Monthly Archives: October 2012

SCOTUS to Decide on Dog Sniffs and Privacy

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear two Florida cases at the end of October regarding dog sniffs and the Fourth Amendment.   The Florida Supreme Court ruled in Florida v. Jardines that taking a drug detection dog to the front porch of a home to sniff for marijuana violated the Fourth Amendment.  They held in Florida v. Harris, where a drug detection dog alerted to a car, that the dog sniff did not constitute probable cause to search a car.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) recently held a panel discussion on the cases which you can view online.  Among the participants in the panel were a defense attorney and dog sniff expert, the Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and a Supreme Court litigator and partner at WilmerHale.  You can watch the video here.  News articles on the cases can be found here and here.

You can get also get more information about these cases from Shea Denning’s posts on the UNC School of Government blog. She has posted about the status of dog sniffs under the Fourth Amendment here and on NC dog sniff cases here.

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Filed under Drug Analysis/Toxicology

Crime lab backlogs and the Massachusetts lab scandal

Many readers are probably aware of the scandal unfolding in the Massachusetts State Police lab, where chemist Annie Dookhan has been charged with obstructing justice by falsifying data in criminal cases and lying under oath about her qualifications. Dookhan was responsible for testing substances that were suspected to be drugs. An October 9, 2012 article  in the journal Nature reports that she guessed at the composition of the samples instead of testing them, she recorded positive results in some cases where the samples tested negative, and she contaminated some samples after the fact so that they would match her guesses, if tested.

The investigation of this lab scandal has revealed a large backlog of cases, and the journal Nature reports that forensic labs across the country are under pressure to keep up with heavy case loads. According to this article, interviews in a police report on the Massachusetts scandal identify the 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts as a key cause of the backlog. The article quotes American Society of Crime Lab Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD-LAB) executive director Ralph Keaton as saying, “They’re spending all their time in the courtroom and not the laboratory. Then the backlog grows.”

ASCLD-LAB, which is headquartered in Garner, NC, accredits the labs run by the Massachusetts State Police. Keaton’s quote doesn’t link Melendez-Diaz to Dookhan’s actions, but the article could be read as implying that Melendez-Diaz may be leading to misconduct to reduce backlogs. Linking the type of misconduct that Dookhan is alleged to have committed to pressure to reduce backlogs overlooks the real question of how such grave misconduct in the lab was allowed to continue, unchecked, for months or years. In a lab of science professionals where there is adequate oversight, misconduct that affects 34,000 criminal cases, including those of 1,100 people in jail, should not occur.

For more information on this lab scandal, click here.

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Filed under Crime Labs, Drug Analysis/Toxicology

“Forensics on Trial” program on NOVA

NOVA (PBS) aired a program called “Forensics on Trial” on October 17, 2012, examining the crisis facing crime labs in the U.S which lack central oversight, employ few scientific standards, and have poor regulation of examiners. The program investigates how the use of fingerprint, bite mark, ballistics, toolmark, and hair analysis evidence has led to wrongful convictions. The program will examine the 2004 Madrid bombing case in which a so-called fingerprint match was used to arrest an innocent man. The fingerprint was later matched to another suspect.  The program will also discuss how mishandling of forensic evidence impacts the criminal justice system, from wrongful convictions to the O.J. Simpson trial.  You can read about the details of the program here.

More information is also available on the NOVA website where the program can be viewed online.

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Filed under DNA, Fingerprints

The “Birthday Problem”

Defense attorneys interested in learning more about DNA statistics might find the following articles interesting because the “birthday problem” is analogous to looking for partial matches in a DNA database.  The birthday problem is a classic puzzle that asks  if you had a room full of people, how many people would you need in the room to make the odds of two people having the same birthday at least 50-50. Surprisingly, the answer is just 23.

In the “birthday problem,” when you do not designate a specific birthdate, you open up the opportunity for many pairs to be made from a much smaller sampling of people than if you specified a specific birthday.  The same applies in with DNA when searching a DNA database for any set of matching loci, rather than looking to match a specific set of loci to another distinct set of loci.

This NY Times post is part a 6-part series entitled “Me, Myself and Math” and does a great job of explaining the birthday problem. For folks wanting more in-depth information about how the birthday problem is useful for understanding trawling of DNA databases for partial matches, take a look at this article by David H. Kaye.

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Filed under DNA

Oregon State Police Questioned Document Unit Under Review

Criminal cases that utilized handwriting analysis performed by the Oregon State Police Forensic Services Division are being re-examined after it was uncovered earlier this year that Oregon State Police handwriting analysts may have tainted evidence in those cases. The Questioned Document Unit, which handles handwriting analysis, was shut down in April of this year after it was discovered that analysts working in the lab did not use agency procedures in a criminal case. The two analysts involved have been suspended with pay and the head of the Forensic Services Division was reassigned and subsequently retired.

Over 30 cases are being reviewed by examiners outside the Oregon State Police crime lab, and more may follow as law enforcement agencies continue to submit additional documents for review. Analysis in serious pending cases is being sent out to FBI examiners in Quantico, VA. Examples of the types of documents examined by the Questioned Document Unit include any type of handwritten document, such as wills, checks, letters, and demand notes in robberies.

You can read more here.

