Author Archives: Sarah Rackley Olson

NACDL’s Fourth Amendment Center Offers Direct Assistance to Defense Lawyers

NACDL’s Fourth Amendment Center now offers direct assistance to defense lawyers handling cases involving new technologies and tactics that may infringe on privacy rights of Americans. The Center’s staff is available to help members of the defense bar in bringing new Fourth Amendment challenges, providing a range of support from training and resources to expert consultation and direct litigation, all free of charge.

The Center is now available to provide litigation assistance in cases raising issues addressing new surveillance tools, technologies, and programs; including:

  • Searches and seizures of personal data held by “third-party” service providers (the “third-party doctrine”)
  • Overbroad searches and seizures of electronic devices or online accounts
  • Electronic location tracking, including cell site simulators (“Stingrays”)
  • Government hacking and use of “network investigative techniques”
  • New law enforcement technologies: predictive policing, facial recognition/biometric identification, and drone/aerial surveillance.

Defense lawyers with cases involving any of these or other issues are encouraged to contact NACDL’s Fourth Amendment Center. The Center assists attorneys who are members or non-members of NACDL. The Center is available to provide consultations and litigation resources as well as direct assistance in support of a defendant’s claims. Specifically, the Center may assist in motion practice, preparation for suppression hearings, as well as appellate strategy, brief writing, and oral argument. The Center also provides group trainings for defense lawyers around the country and upon request.

To request assistance or additional information, contact:

Jumana Musa, Director, Fourth Amendment Center: (202) 465-7658, jmusa@nacdl.org

Michael Price, Senior Litigation Counsel, Fourth Amendment Center: (202) 465-7615, mprice@nacdl.org

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Filed under Digital Forensics

Daubert in 12 Minutes

If you are working on a case where expert opinion testimony is anticipated, a quick primer on NC Rule of Evidence 702 and the Daubert standard is now available. Andrew DeSimone of the Appellate Defender’s Office has recorded Daubert in 12 Minutes which addresses the admissibility of expert testimony in North Carolina.

The primer discusses the 2011 changes to Rule 702 and the implications of those changes in criminal cases. DeSimone covers the relevance inquiry and “fit test,” the qualifications of the expert, and the 3-pronged reliability test from the federal rule and Daubert. DeSimone discusses the McGrady opinion’s application of the reliability test.

The program also is available for download on the Experts page of the IDS Forensic website.

Daubert in 12 Minutes with Audio from Sarah Olson on Vimeo.

 

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Filed under 702, Experts, Uncategorized

Houston in the Blind

Blind studies and procedures are the gold standard of evaluating the quality and reliability of scientific results. Unfortunately, this has long been lacking in forensic science. Fortunately, strides are being made to introduce blind testing to forensics, most notably in the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC).

Currently, forensic scientists are tested periodically on their knowledge and ability through proficiency tests. However, scientists typically are aware they are completing a proficiency test and not case work. This allows for the Hawthorne effect to play a role in the testing, or the phenomena of a person behaving differently when they know they are being observed. Blind testing in forensic science will allow for blind samples to be included with case work in a manner that scientists cannot distinguish between a blind and a real case. This will help distinguish whether or not a laboratory adheres to guidelines and whether best practices are used in a day-to-day setting, as opposed to simply during an anticipated exam.

This article describes the efforts of Dr. Peter Stout, the HFSC’s chief executive officer (and former member of the NC Forensic Science Advisory Board), to implement a “blinds program.” So far, 329 blind samples have been integrated into normal casework in the firearms, toxicology, DNA, fingerprint, and digital forensic sections of the lab. In 2018, the lab plans to grow the program to 800 blind tests per year, or 5 percent of the lab’s workload.

Disguising a blind as a case sample is not a simple task, as the Forensic Magazine article describes. In addition to the challenge of creating a case submission that appears authentic, another particularly challenging aspect has been determining whether the blind samples could be searched in databases like AFIS, NIBIN, and CODIS.

At the HFSC, no errors have yet been reported in the testing of a blind. Use of blind tests will allow the lab to begin reporting error rates and confidence intervals, which will strengthen the testimony of analysts and allow them to answer questions about reliability of their work.

If you’ve made it this far in the post and are still wondering about the title, “Houston, in the blind” refers to a phrase used by astronauts when they aren’t receiving any response from ground control. The phrase indicates that they will continue to communicate, not knowing if ground control is receiving their message. My hope for forensic science is that communications about blind testing will not be “in the blind.”

 

 

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Filed under Crime Labs, DNA, Drug Analysis/Toxicology, Fingerprints

Happy National DNA Day!

If you handle cases involving DNA evidence and don’t know the story of Lukis Anderson, stop what you are doing and take a few minutes to observe National DNA Day by reading this great article by Katie Worth of The Marshall Project.

Mr. Anderson was a homeless man living in San Jose, CA whose DNA was found on the fingernail of murder victim Raveesh Kumra. As a result of the DNA match, Mr. Anderson was charged with murder and spent several months in jail on that charge before the innocent explanation was uncovered for his DNA being on a murder victim who was unknown to him.

