Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Forensic follies, Williamson County jury pools, COINTELPRO, and other stories

Grits noticed several items this week that didn't make it into full posts but deserve readers' attention:

Lawsuit over constitutionality of truancy charges
Texas Appleseed is taking Dallas ISD to court. See a lengthier account from the Dallas Morning News, but it's behind their paywall. More from Alternet.

The Michael Morton case and Williamson County jury pools
Because of hometown publicity, a capital murder case was moved from Waco to Williamson County, only to find during voir dire that "About 10 prospective jurors out of 55 questioned so far either were disqualified or excused by agreement because of their feelings of distrust for the criminal justice system spawned by Morton’s 
exoneration," reported the Waco Tribune Herald. That's a pretty remarkable development among Williamson County juries.

Art in public spaces - like utility boxes
Grits has advocated allowing invited, artistic graffiti in blank public spaces from utility boxes to the backs of street signs to highway facades. That seems to be the idea behind what's going on here, with the twist that the artist is a Buddhist monk.

Ellis County may privatize jail
The Ellis County (Waxahachie) commissioners issued an RFP to privatize their county jail, we learn from Texas Prison Bidness. More background here.

Most TDCJ volunteers are faith based
Reported the Conroe Courier, discussing a bill by rookie state Rep. Steve Toth, "TDCJ currently has 20,047 volunteers, including 18,111 who are faith-based volunteers providing religious and other services in jails and prisons statewide"

'Breathprint' as biometric?
Interesting concept. Probably needs more confirming research and field testing before it's ready for use as a practical, reliable, court-worthy forensic method. Despite the statement in the linked article, I'm not yet sure I believe claims that breathprints can be uniquely identified. My understanding is it hasn't even been proven fingerprints are unique in the world, much less "breathprints."

Allegedly fake certifications may compromise 1,200+ DWI cases
Even if "breathprint" biometrics are legit, the technical application of breath forensics must be also be valid. A DPS supervisor in Conroe, "Glenn Merkord was suspended for 30 days this month for renewing certifications for machine operators who had not fulfilled all of the requirements for certification, according to a letter the Department of Public Safety sent Merkord notifying him of his punishment," reported the Houston Chronicle. Up to 1,200 cases could be affected.

Salvador cases keep coming
Nuther case overturned today by the Court of Criminal Appeals based on the Jonathan Salvador case, this one an eight year sentence. By my count, that brings the total to 20, totaling 159.5 years so far. Now that the Coty case has been decided, one suspects we may see many more, similar cases on the weekly hand down lists in the very near future. Salvador worked on nearly 5,000 drug cases.

From the COINTELPRO files
Interesting, timely history lesson from the Austin Chronicle about a time just a few decades ago when the American intelligence apparatus was turned on domestic political dissidents, focusing on events at UT-Austin.

Edward Snowden, NSA phone spying scandal and cell-phone location data
Bruce Schneier lists questions that need to be answered before anyone prosecutes Edward Snowden. Ed Hubbard, writing at Big Jolly Politics, has questions of his own. Interesting post from Fabius Maximus on the meaning of government and corporate protestations the NSA does not have "direct access" to private systems. The telecom providers like ATT and Verizon, incidentally, have issued no such denials. Finally, somebody started a petition at asking President Obama to pardon Edward Snowden. Go sign if you support it. If the petition gets 100,000 online "signatures" in 30 days, the White House will formally respond. As of this writing, it had reached 68,435 in just four days.

It should be noted, the issue of cell-phone "metadata" relates directly to the location-tracking legislation proposed by Rep. Bryan Hughes, Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinonosa and Sen. Craig Estes during the 83rd regular session. In particular, as Grits reported from the conference at the Yale Law School on location tracking and biometrics, Verizon and Sprint use GPS coordinates instead of triangulation (like, say, ATT and T-Moble). The Wall Street Journal reports the NSA is gathering credit card data, too. That's an even greater invasion of privacy IMO than the pen-register/trap-and-trace data (phone numbers in and out) that's been more widely publicized.

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