Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Podcast: Colloff on blood spatter, causes of long lines at DPS license centers, understaffing at rural prisons, and other stories

If you can get past a few bad puns in the intro, I think we've got a good show for you this time on the better-late-than-never August 2018 edition of the Reasonably Suspicious podcast, Just Liberty's monthly discussion of Texas criminal-justice politics and policy.

The segment I've been most looking forward to, of course, was the interview with Pamela Colloff, long-form journalist extraordinaire, who left Texas Monthly last year to write for ProPublica. We discussed her latest New York Times Magazine cover story about an apparent false conviction based on more-than-dubious blood-spatter evidence. (I'll publish my full interview with Colloff over the weekend.) But I was happy with the rest of the show, too. Here's what my co-host Mandy Marzullo, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, are discussing this month:
Top Stories
Death and Texas
  • Scott Henson interviews Pam Colloff of ProPublica/New York Times Magazine on her latest feature on blood-spatter evidence and more.
The Last Hurrah
One minor error I noticed when I was editing this together: I'd said during the Death and Texas segment that DPS licenses forensic hypnotists, when in fact it's the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

Find a transcript of the podcast below the jump.

Transcript: August, 2018 episode of the Reasonably Suspicious podcast hosted by Scott Henson and Amanda Marzullo.

Amanda Marzullo: Hi, this is Amanda Marzullo. A man stole a live shark from the San Antonio Aquarium last month, and carted it out of the building in a baby carriage. Scott, doesn't this story sound a little fishy to you?

Scott Henson: In my defense, the first part of the plan went swimmingly. We got the shark home and he clearly loved his new digs, but then the authorities came in to repossess him. I think it was a loan shark.

Amanda Marzullo: The Wall Street Journal last month reported that more rich people are keeping sharks for pets in elaborate home aquariums. Was that your plan?

Scott Henson: In part, or perhaps I should say fin part. In fact, I was fin-spired by the Austin Powers movie, Goldmember, and ever since then I've dreamed of outfitting sharks with lasers attached to their head, but eventually we were going to set it free. I remember being at the beach once, and seeing a man running out of the water yelling, “Help, shark, help,” and I laughed at him, because there's no way that shark was ever going to help him, but if that shark had, had a laser the fun would have continued long after the guy made it onto the beach. That's why I knew this was something we had to test in the wild, and it would have been a sea change, I think.

Amanda Marzullo: Oh, I'm sure. It sounds like you jumped the shark.

Scott Henson: We didn't, but we were planning to. The motorcycle ramp was nearly set up when the cops busted through the door. Hello, boys and girls. Welcome to the better late than never August episode of the Reasonably Suspicious Podcast, covering Texas criminal justice, politics, and policy. I'm Scott Henson, policy director at Just Liberty, here today with our good friend, Mandy Marzullo, who's executive director of the Texas Defender Service, and an avid fisher-woman. Right?

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah.

Scott Henson: We'll say that-

Amanda Marzullo: Laughter.

Scott Henson: All right. Coming up, stick around for my interview with Texan treasurer Pamela Colloff, a writer whose work became nearly synonymous with Texas Monthly, but who now writes for ProPublica, and The New York Times Magazine. Her recent Times Magazine story blew the lid off the pseudoscience of forensic blood splatter evidence, and she's here to tell us all about it. That's not all, though, we've got a great show today, even if we missed shark week with that intro, discussing junk science, journalism, and everybody's favorite pastime standing in line at the drivers license office. Mandy, what are you looking forward to on the podcast today?

Amanda Marzullo: Well, I think it's safe to say that the DRP [Driver Responsibility Program] is always going to be my favorite thing to talk about. I'm looking forward to that.

Scott Henson: Me, too. That gets us into our first story, then.

Amanda Marzullo: Yes.

Scott Henson: Why don't you get into it.

Amanda Marzullo: Our top story involves the massive lines at the Texas Department of Public Safety, driver license mega centers, and how to fix them. Recent news reports documented lines up to eight hours at the biggest so called mega centers, with lines stretching outside of the buildings in the summer heat. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick blames drivers who are eligible to renew their licenses online, but on your blog, Grits For Breakfast, you argued that the legislature had created the problem, so Scott, what's going on?

