardo's competence in other cases, but in this one, he was going with the known science of the time. Since 1994, tests on car accidents, child safety seats, etc. have shown that it takes much less force to cause damage to an infant's skull than it was previously believed. That was the whole point of the series of hearings in 2008 - 09 in Cathy's appeal, and that new science ultimately led Judge Wisser to make these findings of fact.