Monthly Archives: April 2012

The (Sorry) State of Forensics in the US [and perhaps the world]

Reposted from The Wrongful Convictions Blog

by Phil Locke, Science and Technology Advisor, Ohio Innocence Project

In 2009, The National Academies of Science of the United States published its Congressionally commissioned report:  “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States – A Path Forward.”  Chapter 5 of the report presents a review of a number of forensic disciplines and their shortcomings.  A qualitative summary (by this author) of Chapter 5 findings is presented in the following chart:

I have “graded” each of the forensic disciplines on the following attributes:

1)  Statistical reliability for “class inclusion” of a suspect

2)  Statistical reliability for “individual identification” of a suspect.

3)  Statistical reliability for “class and individual exclusion” of a suspect.

4)  Verified scientific validity with documented statistics.

5)  Clear non-ambiguous terminology related to statistical validity of results.

6)  Does not rely on competence, training, experience, or judgement of individual examiners.

Of great concern is all the red, pink, and yellow on the chart.  Here is a link to a downloadable (and legible) copy of the chart:

NAS Ch5 Summary_Rev_4 copy

The National Academies were given the Congressional “charge” in the Fall of 2005 to investigate and report on the state of forensics in the US.  By the Fall of 2006, a panel of 52 scientists, academics, and experts had been assembled, and started work.  Two and a half years later, and after exhaustive review of all findings, the report was published.  What it had to say about forensics in the US (and by extension, the world) was not very good.  In summary, what they found was that forensics (with the exception of DNA) lacks scientific rigor and statistical validation.

It can be said that every forensic discipline (with the exception of DNA) fails the test of “show me the data from which I can compute a probability of occurrence.” This is, of course, echoed in the Daubert doctrine’s “no known error rate”.

Has this lack of scientific rigor and statistical validity led to wrongful convictions?  ABSOLUTELY.

But …. more about the validity of forensics in future posts.


Filed under NAS Report, Resources

Forensics: From Crime Scene to Courtroom CLE

Forensics: From Crime Scene to Courtroom CLE will be held this Friday, April 13 at the North Carolina Advocates for Justice headquarters. This event will feature only four speakers so there will be ample time for the respective topics to be covered in depth. A hypothetical fact pattern has been created for this class which will be the basis for the speakers to show how their respective subject may be applied in a practical trial application. The fact pattern is a single car alcohol / drug driving while impaired accident resulting in the death of one of the vehicle’s occupants.

Theodore W. Vosk, will be presenting on the uncertainty of measurement. Mr. Vosk will discuss error rates in measurement and how they affect breath and blood alcohol estimates. Attendees will be provided not only written materials but an audio file of a recent cross examination by Mr. Vosk of a crime lab technician demonstrating how this theory may be argued in court. Larry Daniel of Guardian Digital Forensics, regarded as one the top experts in the field, will be discussing computer forensics related to computers, cell phones, GPS, social media and cell towers. Dr. Peter Stout from RTI International will discuss GC-MS, Headspace Gas Chromatography and the complex procedures required to obtain forensically reliable results in drug analysis and toxicology. Lastly, Dr. Christena L. Roberts will educate you on what to look for in medical records and autopsy reports in evaluating how injuries or death may have occurred.

On-site registration will begin at 8:00 a.m., speakers will start promptly at 9:00 a.m. and conclude at 4:45 p.m. There is no need to pre-register, but you can email for more information. There will not be a webcast or video replay so don’t miss your chance to learn from some of the best in their respective area of expertise. You will leave with practical information that can be applied to your own pending and future cases.

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Filed under Meetings/Events

Greg Taylor and Darryl Hunt programs on April 12, 2012

Two programs featuring NC exonerees Greg Taylor and Darryl Hunt will be broadcast on April 12, 2012.

The WRAL documentary, “6,149 Days” which premieres on April 12 at 8:00 pm recounts the flawed investigation that led to Greg Taylor’s conviction, Taylor’s 6,149 days in prison, and the fight to set him free. Steven D. Hammel, Vice President and General Manager of WRAL-TV said in a statement, “It is the mission of our dedicated documentary unit to tackle in-depth topics and social issues. Greg Taylor’s story exposes serious flaws in our state’s criminal justice system. It is our hope that this program can be a force for positive change.”

The documentary will be broadcast commercial-free on WRAL-TV in Raleigh, WJZY-TV in Charlotte and WILM-TV in Wilmington and will be followed by a half-hour live discussion with retired police chief Darrel Stephens of Charlotte and state representative Rick Glazier of Fayetteville. Additional information including court documents, photos, and a trailer can be viewed here.

Darryl Hunt’s case will be featured on Investigation Discovery series “Cold Blood” at 9 p.m. on April 12. The episode will include interviews with Darryl Hunt who was twice convicted for the murder of Deborah Sykes based on faulty eyewitness identification evidence. Hunt served 18.5 years for a crime he did not commit and was exonerated ten years after being excluded as a suspect by DNA evidence. Also interviewed in the program are: Howard Cross, Sykes’ friend; Sgt. Chuck Byrom, Winston-Salem police; Mark Rabil, attorney and Winston-Salem resident; Phoebe Zerwick, Winston-Salem Journal (1987-2008); and Regina Lane, rape victim. To check local listings, click here.

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Filed under DNA, Meetings/Events


Mark your calendars: on April 17, 2012, FRONTLINE reports on serious flaws in forensic practices and inconsistencies in how forensic evidence is presented in the courtroom.

The program will be broadcast on PBS stations and online. FRONTLINE investigates reliability of fingerprint analysis, ballistics, and bite mark analysis and evaluates the standards that govern these practices. The investigation looks into the Casey Anthony murder trial, the use of fingerprint evidence in the FBI’s investigation of the Madrid terrorist bombing, and the use of forensic evidence in capital cases in rural Mississippi. This program is part of the ProPublica and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism investigative series, Post Mortem.

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Filed under Crime Labs, Meetings/Events