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Forensics Under Fire

Forensics Under Fire: Are Bad Science and Dueling Experts Corrupting Criminal Justice?

Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Forensics Under Fire
    Book Description:

    Television shows likeCSI,Forensic Files, andThe New Detectivesmake it look so easy. A crime-scene photographer snaps photographs, a fingerprint technician examines a gun, uniformed officers seal off a house while detectives gather hair and blood samples, placing them carefully into separate evidence containers. In a crime laboratory, a suspect's hands are meticulously examined for gunshot residue. An autopsy is performed in order to determine range and angle of the gunshot and time-of-death evidence. Dozens of tests and analyses are performed and cross-referenced. A conviction is made. Another crime is solved. The credits roll.

    The American public has become captivated by success stories like this one with their satisfyingly definitive conclusions, all made possible because of the wonders of forensic science. Unfortunately, however, popular television dramas do not represent the way most homicide cases in the United States are actually handled. Crime scenes are not always protected from contamination; physical evidence is often packaged improperly, lost, or left unaccounted for; forensic experts are not always consulted; and mistakes and omissions on the autopsy table frequently cut investigations short or send detectives down the wrong investigative path.

    InForensics Under Fire, Jim Fisher makes a compelling case that these and other problems in the practice of forensic science allow offenders to escape justice and can also lead to the imprisonment of innocent people. Bringing together examples from a host of high-profile criminal cases and familiar figures, such as the JonBenet Ramsey case and Dr. Henry Lee who presented physical evidence in the O. J. Simpson trial, along with many lesser known but fascinating stories, Fisher presents daunting evidence that forensic science has a long way to go before it lives up to its potential and the public's expectations.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4424-3
    Subjects: Law, General Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    Jim Fisher
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    A crime-scene photographer is snapping shots of a dead woman lying face-down in her kitchen. The blood pooled on the floor has been tracked around the house by someone wearing a pair of men’s shoes. A detective is sketching the scene while a fingerprint technician examines the .22 caliber pistol lying next to the woman’s body. A second criminalist gathers up the shell casing and, from the kitchen table, the handwritten suicide note. Another investigator is placing paper lunch bags over the hands of the victim’s husband, who had made the 911 call. At the request of this detective, this...

  6. PART ONE Diagnosing Death:: Problems in the Science and Practice of Forensic Pathology

    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 9-12)

      Forensic pathologists are physicians educated and trained to determine the cause and manner of death in cases involving violent, sudden, or unexplained fatalities. The cause of death is the medical reason the person died. One cause of death is asphyxia—lack of oxygen to the brain. It occurs as a result of drowning, suffocation, manual strangulation, strangulation by ligature (such as a rope, belt, or length of cloth), crushing, or carbon monoxide poisoning. Other causes of death include blunt force trauma, gunshot wound, stabbing, slashing, poisoning, heart attack, stroke, or a sickness such as cancer, pneumonia, or heart disease.


    • 1 Forensic Pathologists from Hell: Bungled Autopsies, Bad Calls, and Blown Cases
      (pp. 13-28)

      Most forensic pathologists are hardworking, well intentioned, and competent. Even the best of them can make honest mistakes. But over the years, there have been several high-profile embarrassments to the profession. These forensic pathologists, because they were careless, incompetent, corrupt, or weak, did great harm to criminal defendants, victims of crime, and forensic science. What follows is a rogue’s gallery of run-amok pathologists who represent what can go wrong in the practice of forensic medicine.

      In 1981, twenty-five years after obtaining a medical degree in Mexico, Dr. Ralph Erdmann moved to Childress in Lubbock County, Texas, and began, on a...

    • 2 A Question of Credibility: Bad Reputations and the Politics of Death
      (pp. 29-46)

      A forensic pathologist is most critical in cases of sudden, unexplained, or violent death where a layperson, or even a physician without specialized training in forensic pathology, would not be able to determine, with a high degree of certainty, if the manner of death was natural, accidental, suicidal, or homicidal. The police might suspect homicide and even have a suspect, but if the forensic pathologist finds that the death is, say, accidental, there will be no criminal investigation. If the forensic pathologist has credibility, it’s less likely that people will question his or her call. If the forensic pathologist, for...

    • 3 The Sudden Infant Death Debate: Dr. Roy Meadow, Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, and Meadowʹs Law
      (pp. 47-66)

      Until 1969, whenever a presumably healthy baby died in its bed for no apparent reason, we called it “crib death” or “cot death.” These terms described where, not how, the baby had died and didn’t sound very scientific. But “sudden infant death syndrome,” a purely descriptive term coined by a pediatrician named J. Bruce Beckwith, sounded more technical and more ominous. By describing the suddenness of the death instead of the place it occurs, the term carries an implication of violence and foul play. While breaking new ground rhetorically, the introduction of the letters SIDS into the vocabulary of forensic...