Scott Henson: Well, this really is a root a budget problem, and a problem with basically several programs that are causing massive disfunction at the DPS license centers. One of the biggest problems they have is they're customer service center, 24,800 people call DPS every day about their driver licenses, and only 20% of those calls are ever answered, and of those only 17% of those people, of the 20% get a human being on the line within 10 minutes, and all of this is because they're not funding these DPS call centers. That's insane. Obviously, all these thousands of people who are calling every day when they can't get anyone on the line eventually go into the license center, because what else would you do? Underfunding that is one of your core problems. There's all sorts of little requirements that really just make no sense. For example, sex offenders have to renew their drivers license every year. Why? They already have to register and so their license changes, or up to date, and there's no sense in it, but it's just another thing-

Amanda Marzullo: Another requirement.

Scott Henson: You can do to shame them, just another goofy requirement. But the biggest problem, and the one that no ones really talking about right now in the public debate are driver license revocations. You and I first met working to try and get some relief for the driver responsibility program, and these terrible high surcharges that people have to pay, well, the Washington Post reported earlier this year that more people have had their drivers licenses revoked in Texas, 1.7 million, than any other state, and most of them were through the drivers responsibility surcharge. All those people just constantly are in need of renewing their drivers license, or trying to get DPS to come get them on to a payment plan-

Scott Henson: Or anything that can give them some relief, and having to deal with all those folks creates this massive wave of extra bodies that otherwise would never go in. Yes, more people should renew online, someone could probably tell them that if anyone would pick up the phone at DPS.

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah.

Scott Henson: But all these people who can't pay, to me, are the big source of it all.

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah. Is there data published anywhere? It sounds like, probably not.

Scott Henson: DPS revokes about half a million drivers licenses a year.

Amanda Marzullo: Okay.

Scott Henson: Some of those people get them back, some of them go into this long term group that have just gone in many cases for more than a decade now ...

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah. Without-

Scott Henson: Without a license, because they can't pay their driver responsibility surcharge-

Amanda Marzullo: And they just keep cycling and accruing additional fees for not driving without a valid license.

Scott Henson: Right. Really at root it's the failure to abolish the driver responsibility surcharge, the failure to fund the customer service center, the senseless requirements for annual sex offender renewals, and other categories that have to renew more often than necessary, and then finally, using drivers license revocations as a punishment for nonpayment of debt, that's at root what's driving the volume, I think, and DPS hasn't come out with that data, but when you look at the broad swath it has to be a big chunk of the problem.

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah. And a labor intensive aspect to the problem, too. Right?

Scott Henson: Right.

Amanda Marzullo: If you have a revocation documenting your income, documenting that you need a payment plan, and being put on one that's all a massive amount of paperwork.

Scott Henson: Sure, or documenting that you're indigent.

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah.

Scott Henson: That's never easy to do, just standing in line at the DPS, you never have the right piece of paper. You know?

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah. How do you prove the negative? Right? You don't have any income, no ones giving you a receipt for that-

Scott Henson: That's right.  Your lack of a paycheck did not come with a stub.

Amanda Marzullo: There are a lot of deep issues, here, and hopefully the legislature will take another look at this.

Scott Henson: I hope so ... The Texas prison system last year responded to dramatic under staffing at certain rural units by giving hiring bonuses for people willing to work a short staffed facilities, the Houston Chronicles, Keri Blakinger reported that seven months into the program, quote, “More units were severely underfunded than last fall when they started.” Mandy, why do you think bonuses didn't work to get people to take jobs in small town Texas, making in the low 30s, and working all day around convicted felons in un air conditioned prison cells?

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah. I have no idea why people aren't leaping out of their seats for these jobs. I mean, really at the end of the day it's that these jobs are still really poorly compensated. Right? Even with the starting bonus, you're still making just marginally more than you would be flipping burgers, I think it comes out to something like $17.00 and change per hour. Then on top of that-

Scott Henson: Yeah. Pretax. Yeah.

Amanda Marzullo: Pretax. Then on top of that you know these prison guards are working under conditions that are only marginally better, if that, then the conditions that incarcerating people under. There's no air conditioning. The hogs have it better, because they get air conditioning.

Scott Henson: That's right. That's a funny aspect of all this. That's what got the prison guards to join in the prison heat litigation-

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah.

