'Bad' science still rampant in US justice system

Jan 04, 2011 by Kerry Sheridan

The story of an American man cleared of a rape and robbery conviction by DNA evidence after spending 30 years in jail made headlines across the world on Tuesday.

But despite advances in and technology, such exonerations are rare, and experts say the US remains riddled with problems that arise from outdated practices and, quite simply, bad science.

Perhaps the worst offender is the police lineup. Research shows that 75 percent of all wrongful convictions that are later cleared by start with eyewitness mistakes.

That was the case for Cornelius Dupree, who was fingered in 1979 by a rape victim who incorrectly picked him out of a photo array.

Texas District Judge Don Adams on Tuesday declared Dupree, 51, "free to go" after serving more than 30 years behind bars.

"Cornelius Dupree spent the prime of his life behind bars because of mistaken identification that probably would have been avoided if the best practices now used in Dallas had been employed," said attorney Barry Scheck.

Scheck, who rose to fame as a defense lawyer on the team that won American football star OJ Simpson's acquittal for murder in 1995, now heads the Innocence Project, which is leading the charge for reform of the science side of the criminal justice system.

Changing the way photo lineups are done is key, because memory is flawed and witnesses are prone to subtle suggestion by police who want to catch a criminal, according to University of Virginia School of Law professor Brandon Garrett.

"There have now been thousands of studies with incredibly consistent results all showing that suggestion has this outsized powerful effect on eyewitness memory," Garrett said.

"Even if police are trying their best not to signal anything, the eyewitness -- who may be a victim of a crime and hesitant about participating -- may be looking to the police officer for reassurance and for cues and may perceive things that weren't even intended."

Garrett estimated that hundreds of police departments have begun to change the way they conduct lineups, for instance by having an officer who is not involved in the case supervise, and by informing the witness that the suspect may not be in the lineup at all.

But in a country where tens of thousands of cases each year rely on eyewitness testimony for convictions, the scale of reform is falling far short.

The same holds true for other old-fashioned police methods that remain in practice even though modern day science has disproved their reliability.

"I actually divide forensic science into two big camps," said Michael Saks, law professor at Arizona State University. "There is the camp that is using real science that is borrowed from basic science, such as chemistry and DNA.

"On the other hand you have got the kind of -- well, my kindest word for it is almost-science or wannabe science, and that includes handwriting, fingerprints, fire and arson investigation and forensic dentistry."

Arson science in particular has made waves lately in the criminal justice community, as Scheck and other legal experts have attempted to use the case of an executed Texas man to showcase flaws in the death penalty.

Several fire science experts reviewed evidence in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was put to death in 2004 for setting the house blaze that killed his three small daughters. The experts found no proof of arson.

However, attempts to get the Texas governor to acknowledge mistakes may have been made, as well as a recent bid to have a Houston judge rule on whether the death penalty is unconstitutional because it leads to wrongful convictions, have been shut down by local authorities and courts.

In all, just 266 people, a majority of them African-Americans, have been exonerated by DNA evidence since 1989, according to the Innocence Project.

"The number of people that are exonerated that we know about are tiny," said University of Michigan professor Samuel Gross, adding that when crime evidence goes beyond the bounds of DNA, convictions become even harder to overturn.

"The problem with arson cases is that if the defendant wasn't guilty it is not because someone else did it, it is because there was no crime and that is a hard thing to prove in a lot of cases," he said.

And even when a bulk of evidence exists, pure science is rarely enough, according to Gail Jaspen, chief deputy director of Virginia Department of Forensics.

"Evidence by itself doesn't prove somebody's innocence," said Jaspen. "Because the (forensic science) department doesn't have the ability to exonerate anybody. Only the court or the governor does."

Explore further: Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

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Quantum_Conundrum
2.1 / 5 (7) Jan 04, 2011
This is why I support more surveillance in a wider variety of locations.

We should be glad for the rapidly advancing smart phone market, which may make it possible for far more of these questionable crimes and suspects to be caught on video or still photo at the scene of the crime.

People who live in areas that are "at risk" should take steps to install their own personal surveillance of their homes and automobiles, with at least a two week rotation backup regiment.