Both Mr. Anderson and Mr. Kumra were attended to by the same team of paramedics on the night of the crime. After Mr. Anderson was transported to the hospital, the paramedics responded to the scene at Mr. Kumra’s home. Had Mr. Anderson not had an airtight alibi established in his medical records, showing he was in the hospital at the time that Mr. Kumra was murdered, it is likely his case would have had an outcome other than dismissal.

The Marshall Project article explains the phenomenon of DNA transfer that Mr. Anderson’s case illustrates. There has been scientific research on DNA transfer showing that 1 in 5 of us walk around with someone else’s DNA under our fingernails. People shed 50 million skin cells a day, and research has demonstrated how easy it is for DNA to be transferred to an object that a person has never touched. Because techniques for analyzing DNA have become more and more sensitive, it is possible now to develop a profile with a small number of cells – cells which are easily transferred.

If you’d like additional information about DNA transfer or the challenges of interpreting very small amounts of DNA, please contact me (Sarah.R.Olson@nccourts.org) and I’d be happy to discuss further and share some articles with you.

 

 

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Filed under DNA, Uncategorized

National Forensic College 2018 announced

The 5th annual NACDL and Cardozo School of Law National Forensic College (NFC), presented in collaboration with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, Defender Services Training Division, will take place Sunday, June 3 through Friday, June 8, 2018 in New York City.

The goal of the college is to train experienced litigators in state and federal defender offices, both trial and post-conviction, to litigate complex forensic science issues strategically and with the support of the nation’s leading law firms and experts. Afterwards, attendees are expected to train legal professionals in their jurisdictions in these areas and work with fellow lawyers to develop successful litigation strategies to address forensic issues.

Topics for 2018 will include: False Confessions, Pattern Evidence, Digital Evidence, DNA (including an advanced track), Eyewitness Identification, Toxicology, plus instruction on statistics in forensics and an update on ligation using the PCAST report.

Attendance is by invitation only, but private attorneys can apply to attend. The cost to attend for private attorneys is $999 for the week, plus the cost of housing. The application and additional information is available here.

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Filed under Meetings/Events, PCAST Report

The Myth of the Reliability Test

UVA Law Professor Brandon Garrett and Innocence Project Director of Strategic Litigation M. Chris Fabricant wrote a law review article in the Fordham Law Review in March 2018 that examines whether Rule 702 is in fact functioning as a reliability test. The article is available for free download here. They looked at hundreds of state court criminal cases and found that “courts have largely neglected the critical language concerning reliability in the Rule.”

The article has a useful table that lists all 229 cases where admissibility of expert testimony was challenged under the 2000 revisions to Rule 702 in state courts. The table includes the type of evidence, whether the evidence was admitted, and which party was the proponent of the evidence. For North Carolina, 14 case are listed.

In the majority of the cases cited, courts ruled that the evidence is admissible based on prior rulings admitting that type of evidence or the qualification of the expert. In many cases, courts found that the defendant did not adequately preserve reliability-related objections at trial. Thirty-four cases affirmed the exclusion of defense expert testimony. Sixteen cases ruled prosecution witnesses should have been excluded.

For attorneys who are considering making a challenge to expert testimony, this article gives the lay of the land for these types of challenges and makes the case for defense counsel needing to sufficiently preserve the record so these decisions are reviewable on appeal.

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Filed under 702, Experts

Uniform Language for Testimony and Reporting for Fingerprints

At the February 2018 American Academy of Forensic Science meeting, DOJ Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the Uniform Language for Testimony and Reporting (ULTR) document for fingerprints. The purpose of the document is to standardize language used by Department of Justice fingerprint examiners in their reports and testimony. While the document does not apply to examiners in state or local laboratories, it is important for legal practitioners to understand what standards exist in the field. While the new language makes some advances by limiting some past overstatements (such as prohibiting examiners from saying “two friction ridge prints originated from the same source to the absolute exclusion of all other sources;” using terms like “individualize” or “reasonable degree of scientific certainty;” expressing 100% certainty; or implying that fingerprint examination has a zero error rate), it still goes beyond what the data support.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) CEO Rush Holt responded by stating in a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein,

There is no scientific basis for estimating the number of individuals who might have a particular pattern of features; therefore, there is no scientific basis on which an examiner might form an expectation of whether an arrangement comes from the same source. The proposed language fails to acknowledge the uncertainty that exists regarding the rarity of particular fingerprint patterns. Any such expectations that an examiner asserts necessarily rest on speculation, rather than scientific evidence. As there is no empirical basis for examiners to estimate the frequency of any particular pattern observable in a print, the term identification or, in your proposed language source identification, should not be used.

The AAAS comments rely on the Forensic Science Assessments – A Quality and Gap Analysis: Latent Fingerprint Examination report published in September 2017 which addressed the validity and reliability of latent fingerprint examinations.

 

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Filed under Fingerprints