Scott Henson: Is when they built seven new facilities, because they said that their hogs, the pigs that they use to get bacon for the prisons-

Amanda Marzullo: I think they sell the hogs, actually.

Scott Henson: And selling them, too … wouldn't breed properly unless they were in air conditioning. Well, this is just the most hysterical thing in the world, to me, because Texas has this massive problem with feral hogs all over the state who are breading just fine in the 100 degree weather. There's so many hogs out there that they literally passed a law, the pork chopper bill that said that you can shoot pigs from aircraft, from helicopters, because there's so many of them, they just need to get rid of them, so the idea that hogs can't cuddle up, and have sex properly without air conditioning is just a delightful claim to me. It was too much for the prison guards, that's when they said, hey, that's enough, we're signing on to the litigation as well.

Amanda Marzullo: But we're talking about extreme heat. Right? This is not just a little bit of heat. These are conditions that people will die under.

Scott Henson: And have died.

Amanda Marzullo: And have died.

Scott Henson: A lot of the prison units built during the Ann Richards era, are these metal buildings, too, you're almost like you're in an oven.

Amanda Marzullo: You are in an oven.

Scott Henson: Those are just some of the worst job conditions you could imagine, and you're right, you're basically saying, “How much are you willing to be paid just to sit in prison?” $17 an hour sounds a little low when you think about it.

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah. It's unsafe, you know, you're under unsafe conditions. There's a huge sort of interpersonal aspect to this, it's really difficult, and then you're in an undesirable location on top of that, not to say that rural pockets of Texas aren't beautiful, those are beautiful places, but-

Scott Henson: They're depopulating. People are leaving there and moving to the urban areas of the state, that's just the fact, and they're not leaving there because they're great places to get a job.

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah ...

Scott Henson: Next up in our segment, Death in Texas, Texas courts are reconsidering scientific evidence in a conviction of death row inmate Robert Roberson to determine whether the shaken baby syndrome theory, talk about prosecutors in this case can still be supported scientifically. The Texas Tribune, Jolie McCullough reported on the case, quoting his attorney declaring that only a trailblazing statute, which was passed by the Texas Legislature in 2013 allowed his latest motion. Legislatures were reacting to the contribution of forensic errors in the cases of DNA exonerees as well as a report by the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 calling in to question the scientific basis for many long standing forensic methods based on subjective comparisons by an examiner.

Amanda Marzullo: Things like bite marks, ballistics, fingerprints, blood splatter evidence. All of which you kind of talk about later on with Pamela Colloff.

Scott Henson: That's exactly right. Both, Mandy and I worked on this bill at the Texas Legislature, me when the bill first passed, and Mandy wrote her on the bill on behalf of the Texas Defenders Service when it was amended the following session, so Mandy start us off. Shaken baby syndrome, blood splatter, bite marks, talk to me for a moment about Mr. Roberson's case, but also the intersection of Texas junk science generally with the capital cases you see, which I'm guessing is pretty much all of them.

Amanda Marzullo: TDS is actually co-counseling with the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs in Mr. Roberson's case. I can't talk to you much about that, but-

Scott Henson: Okay.

Amanda Marzullo: What I will say is we are seeing quite a few capital cases be remanded, so often what's happening at this point is that people who have been on the row for a very long period of time are filling writs under the junk science statute, and having hearings on their cases. I'm really just seeing sort of the first wave at this point, but it's sort of the parade of horribles that you see in other types of cases in the criminal justice system. We're seeing more than one shaken baby case, we're seeing cases where there is a reported child death that is probably not a homicide, but might not be shaken babies case, but something similar.

Scott Henson: There's a bite mark case out there.

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah. The bite mark case, and I'm going to mess up this person’s name, it's Kosoul ChanthakoummaneI believe is how you would say his name.

Scott Henson: We'll go with that.

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah.

Scott Henson: I wouldn't have even dared try.

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah. Whoever's listening is working on that case, I'm sorry-

Scott Henson: For butchering the name.

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah. I did that, and I know I did that. Yeah, his case has a bite mark, which clearly is circumspect.

Scott Henson: That's right, even the prosecutor in the case ended up admitting that, well, okay, we probably shouldn't have relied on that one.