    • 4 Infants Who Canʹt Breathe: Illness or Suffocation?
      (pp. 67-78)

      In the early 1960s, Dr. Alfred Steinschneider, a pediatrician at the Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, New York, began studying infants and toddlers who had been referred to him with life-threatening breathing problems. Many of these children, after being discharged from his clinic, died at home in their cribs. Occasionally Dr. Steinschneider would treat several children from the same family, and in a few of these cases, after the children left his clinic, they turned blue in their beds and died. Until Dr. Roy Meadow made his Munchausen syndrome by proxy theory public in 1977, multiple crib deaths within a...

    • 5 Swollen Brains and Broken Bones: Disease or Infanticide?
      (pp. 79-100)

      Shaken baby syndrome (SBS) refers to signs of physical trauma found in children under six who have been violently shaken. When a baby or toddler is shaken too hard, the victim’s brain is jarred against the skull, causing it to bleed and swell. The child’s proportionally large head and underdeveloped neck causes a whiplash effect. One-quarter to one-third of SBS victims die, and of those who survive, many suffer lifelong disabilities. It is the most common form of child abuse and may be one of the most underreported crimes in the United States.

      Most pediatricians and forensic pathologists believe that...

  7. PART TWO Crime-Scene Impression Identification:: Forensic Science or Subjective Analysis?

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 101-102)

      The chapters in part 2 feature expert analysis and testimony involving the identification of marks and impressions left by fingerprints, bare feet, footwear, and human teeth and ears. In recent years, particularly in the fields of feet, teeth, and ear identification, numerous expert witnesses have been exposed as bogus. Their highly publicized misidentifications produced wrongful convictions and have been an embarrassment to forensic science.

      Even fingerprint identification, once the gold standard of forensic science, has come under attack following misidentifications in that field. Until the 1990s, fingerprint examiners were never challenged in court. That has changed, and as a result,...

    • 6 Fingerprint Identification: Trouble in Paradise
      (pp. 103-122)

      At two in the morning a noise coming from her fifteen-year-old daughter’s bedroom awoke Mary Hiller. She slipped into her robe and ventured into the hall, where she noticed the gaslight outside her daughter’s room was unlit. Fearing that an intruder had entered the house, Mrs. Hiller returned to the master bedroom and shook her husband awake. Clarence Hiller, on the landing en route to his daughter’s room, bumped into Thomas Jennings, a thirty-two-year-old paroled burglar in possession of a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. The men struggled, then tumbled down the stairway. At the foot of the stairs, Jennings, the...

    • 7 Fingerprints Never Lie: Except in Scotland
      (pp. 123-138)

      In January 1997, Scottish officers from the Strathclyde Police Department responded to the scene of a murder in nearby Kilmarnock. Marion Ross, a fifty-one-year-old former bank clerk, had been stabbed to death in her bathroom. Her ribs were crushed and she had been stabbed in the eye and throat with a pair of scissors that had been left stuck in her neck. There was no sign of forced entry. Police officers theorized that Marian Ross had been killed by one of the men who recently had been doing remodeling work in her home.

      Shortly after the crime the police arrested...

    • 8 Shoe-Print Identification and Foot Morphology: The Lay Witness and the Cinderella Analysis
      (pp. 139-152)

      Comparing a crime-scene shoe print left on a hard surface, or an impression in dirt, mud, or snow, to the bottom of a specific shoe is not unlike the process of latent fingerprint identification. In many crime laboratories the latent fingerprint people also handle footwear and tire-track evidence and occasionally the identification of tool marks. William Bodziak, for example, the world’s leading footwear identification expert, who was employed in the FBI lab from 1973 to 1998, also identified tire tracks and worked in the questioned document section of the laboratory. Compared to DNA analysis, toxicology, and various aspects of forensic...

    • 9 Bite-Mark Identification: Do Teeth Leave Prints?
      (pp. 153-168)

      After putting out a house fire set by an arsonist, firefighters in Upstate New York discovered the body of a Cayuga County social worker named Sabina Kulakowski. The victim, found naked on a dirt road three hundred yards from the torched farmhouse in Aurelius, had been beaten, stabbed, strangled, and bitten. Three days after the May 23, 1991, discovery the police questioned Roy A. Brown, a heavy drinker with a criminal record. A week before the murder Brown had been released from jail after serving eight months for threatening another social worker. Brown denied any involvement in the arson or...

    • 10 Ear-Mark Identification: Emerging Science or Bad Evidence?
      (pp. 169-178)

      In the early morning hours of December 16, 1994, near Vancouver, Washington, an intruder entered James McCann’s bedroom and bludgeoned him to death. In another bedroom the burglar fractured the skull of McCann’s son, who managed to crawl outside, where he was discovered by a passerby at dawn. Questioned at the hospital, the boy told the police he hadn’t gotten a good look at his attacker, whom he described as twenty-five to thirty years old, dark complexioned, about six feet tall, and of medium build. George Millar, a fingerprint examiner with the Washington State crime lab, lifted a latent ear...

