On Monday, September 17, 2012, the NC State Crime Lab began operating under a new set of procedures modeled after International Organization for Standardization (ISO) procedures. The new procedures are posted here. Any analysis conducted by the lab on or after September 17 will be performed according to the new procedures. Attorneys should be careful to be verify which procedures were being used at the time the analysis was conducted in their cases.
The State Crime Lab is one of a handful of crime labs in the country working under ISO procedures. The Crime Lab will be required to operate under these procedures for several months before it can be accredited under these procedures. The Lab is currently accredited by ASCLD-LAB and is seeking ISO-accreditation through ASCLD-LAB and the accreditation board Forensic Quality Services (FQS).
Attorneys, experts, and other members of the public are invited to comment on the new procedures through October 15, 2012 by emailing senior lab management at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Forensic Science Advisory Board, a board of scientists that advises the State Crime Lab, is also reviewing these procedures.
You can read press coverage about the new procedures here and here.
A new reference standard for comparing cartridge casings has been developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The standard is known as SRM 2461, Standard Casing. It was developed to assist firearms examiners by ensuring that the equipment used to match cartridge cases to those in the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) database is calibrated correctly. Joseph R. John, Sr. Director of the North Carolina State Crime Lab, has confirmed that firearms examiners are to begin using this standard.
Examiners use a microscope called an Integrated Ballistic Identification System (IBIS) to view breech face marks, ejector marks, and firing pin impressions on a casing, which serve as identifying characteristics for a specific firearm once recorded in the NIBIN database. SRM 2461, Standard Casing consists of two standards, a master cartridge case with distinct markings and a digital image contained in the NIBIN database that has the same marks. If the examiner can match the standard to the digital image in the NIBIN database, the technician can have confidence that their equipment is calibrated properly. NIST claims that the new standard will allow examiners to have confidence in their methodologies and demonstrate that their work uses a national standard.
The use of the new standard casing may create some interesting opportunities for defense attorneys working with cartridge casing evidence. For attorneys working on older cases, it raises questions regarding the absence of a national standard in the past to ensure against inaccuracies. Attorneys working on cases where SRM 2461, Standard Casing is used should keep in mind that the standard only addresses calibration. Questions about the reliability and error rate of the technique are not addressed by this calibration standard.
More information about the new standard is available here.
Both The New York Times and National Public Radio (NPR) report that a recent study suggests judges may impose lighter sentences in cases where a defendant, diagnosed as psychopathic, is genetically predisposed to violent behavior.
The study, carried about by researchers at the University of Utah and published in the journal Science, tasked 181 judges from 19 states with reading a fictional case file and sentencing the defendant. The fictional defendant, accused of beating a restaurant manager senseless with the butt of a gun, was identified in the case file as being diagnosed as a psychopath. All of the case files distributed were identical except that half of the files included expert testimony from a neurobiologist that the defendant had inherited a gene linked to violent behavior. In those files which included the neurobiologist’s testimony, judges, on average, imposed a sentence seven percent lighter than that imposed on the defendant in the file without the expert testimony.
However, experts, such as law and biological sciences professor Owen D. Jones of Vanderbilt, caution that results could differ in front of juries. Further, evidence of a biological link to violence may be used by the prosecution to argue for harsher penalties because there is nothing to stop a defendant from being violent in the future.
But, as NPR reports, introduction of a biological basis can mean life or death for a client in a capital case because it may lessen culpability. Research by geneticist Han Brunner uncovered a link between a defect found in a gene known as MAOA (monoamine oxidase A) and the violent behavior of a number of men in a Dutch family who engaged in extremely violent behavior. Stephen Mobley, who was sentenced to death for robbing and shooting a restaurant manager later appealed his sentence on the grounds that his counsel was ineffective for failing to introduce evidence that he possessed the defective MAOA gene uncovered by Brunner and believed to be responsible for violent behavior. His death sentence was reduced to life. However, a later court overturned the ruling, finding that the brain evidence should not have been allowed.
While brain scans and other neurological evidence already is used in some cases, these studies highlight the potential for use of genetic evidence in mitigation, particularly salient in capital cases. Vanderbilt University Pathology Laboratory Services in Tennessee performs this testing which requires only a client’s blood sample. More information can be found here, or contact Sarah Rackley to discuss this testing.
You can find the New York Times article here and the NPR article here.