Amanda Marzullo: That's a problem. And also what's interesting though, too, is that you are seeing a lot of instances where prosecutors are conceding error, which, you know, I think is showing that we're moving the needle.

Scott Henson: Right.

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah.

Scott Henson: The science has sort of backed them into a corner on some of these. The weird thing about these comparative sciences, and there's a distinction, so when you're matching DNA on a one to one basis, you have a sample, and you have a person you think is the suspect, and you're trying to see if this DNA sample matches them, that's a very solid scientifically based way to identify someone-

Amanda Marzullo: Often, right, if you know how many sources, or [crosstalk 00:14:30]-

Scott Henson: That's right. I'm saying the one to one-

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah.

Scott Henson: Not the DNA mixtures, which we've talked about, have their own problem, but one to one DNA matching. Or toxicology, where you're asking a chemist to say what is the chemical makeup of this, is it a controlled substance, is it a drug? These are things that there are actually scientific tests for.

Amanda Marzullo: That are validated, and replicable.

Scott Henson: Replicable. Yes.

Amanda Marzullo: Replicable. I'm just messing up all kinds of words today.

Scott Henson: Well, but that's exactly right. If I go to the doctor, and the doctor does a test to see if I have a disease, the results of that test will be the same whether I have it done in Texas, or whether I have it done in Maine. But who does your forensic analysis when you're talking about ballistics comparisons, or fingerprint comparisons, or blood splatter, bite marks, or shaken baby for that matter, really is less scientific, those are not things that a scientist has applied the scientific method and come up with these results, these are techniques that cops have developed over the decades, and used to accuse people.

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah. These are subjective-

Scott Henson: That's right.

Amanda Marzullo: This is a subjective conclusion that they're drawing.

Scott Henson: That's exactly right. These comparative analysis are especially fraught The shaken baby is sort of its own novel example almost, because it's such a recent example. There was a big rise in popularity of prosecutions based on this, and now a lot of those are being re-looked at.

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah. I think that's another sort of disturbing thing that's coming up and sort of being revealed, excuse me, by the junk science writ is that the criminal justice system is composed of people, so it's going to have human error that's involved in it, and it's also going to have sort of this herd mentality that you see, you know, group thing.

Scott Henson: It really does-

Amanda Marzullo: But there really are trends, types of crimes that prosecutor's sort of are looking for in any particular time.

Scott Henson: Well, that's exactly right. We've talked before about forensic hypnosis, which is another discipline being challenged under the forensic science writ, and ex parte Flores. Well, as of the late '90s this was an incredibly popular thing to be doing. There were about 800 people who were licensed at DPS [correction: actually the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement certifies forensic hypnotists], certified, to do forensic hypnosis …

Amanda Marzullo: Not 800 cases, ladies and gentlemen, 800 people using this technique

Scott Henson: That's right. Or at least certified to use it, and now we're down to around 20. It is falling out of favor, people aren't really willing to standup in front of juries very often and saying, “Well, we hypnotized the witness, and afterwards she said what we wanted,” well, that's not really believed anymore by the general public, so they don't want to use that evidence anymore. But it was so popular at the time! After the original case in the '80s that set it off, the legislature created an actual licensing certification for it, every department wanted to have one, it was a big fad.

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah. It relaxes people, Scott! We'll see what comes of it. I mean, really at the end of the day the junk science writ is still in its nascent phases. You know?

Scott Henson: Right.

Amanda Marzullo: They're really have only been a handful of people that have gotten relief through this legal mechanism, so we'll see what happens.

Scott Henson: That's right. Honestly, I'm not sure if it will ever be a source of mass relief like where we-

Amanda Marzullo: Yeah.

Scott Henson: See lots of people who've been falsely convicted getting relief, because there's so many other barriers to getting your case there, getting investigated, or getting a set of experts to re-look at it. What it's really doing is creating a vehicle where these junk sciences are being challenged for the first time. The judges are not doing a good job on Daubert hearings, or however you pronounce that.

Amanda Marzullo: Daubert.

Scott Henson: Daubert. Okay. They're not doing a great job excluding bad evidence on the front end, and so this is a way for the courts to take a post hoc look and correct old errors, and it really is almost the only way that these junk sciences are getting challenged.