  8. PART THREE Hired Guns, Smoke Blowers, and Phonies:: The Expert Witness Problem

    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 179-181)

      Unlike ordinary witnesses such as detectives, eyewitnesses, and victims, who in criminal trials and civil litigation are required to stick to facts, experts are allowed to render their informed opinions on important questions of fact. And the opinion of a witness with an impressive educational background and professional experience greatly influences jurors. When such an opinion incriminates someone being tried for a crime, the incriminated person is in trouble. To have any chance of acquittal, the defendant in a situation like this has to hire an expert to counter the prosecutionʹs expert. In this era of expertise, many trials are...

    • 11 Expert versus Expert: The Handwriting Wars in the Ramsey Case
      (pp. 182-205)

      A 5:52 a.m. emergency call that a child had been kidnapped brought a pair of Boulder, Colorado, police officers to John and Patsy Ramsey’s three-story house an hour before daybreak on December 26, 1996. Patsy Ramsey said she had found a handwritten ransom note inside on the stairs. Fearing that her six-year-old daughter, JonBenét, had been kidnapped for ransom, she had called 911. After a cursory sweep of the fifteen-room dwelling, the patrolmen called for assistance.

      During the next two hours, amid friends and relatives who had come to console the family, police set up wiretap and recording equipment to...

    • 12 John Mark Karr: DNA Trumps the Graphologists in the Ramsey Case
      (pp. 206-217)

      After a thirteen-year-battle with ovarian cancer, Patsy Ramsey died on June 24, 2006. She was forty-nine. The media that had helped police and prosecutors portray the Ramseys as child murderers treated the death as a one-day news event, giving it less attention than the passing of a supporting actor on an old television sitcom. But in April 2006, two months before her death, the Ramseys flew from their home in Michigan back to Boulder where they met with district attorney Mary Keenan (now Lacy), who asked them if they had ever heard of a man named John Mark Karr. The...

    • 13 Hair and Fiber Identification: An Inexact Science
      (pp. 218-230)

      Forensic analysts who microscopically compare crime-scene hair follicles with samples from a suspect’s head or other part of the body note similarities or differences in hair length, thickness, texture, curl, color, and appearance of the medulla, the strip of cells that runs up the center of the shaft. A hair follicle, however, cannot be individualized like a fingerprint. A hair identification expert can declare, for example, that the defendant’s hair looks like a crime-scene follicle, or it is consistent in appearance with the questioned evidence, but they are not supposed to testify that a follicle at the scene of a...

    • 14 DNA Analysis: Backlogs, Sloppy Work, and Unqualified People
      (pp. 231-243)

      For police and prosecutors, DNA science has been a double-edged sword. Since the mid 1990s, thousands of rapists and killers have been identified by DNA and sent to prison. But DNA technology has also revealed flaws in other forensic sciences such as bite-mark and hair-follicle identification. It has also exposed weaknesses and corruption in the way crimes are investigated. As of 2007, 190 prisoners nationwide have been exonerated by DNA testing and released from custody. In Florida alone, DNA has freed twenty-five men who were awaiting execution. Wrongful convictions involve a combination of factors such as tunnel vision, poor interrogation...

    • 15 Bullet Identification, FBI Style: Overselling the Science
      (pp. 244-252)

      In the early 1980s, forensic chemists in the FBI crime laboratory began matching crime-scene bullet fragments to unfired ammunition through a trace identification process called comparative bullet lead analysis (CBLA). The process first used a trace detection technique, neutron activation analysis, and later used optical emission spectroscopy. Normally, suspects are linked to shootings through the guns that fired the crime-scene bullets. Standard firearms identification involves the microscopic comparison of rifling (barrel) marks on the crime-scene bullet with the striations (scratches) on a bullet that has passed through the barrel of the suspect’s gun. If the marks on the crime-scene bullet...

    • 16 The Celebrity Expert: Dr. Henry Lee
      (pp. 253-274)

      Dr. Henry Lee has come as close to becoming a household name as any forensic scientist in U.S. history. He has achieved fame in a profession whose practitioners generally operate behind the scenes. In the criminal justice field, it’s usually the defense attorneys who get the headlines, and in forensic science, it’s often forensic pathologists like Dr. Michael Baden and Dr. Cyril Wecht. In the 1930s, a pair of criminalists in the Seattle area, Oscar Heinrich and Luke May, achieved celebrity status by solving a number of celebrated murder cases in the Northwest, as did Clark Sellers, a handwriting expert...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 275-286)

    The nature of science itself, and the fact that forensic science is a service mainly delivered by the government, makes solving its problems a real challenge. Science is complex, constantly in flux, and often subject to disagreement. Government is slow, resistant to change, and difficult to hold accountable. The general difficulty with government is exacerbated by the convoluted structure of our criminal justice system and the adversarial nature of the trial process, where winning, not justice, has become the principal goal. Most problems in forensic science can be placed into one of three categories: personnel, jurisprudence (courts and law), and...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 287-290)
    (pp. 291-316)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 317-324)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 325-326)