Even just getting accurate hair color and build of a suspect would be a huge benefit to the legal process.
Doug_Huffman
3.5 / 5 (11) Jan 04, 2011
Hence Ben Franklin's dictum, which, though he may not have authored it, he was smart enough to recognize its significance and copy it, "He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither."

Good people in at risk areas should be armed as they will, with wits and guns and the truth.
Quantum_Conundrum
2.6 / 5 (9) Jan 04, 2011
"He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither."

Good people in at risk areas should be armed as they will, with wits and guns and the truth.


Surveillance has nothing whatsoever to do with a change in or lack of liberty. It does not reflect any change whatsoever in what does or does not constitute a crime. Moreover, it is precisely intended to provide liberty by preventing false accusation and errors in prosecution, etc, or by catching those who really are perps, protecting the liberties of the law abiding citizens.

Increased surveillance, both private and public, prevents the innocent from being falsely incriminated, and it makes it easier to catch those who harm or would harm others.

Your position is therefore a non-sequitor. If it's wrong to murder, rape, steal, and falsely incriminate, then it's wrong to do so whether or not anyone is looking. Surveillance just makes it easier to distinquish between victims and perpetrators, etc,
Quantum_Conundrum
2.5 / 5 (8) Jan 04, 2011
Sad that people want instant replay to get a football call right, but the idea of instant replay to get a criminal matter solved exactly right, with nobody in prison for 30 years for crimes they didn't do, is repulsive.

These people have their lives ruined over false accusations, false testimony, false identification schemes, and just bad detective work.

And on the other side of the coin, the actual perps get away scott free.

"Liberty" without justice isn't liberty after all.
RobertKarlStonjek
4.3 / 5 (4) Jan 04, 2011
Justice systems suffer budget constraints like everything else and the more money that can be spent the more likely the percentage of wrongful convictions will fall. In third world countries, the percentage is high but budgets for appeals, evidence gathering and policing in general is low and so any justice system at all may be better than none.

This simple dynamic fails when judges and DAs are elected rather than appointed. This obliges them to biased in favour of the appearance of justice for the people, not the defendant, so that the maximum number of defendants are imprisoned for as long as possible and the fewest possible number of mistakes are admitted. The system is in direct opposition to objectivity which is why it has only been adopted by one country in the entire first world, the USA.
frajo
not rated yet Jan 05, 2011
What's the compensation for an innocent ex-inmate? Is there any at all?
Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Jan 05, 2011
What's the compensation for an innocent ex-inmate? Is there any at all?


Monetary compensation varies depending on the amount of time and the agencies involved. I think that guy that just got released after 30 years was awarded around 2.4 million dollars.

However, no amount of money can give him back the prime of his life, as he spent 30 years in jail starting when he was 21. So he lost almost everything that's worth living for anyway. It's not like starting a family at 51 years old is any bright idea, Although I heard he's gotten married...
alq131
not rated yet Jan 05, 2011
"smart", pervasive video surveillance is nearly here. Software exists and is used to recognize a person on one camera and follow them amongst a network of cameras (i believe British police use it, and so do marketing people to analyze customer behavior in stores). We have Google streetview which provides a snapshot in time.
Combine the two, and add in everyone's shared streaming, location based video from smart phones and you could track anyone almost anywhere. When google starts offering a "video security" feature where they will integrate your security camera video, combined with facebook "check-in" we could truly track people almost anywhere.

Imagine going to FB or YouTube, clicking on a tagged person, then having a video pop up with a slider control so you could see all video captured of them throughout time. Wondering where your BFF was last night, just search for the video...

Who would really want their life documented like this? Who's to say it isn't happening today...
frajo
5 / 5 (1) Jan 05, 2011
What's the compensation for an innocent ex-inmate? Is there any at all?
Monetary compensation varies depending on the amount of time and the agencies involved. I think that guy that just got released after 30 years was awarded around 2.4 million dollars.
That's much better than, for instance, Germany where he would get only 110000 euro. Which is outright indecent IMHO.
However, no amount of money can give him back the prime of his life, as he spent 30 years in jail starting when he was 21.
Right.
So he lost almost everything that's worth living for anyway.
You're kidding. I could be 100 without being fed up learning languages, history, music, and science.
trekgeek1
not rated yet Jan 05, 2011
Wow, what a shame. How do you give somebody 30 years of their life back? Not to mention the real criminal may have committed further crimes.

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