Amanda Marzullo: Having cut her teeth as a Texas Monthly feature writer focused on high profile crime stories, Pamela Colloff's long term journalism projects are the stuff of journalistic legend in Texas. In her two part, 22,000 word offering on a 30 year old murder conviction based on dubious blood splatter evidence may have cemented that reputation for good. Scott sat down with Pam recently to talk about her story, journalism, podcasts, and more. Let's give it a listen.

Scott Henson: I sat down with ProPublica's Pam Colloff to talk about her recent long form report on the cover of New York Times Magazine. The story described a 30 year old Texas murder conviction based on dubious conclusions about blood splatter evidence that are still used in courtrooms today. Here's how she described the case.

Pam Colloff: This is a story, it's actually a Texas story about a man named Joe Bryan who was a beloved high school principal in Clifton, Texas, which is about a half hour west of Waco. In 1985, Joe's wife, Nicki, who was also a beloved local school teacher was murdered in their home, in her bed, and Joe had been at a principal's convention in Austin, and the days leading up to and around this crime. He's always contended he was in his hotel room asleep in bed when this happened, which of course is an alibi that's hard to prove, because no one was with him. But there was no evidence linking him to the crime, there was no evidence even placing him in Clifton, Texas that night. Everyone saw him in Austin. But he became, it was initially believed to have been a break in, all the indications in the house were that it was a break in.

He came under scrutiny when his brother-in-law, the victim's brother, who had borrowed his car for the week, the car had been out of Joe's possession for a number of days, the brother-in-law found a flashlight in the trunk, or so he told the Texas Rangers, and it was speckled with what appeared to be blood, and so began this effort to connect the flashlight to the crime scene, and therefore to Joe, and that's where blood stain pattern analysis came in.

Scott Henson: Wow. On a flashlight?

Pam Colloff: On a flashlight that wasn't found at the crime scene, that we still are not sure if it's blood that's on it, that's one of the other fun facts of this story. But I had been looking for a case for a while to write about, that was about blood stain pattern analysis, which I can explain in a second, but this particular case just had a lot of narrative elements as well, that I was interested in.

Scott Henson: Sure. The high school teachers.

Pam Colloff: Yeah. I mean, this was a guy who had done no wrong according to people in the town, but by the end of the first trial he had 36 character witnesses at his first trial, which I had never heard of happening in any trial ever before, but when the jury handed down a guilty verdict, as many people told me they believed in law enforcement, they believed in the criminal justice system, and if that's what a jury found then he was guilty.

Scott Henson: Wow. How did you get started on blood splatter? You said you had been looking for a case to sort of be the central focus on that topic, what made you interested in this topic in the first place, because that's a pretty obscure place for a journalist to say, hey, this is going to be my area, I'm going to spend the next however many years of my life honing in on this topic?

Pam Colloff: That's me. That's the kind of stuff I like.

Scott Henson: I know.

Pam Colloff: It was really through Michael Hall. I know him as Mike. Mike Hall's writing at Texas Monthly about junk forensic science, and the Cameron Todd Willingham case that had raised my consciousness, shall we say, about the problems with forensic science, so broadly I had been wanting to write about forensic science, and the problems with it in the courtroom-

Scott Henson: Micheal had this, just to interject, had this amazing story on bite marks that-

Pam Colloff: Yes.

Scott Henson: Has been incredibly influential and like you say has been one of the journalists whose just hitting it out of the park on these forensic topics.

Pam Colloff: Every time. If you have not read all of Mike's stories, go to the Texas Monthly archives, and read them. When I was still working for Texas Monthly I went and covered a trial that I thought I was going to write about, and it's a very long story why I did not, that I will not go into, but I went and covered a trial in east Texas, a murder trial, in which a man was accused of murdering his wife and stepson, and that the issue in the case was had this man murdered his wife and step son, or had the stepson murdered his mom, and then killed himself?

There was what from photos looked to be a pretty classic suicide scene of this teenager with a long gun between his legs, and a single blast to his mouth, and it looked pretty straightforward to me, and so I was interested in this case. I went to cover it, and Tom Bevel, whose sort of the father of modern blood stain pattern analysis testified for the prosecution, and he said that by looking at the blood stain patterns in the sons room, where this shooting took place, that he could tell that this was a double homicide, that there was no suicide possible. He gave his reasons for that. Then the defense presented their side of the case, and they had a former student of Tom Bevel's who's a crime scene investigator out in Smith and Wood County not a bastion of liberalism.

