Sunday, April 11, 2021

Tarrant medical examiner who led Forensic Science Commission found to have misled jury in murder case

After an initial, failed run led by a tough-on-crime prosecutor, Texas' Forensic Science Commission has oddly been led by medical examiners, even though the agency doesn't regulate that profession and their offices are separate from forensic analysis divisions in most counties. One of these was Tarrant County medical examiner Nizam Peerwani, so Grits was interested to see this news:
A man who was sentenced to death in a 2004 Fort Worth murder case should get a new trial because of false and misleading testimony by Tarrant County Medical Examiner Dr. Nizam Peerwani, a judge has ruled.

In a 51-page finding, Tarrant County District Court Judge Mollee Westfall said Peerwani made “false, inaccurate or misleading” statements in at least 10 crucial elements of the prosecution case.

The timing of the judge's ruling is remarkable because Peerwani recently placed his longtime former top deputy, Dr. Marc Krouse, on administrative leave after an audit of 40 death investigations last year found he made 59 mistakes. Krouse was barred from conducting autopsies in homicide cases in November.

In the the complex and multi-faceted world of criminal-justice reform, forensics and medical examiners are roughly a fourth-tier concern: Police brutality, mass incarceration, an impoverished indigent defense culture, pretrial detention, overcriminalization of juveniles, and myriad other topics grab a greater share of the public's and advocates' attention.

But forensic science is a mess and as the Forensic Science Commission has been larded with new responsibilities including professional licensing, it has become less aggressive over time in using its platform to confront bad science.

Texas has a long, misbegotten history with corrupt medical examiners giving false testimony. Perhaps Peerwani's fall from grace is a good opportunity to begin appointing forensic scientists to lead the FSC instead of politically connected medical examiners? It was always an odd fit.

Now the question is raised: If Peerwani was willing to give "false, inaccurate, or misleading" statements to a jury in a death penalty case, should we accept pronouncements from the FSC during his tenure that exonerated allegedly flawed practices? 

Your correspondent stopped tracking the FSC closely after I left my gig at the Innocence Project of Texas: Forensics reform is an issue that requires professional-level engagement; it's hard to do as a sideline. But my impression is that progress has stalled. They've addressed much of the low hanging fruit but elided calling more commonly used forensic methods into question. And even where they've rebuffed old, flawed, forensic methods, the Government Always Wins faction on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has frequently refused to then excise them from the courts.

Between the Forensic Science Commission and its first-in-the-nation junk-science writ, Texas has created the infrastructure needed to root out flawed forensics. But its political will to do so seems to have dissipated since the heady days when DNA exonerations seemed to be happening every other month.

That's too bad because the slowing of DNA exonerations isn't because innocent people aren't being convicted anymore. Only 10 percent or so of violent crimes involve DNA evidence, so finding those few doesn't help the other 90 percent convicted on the same bad evidence. DNA exonerations exposed flawed policing methods - including less-than-reliable forensics - but for the most part, the system kept using them.

To the extent that's been because the Forensic Science Commission has been led by medical examiners who're too embedded in the system to critique it, it's probably time for that to change.


Steven Michael Seys said...

I'm experienced with the false testimony of MEs. In my own trial in 1984, the ME testified that all the wounds on the victim were caused by the same weapon, but her report showed otherwise when a wound was physically impossible to have been caused by that weapon. No lawyer is willing to point it out in a court of law.

Oprah, not her said...

The concept of the FSC is good. However, operationally it's atrocious.

The elephant in the room is the overt conflict-of-interest among the forensic scientist Commissioners. Sure, they might publicly recuse themselves from discussions during the quarterly meetings, but of course there are discussions, decisions, and actions taking place when the cameras are not on. The "wink-wink-nudge-nudge" and CYA documents that are created and backdated to cover-up problems is egregious.

And why is it they can't follow 38.01 as written? Just look at the most recent FSC Annual Report and the number of investigations they've actually done.

"To date, the Commission has received a total of 328 complaints and 109 self-disclosures, and has disposed of 336 complaints and disclosures, either through dismissal, investigation and release of a report, and/or referral to another agency. Of the 537 complaints and self-disclosures received, 63 were received from December 1, 2019 through November 30, 2020"

According to their webpage, the FSC has only investigated and published a total of 23 reports since its inception in 2005. Only 23. Are we supposed to believe only 23 complaints fell within their jurisdiction in 15 years? Bullsh*t.

The 2020 Quattrone Report regarding the APD investigation paints a better picture of the FSC's ineptitude (because of its failure to investigate in 2010),

"The Quattrone Center's review identified 57 contributing factors and conditions that worked together to create an environment where errors occurred and persisted without appropriate oversight or correction. From these, we have worked with the stakeholder group to propose 87 consensus recommendations for a new DNA laboratory that we feel will provide substantial improvements while ensuring that the laboratory exemplifies the independence, transparency, flexibility, and efficiency needed to serve the needs of the people of Austin."

Maybe we need the investigators from the Quattrone Center to handle the forensic complaints. They seem to know what root cause analysis means.