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Filed under Crime Labs

Free at Last! Willie Grimes Exonerated by 3-Judge Panel

A 3-judge panel found Willie Grimes innocent after thirty-minutes of deliberation on Friday.  Grimes had been sentenced to life in prison in 1987 after being convicted of two counts of first degree rape and one count of second degree kidnapping.  He was paroled in May of this year after serving twenty-four years in prison.

Grimes’s case was heard in April by the Innocence Inquiry Commission, which unanimously agreed that enough evidence existed to refer his case to the 3-judge panel.  The rape kit and hairs found at the scene had been lost and were unable to be utilized in exonerating Grimes.  However, a fingerprint on a banana, which the victim had claimed her attacker may have touched, was analyzed and confirmed as belonging to someone other than Grimes. Grimes was represented by attorneys Chris Mumma, director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, and Robert Campbell of Hickory.

You can read more here, here, or here.

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Filed under DNA, Fingerprints

NIJ Has Made Available New Forensic Technical Reports

The National Institute of Justice has published several reports on novel techniques that are being investigated in order to improve forensic analysis. Take a look at the reports below to learn about some of the latest techniques that are being developed and to get a forecast of what techniques you may see coming soon to a forensic lab near you!

Application of Machine Learning to Toolmarks: Statistically Based Methods for Impression Pattern Comparisons (pdf, 99 pages)

Researchers created a database of 3D striation and impression patterns on Glock fired cartridge cases, screwdriver and chisel striation patterns. They attempted to objectively associate the toolmarks with the tools that created them using principal component analysis, canonical variate analysis, and support vector machine methodology. Researchers were able to estimate an error rate for toolmark identification using these techniques and a confidence level was assigned. Researchers suggest that this methodology is a useful means of gauging the quality of a toolmark “match.”

Application of Raman Spectroscopy for an Easy-to-Use, on-Field, Rapid, Nondestructive, Confirmatory Identification of Body Fluids (pdf, 80 pages)

Research indicates that new nondestructive, confirmatory testing could identify bodily fluids, including dried fluids, with a near 100% accuracy rate using a Raman microscope equipped with advanced statistics for rapid mapping of pure bodily fluids. The research further proposes that mixed samples can be identified if the samples are not completely mixed. This nondestructive testing, if adopted in the future, could help in the preservation of crucial DNA evidence. It also offers a heightened level of confidence in the results obtained due to its confirmatory nature and level of accuracy.

Establishing the Quantitative Basis for Sufficiency Thresholds and Metrics for Friction Ridge Pattern Detail and the Foundation for a Standard (pdf, 53 pages)

Motivated by both the Daubert ruling and the findings of the National Academy of Sciences, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: a Path Forward (2009), researchers from multiple disciplines collaborated to develop a scientific foundation for fingerprint image quality, with a focus on latent prints.  Researchers followed an experimental approach and then performed statistical validation of their results. Their research yielded several noteworthy results, most salient being detection of unique features that can assist fingerprint examiners in drawing statistical likelihoods of a given feature. This project bolsters claims that existing methods of analysis are more of an art than a science and therefore more susceptible to human error.

Filling a Critical Need by Establishing a Fully Functioning, CODIS Dedicated Laboratory (pdf, 101 pages)

The state of Wyoming requires maintenance of a database of offender samples which historically have been processed via outsourcing to private agencies.  Through funding from both the NIJ and Wyoming State legislature, Wyoming has established their own CODIS lab to process offender samples for entry into CODIS. Currently, samples processed through the lab pass through to CODIS at a 95% success rate. Through creation of the state-run lab, sample processing time has been cut from more than two years to less than sixty days.

Implementation of a DNA Triage and Analysis System Dedicated to Increasing the Throughput of High Volume Crimes in a Forensic Laboratory (pdf, 133 pages)

Through the efforts of both the Orange County California crime lab and the Orange County District Attorney’s office, the crime lab implemented a team-oriented approach to processing DNA from property crimes. The approach employed a highly automated DNA processing method that the crime lab anticipated would free up time from the processing of property crimes, which are extremely high in volume, to devote to dealing with violent crimes. As anticipated, the new handling method decreased the turn around time on both property and violent crimes.

Taq Mutants Engineered for Forensics (pdf, 44 pages)

Researchers used novel genetically-engineered enzymes and a new protocol for DNA analysis to attempt to reduce false negative results and improve the efficiency of DNA testing. These novel enzymes and new protocol would work better with forensic samples that contain residual blood, soil, or other substances that inhibit forensic DNA analysis. Researchers found that their technique outperformed the techniques currently used in forensic DNA analysis.

Use of Scanning Electron Microscopy/Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy (SEM/EDS) Methods for the Analysis of Small Particles Adhering to Carpet Fiber Surfaces as a Means to Test Associations of Trace Evidence in a Way that is Independent of Manufactured Characteristics (pdf, 77 pages)

Typically, very small particles (VSP) are ignored by forensic science. However, researchers have made the first steps towards developing a method for collecting and analyzing VSP as part of trace evidence. Researchers have successfully collected VSP from carpet fibers and demonstrated the difference between carpet fibers themselves and the VSP adhering to them. Researchers urge that VSP can prove useful in the area of trace evidence by comparing VSP from crime scenes or suspects to any items of physical evidence.

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Filed under Crime Labs, DNA, Fingerprints, Firearms