Scott Henson: Right.

Pam Colloff: Who got up there and said this was a murder suicide, and the blood stain patterns are telling me that, that's what it is. I'm sitting there watching all this, and was just fascinated, I just thought, how can two men with the same exact training, literally, they're going by the same literal book-

Scott Henson: One trained the other.

Pam Colloff: One trained the other, look at the same exact crime scene and come to two diametrically opposite conclusions, and watching the jury, Tom Bevel, who testified for the prosecution, he's a fantastic witness, he's very polished, and very persuasive, and this is not a novel concept, but I was struck by the fact that really the witness who is the most polished won the day, not science.

Scott Henson: Right. Well, this thing where it's possible to have two supposed scientists look at something and come to the opposite conclusion, that's a weird thing about forensic science. We're going to talk about that a little more in moment, but-

Pam Colloff: I'm going to interrupt, both of these guys-

Scott Henson: Sure.

Pam Colloff: Were law enforcement, they weren't scientists, and I thought that's what was so interesting was the word science, kept science, science, science. The jury heard that over, and over, and over again, and these are cops.

Scott Henson: There's no scientist here.

Pam Colloff: No. No, scientist present. Right.

Scott Henson: That's exactly right. A lot of these comparison based forensics really that is the case, you know, it's not scientists looking at fingerprints, or ballistics, it's just a cop who went through a bunch of training, and then practiced.

Pam Colloff: Right. As Tom Bevel explained in his testimony in that east Texas case, he said, you know, “Before I do this, I read all the police reports, I get as much information as I can.” I remember he faced the jurors when he told them this. I could see that this resonated well with jurors, like, oh he really does his homework, you know, he really researches things before he, this isn't just some quick thing, and of course I'm sitting there thinking-

Scott Henson: That's the opposite [of what he should do]!

Pam Colloff: Wow, if you had a DNA analyst get up there and say, you know, “Before I did my analysis I got up and I read all the police reports,” people would be horrified that somehow for this type of forensic science that was considered, at least in my read of jurors reactions, which could be wrong, though they did convict the man, positive.

Scott Henson: For her report, Pam attended a 40 hour training for blood splatter experts, in which she was given the same training, and the same certificate proving it, as so called police experts who testify in cases. Let's here her describe it.

Pam Colloff: I have 40 hours of training in blood stain pattern analysis from a class that was taught by a Bevel Gardner and Associates, Tom Bevel's company, and the expert witness in Joe Bryan's case had a 40 hour class with Tom Bevel, so my intent was I'm going to get as much training as this expert witness had, and then I'm going to look at the evidence.

Scott Henson: Wow. Tell us about this training. You went to Oklahoma for this, is that right?

Pam Colloff: Yes. At some point in my reporting on this case I just had one of those light bulb moments that usually happens while sitting in Austin traffic, which takes up a lot of my day, which was the only way I'm going to really understand this is if I just go do it, and I wonder if I could get in one of the classes. At the time, the Texas forensic science commission, in fact, let me back up, the way I found Joe's case, I was looking for a blood stain pattern analysis case, and the commission took up two cases in the past 18 months, I think for the first time within the discipline, and so I looked at both of them, either one would have been a fascinating deep dive, but I picked Joe's case.

Anyway, the commission was looking at the training of people who were testifying in Texas courtrooms, so there was a larger purpose also into going and doing this class. But I was interested Bevel Gardner and Associates is one of, if not the sort of go to private firms that teaches these classes, and Tom Bevel literally wrote the book on blood stain pattern analysis that is quoted by expert witness on the stand all the time, so I saw that they had an upcoming class in Yukon, Oklahoma, and I just liked the sound of that, also, so I wrote to them and asked if as a journalist if I could take it, and I identified myself, I used my ProPublica email address, and explained that I wrote about criminal justice and wanted to understand this better, and they very graciously let me to take the class.

Scott Henson: That's been my experience, I've gone into those sort of trainings as a blogger.

Pam Colloff: Yes.

Scott Henson: And they've let me do it, they're like, “Well, do you have a $120.00?”

Pam Colloff: Yes, this was close to, this was $655.00.

