I just caught this post over at Feministe: “When Science is Subjective” by Tricia. Some highlights:
In fact,most forensic sciences– e.g., handwriting, bitemark, fire pattern, blood spatter, bullet and tool marking analysis–are open to subjective interpretations. Which means when we allow testimony about these “sciences” at trial, what we’re really doing is allowing juries to pit an expert’s credibility (and unreliable testimony) against that of the defendant’s. Considering the supposed “expert” is typically some combination of educated, middle- or upper- class, white and male, and that most defendants come from disadvantaged backgrounds, you can guess how the jury (which is also typically made up of white folks) will decide the case.
But it’s not just the expert’s testimony that is skewed against the defendant. Often, the very request for testing will skew the results themselves. Although state crime labs technically work for both the prosecution and the defense, requests for testing are typically submitted by the District Attorney. Included on the tests is information about the crime necessary to perform the testing. For example, if you have clothing that you want tested for trace DNA, it would be helpful to know that the victim had been strangled, and so they should look for DNA near the collar of the shirt. But along with this necessary information comes prejudicial information about the defendant, what the police suspect happened, and what they expect to find. Thus, by the time the lab technician even begins to analyze evidence, they are already looking for a particular outcome.
This isn’t to say that all lab technicians are shady, vindictive people. It just means they are human. […]
But all of these motivations aside, what results is a system that favors fraudulent science and hinders the defense.
I wrote about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham a few weeks ago. He was executed in the state of Texas for arson and murder. But evidence has shown that the arson investigators did a poor job and that there was no arson to begin with. But Willingham is still dead.
Now there are reports of major problems with prosecutions in North Carolina, including in the case of three people who were executed (though the report that is out now does not say whether the convictions were wrong, but that the cases need to be reexamined).
A devastating series of reports by The News & Observer confirmed what has long percolated just below the surface in North Carolina regarding the State Bureau of Investigation: Some crime lab practices appear to have only a casual connection to science; sometimes results going against the grain of prosecutor’s arguments aren’t reported, and at other times rules are bent or broken. In some instances what has been happening isn’t the dogged pursuit of the truth; it’s the dogged pursuit of making facts fit in order to put someone — anyone — behind bars. […]
Badly botched cases have been something of a hallmark of North Carolina’s recent judicial history. Wrongful convictions that have landed men on death row include the cases of Ronald Cotton, Greg Taylor Darryl Hunt and Alan Gell, cases that helped lead to the establishment of the N.C. Innocence Commission. Public pressure to help form the commission came about in part through a series of public forums, such as one held in 2004 at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. Hunt and Gell were featured at that event. Gell sat on death row nine years for a murder he supposedly committed, according to 17 witnesses, when he was actually already sitting in jail.
According to an APNewsBreak from 30 minutes ago:
Analysts at North Carolina’s crime lab omitted, overstated or falsely reported blood evidence in dozens of cases, including three that ended in executions and another where two men were convicted of killing Michael Jordan’s father, according to a scathing independent review to be released Wednesday.
The government-ordered inquest by two former FBI officials found that agents of the State Bureau of Investigation repeatedly aided prosecutors in obtaining convictions over a 16-year period, mostly by misrepresenting blood evidence and keeping critical notes from defense attorneys. The Associated Press obtained the review of blood evidence in cases from 1987 to 2003 in advance of the report’s release.
It calls for a thorough examination of 190 criminal cases, stating that, at times, “information that may have been material and even favorable to the defense of an accused defendant was withheld or misrepresented.”
The report does not conclude that any innocent people were convicted, noting the evidence wasn’t always used at trials and defendants may have admitted to crimes. But it states prosecutors and defense lawyers need to check whether tainted lab reports helped lead to confessions or pleas.
Attorney General Roy Cooper ordered the review in March after an SBI agent testified the crime lab once had a policy of excluding complete blood test results from reports offered to defense lawyers before trials. The existence of the policy was later confirmed by a former SBI director. Agent Duane Deaver’s testimony led to the exoneration of a murder convict imprisoned nearly 17 years.
The review by Chris Swecker and Mike Wolf, two former assistant directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, found 230 cases in which eight SBI analysts filed reports that, at best, were incomplete. Of those, 190 resulted in criminal charges and should be reviewed.
The report says the lab may have violated federal and state laws mandating that evidence favorable to defendants be shared with their lawyers. It also bolsters a long-held skepticism by defense attorneys, who have alleged the ostensibly neutral lab is in the pocket of law enforcement.
Besides the executions, the report urged a closer look at the cases of four people on death row and one whose death sentence was commuted to life. […]
Deaver is linked to the five cases the report characterizes as the most egregious violations, and it accuses him of overstating or falsely reporting blood test results, including one in the case against Desmond Keith Carter, who was executed in 2002. In two of the cases, including Carter’s, Deaver’s final report on blood analyses said his tests “revealed the presence of blood” when his notes indicated negative results from follow-up tests. His notes indicate that he got a negative result because he didn’t have enough sample left for the confirmatory test.
In three other cases, the review said Deaver’s reports stated further tests were “inconclusive” or “no result” while his lab notes reflected negative results.
The Attorney General’s Office said Carter confessed to the crime, and the evidence in question wasn’t introduced at trial, the report said.
Deaver still works for the SBI, although no longer in the crime lab.
THIS shit is why the state has to stop killing people. Because you can’t take that decision back. You can’t right that wrong.
This stuff just upsets me so much. I can’t believe with the knowledge of cases like these that it is LEGAL for the state to kill people via this process. Even if we all agree that we have the best legal system in the world, that doesn’t make it perfect or infallible.