Scott Henson: Okay. But you got a certificate.

Pam Colloff: I did, although, I will say I didn't get to write about this, but the money side of this surprised me. I was in a room full of guys who have taken a week away from their jobs, where they're doing important stuff, these were crime scene investigators, they're paying for a hotel room, a rental car, $655.00 to take the class, a per diem, that's all taxpayer money, and I found that to be very interesting, I didn't get to go into all that, but I was with about 20 folks in this class, almost entirely police officers, there were a couple forensic analysts from Oregon, there were people from all over in this class, which I thought was fascinating also. We learned how to analyze and interpret blood stains.

Scott Henson: Did you find it convincing? You had this incident where you watched, trained people come to opposite conclusions, did you now understand why each of them had come to those conclusions, and-

Pam Colloff: Yes.

Scott Henson: Are there areas where there's just an inherent subjectivity here, or what's going on?
Pam Colloff: There's so much. I'll try to boil it down to the most important things, but everything from taking measurements, and this is why it was helpful to do it in a hands on classroom, but when you're taking measurements with calipers, there are tremendous variability in the measurements you're doing-

Scott Henson: Yeah.

Pam Colloff: That then have tremendous consequences when you're trying to reverse engineer a crime scene, so there was thing just from the basic mechanics of how do you do this that were troubling to me to the ultimate thing that I found troubling was-

Scott Henson: Calipers?

Pam Colloff: With digital calipers.

Scott Henson: Digital.

Pam Colloff: They were digital-

Scott Henson: Okay.

Pam Colloff: But I mean really even that, it's very-

Scott Henson: Interesting.

Pam Colloff: Very challenging. The easy math errors that it's easy to make. We were told upfront my first day that a 40 hour class would not make us experts, so he would give us, I don't have the phrase exactly, right, but we would know just enough to be dangerous, I believe is how our instructor put it. He said that several times during the week. That really proved to be true, because when you're comparing, when you're trying to identify a pattern, any kind of pattern, but in this case a blood stain pattern you are, just to give an example, there are many cases in which people have been convicted because there is quote, a high velocity blood stain pattern on their t-shirt, the term high velocity has gone out of fashion, but generally speaking that's what it's called-

Scott Henson: Because it's a bunch of bunk?

Pam Colloff: That's a whole long other story. What has been shown is actually what can look like that can be many other things, including someone whose dying, aspirating blood, so these very tiny little droplets of blood aren't always caused by a person firing a gun over them, it can be them finding the body of the person who has just shot themselves, or has been shot, and cradling that person. I can't tell you how many cases I've looked at with the scenario with the spouse-

Scott Henson: Wow.

Pam Colloff: There's a case Warren Horinek is a man, former Fort Worth police officer who is convicted on this evidence who remains in prison, but anyway when I saw how a blood stain pattern that's caused by a gunshot can look nearly identical or identical to a blood stain pattern that's caused by someone who's dying and aspirating blood, you can start to see the danger of this stuff ...

Scott Henson: I'll publish my full conversation with Pam soon, in which she goes into even more detail about problems with blood splatter evidence, and other comparative forensics, as well as her favorite criminal justice podcast, and journalism trends regarding how reporters cover criminal justice stories. Until then, check out her excellent two part New York Times Magazine story. ProPublica even created a newsletter for the story in which Colloff is providing regular updates on court proceedings. Follow the story there, if you're interested in more detail ...

Scott Henson: Now, it's time for our rapid fire segment we call the Last Hurrah. Mandy, are you ready?

Amanda Marzullo: I am ready. The governor says a recent study which showed that traffic injuries increase at red light camera intersections convinced him he should oppose red light cameras and seek to abolish them in the coming legislative session. Are you surprised?

Scott Henson: Very. Studies have been showing the same thing for years, but if this one finally convinced the governor then welcome to the team. I'm very happy to hear it.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice told the Texas Legislature that the $1.4 billion dollars they spend on prisoner healthcare needed an additional 20% to achieve what their medical providers at UTMB, and Texas Tech say are minimum standards for patient care. Do you think the legislature will pony up, Mandy?

Amanda Marzullo: God, I hope so. Not doing so would be penny wise and pound foolish. Medical care in general is rising right now to the tune of 20% a year, so what we're talking about is just what they need to maintain what is a bare level of care. What they need to keep someone alive, really, at the end of the day. If they don't do this, then we're talking about massive eighth amendment violations, which are going to trigger a lot of pain, and a lot of litigation. So I hope they do that just for people being safe. And at the end of the day if they don't want to pay for medical care, then they have an alternative, which is to incarcerate fewer people.

Scott Henson: That's the one.

Amanda Marzullo: While you were on the beach somewhere in Mexico this month, the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals declined to improve Judge Lee Rosenthal's would-be final ruling in a Harris County bail case. What's your takeaway?

Scott Henson: It's a huge step back, while it's great that defendants will now receive individualized hearings, the Fifth Circuit essentially said that it's not a constitutional violation if rich people are treated differently than poor people, so it's an important ruling, but it's really kind of a depressing one.

Amanda Marzullo: What do you expect it's the Fifth Circuit, guys?

Scott Henson: It really is. All right. We're out of time. We'll try and do better the next time. Until then, I'm Scott Henson with Just Liberty.

Amanda Marzullo: And I'm Amanda Marzullo with the Texas Defender Service.

Scott Henson: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or SoundCloud. We'll be back next month with another episode of the Reasonably Suspicious Podcast. Until then, keep fighting for criminal justice reform, it's the only way it's going to happen, and shout out to Amanda Woog on her new job as executive director at the Texas Fair Defense Project. We are thrilled to have you back.

Amanda Marzullo: Yes, we missed you ... 


Steven Seys said...

In that part of the podcast when you interviewed Pam Colloff about blood spatters you said that the experts giving testimony were not scientists. I would like you to clarify your definition of that term for me. Is the person a scientist because he follows empirical method, or is he a scientist because he has a degree in science? Using the former criteria many degree holders in America would be excluded from the definition because they don't use the method they were taught is the foundation of scientific investigation. If it is the latter criteria you use you must leave out many people scientists call pioneers of their field, people like Benjamin Franklin after whom my hometown is named. So is he a scientist if he has the sheepskin or is he a scientist because he follows empirical method? Most forensic experts would not pass either criteria.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Both things are true. The blood spatter experts are not educated as scientists and they're not using scientific methods. They are police officers making subjective comparisons that may differ from observer to observer.

Anonymous said...

You mean that BS degree in Criminal Justice is more of a BS degree than a Bachelor's of Science?! *Fiegns shock*

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Who said anybody has a degree? Pam just had to take one 40 hour class to get the the same certificate as a cop who was testifying in court! No degree required. You just had to pay $700 and show up.

Anonymous said...

In all fairness, the certificate that Pam Colloff received was a certificate of completion of a 40 hour introductory training class. It was not a certificate that would automatically qualify someone to testify in court. It might be one part of a training and qualification program administered by an agency. But it was not a training that was designed to produce a fully qualified analyst. I have taken a number of these classes over the past 20 years or so, and all of them have clearly stipulated that students were not qualified to perform analysis simply by successfully completing the course.

Anonymous said...

Well I know what my new "Hobbies and interests" entry is going to be on my resume! Right after my Reid Technique class that is...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@3:52, you should listen to the podcast. She watched a guy testify in court in East Texas and set out to get the same credential he had when he testified.

Anonymous said...


Being "qualified" means almost nothing. Nothing "qualifies" an expert except the boss of the lab. It's completely subjective. It's analogous to "accreditation".

If you've seen the documentary "The Staircase", blood-spatter expert Duane Deaver's testimony sent Michael Peterson to prison for roughly 8 years. Duane Deaver presented evidence that the blood spatters on the walls in the Peterson home were consistent with a blunt force trauma injury, arguing that the most likely cause was Michael beating his wife Kathleen to death in the stairwell. Deaver presented several “experiments” (video taped) he had run to replicate the blood spatters on Michael Peterson’s shoes and shorts to prove that the source of the blood would have to be below him, or that he was standing over his wife as he hit her in the head.

It was discovered that throughout his almost 25-year career that Deaver had falsified evidence in 34 different cases and he was ultimately fired from the agency in 2011. Deaver claimed he did nothing wrong and that he was just following the lab's protocols.

His so-called scientific blood spatter "experiments" were a joke. I highly recommend watching the documentary just for his testimony alone. Complete garbage.