Posts Tagged ‘forensics’

A shaken baby syndrome researcher reconsiders

British neuropathologist Waney Squier spent many years as an expert witness in court assisting in the prosecution of defendants accused of causing Shaken Baby Syndrome. Then a closer engagement with the evidence caused her to change her mind — and the story that follows, which she tells in this TEDx Wandsworth talk, must be heard to be believed. Sue Luttner has more for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. More on the story: Jon Robins, The Justice Gap; Theodore Dalrymple, Spectator.

More: “Judge orders release of woman who served 11 years behind bars in grandson’s death” [Marisa Gerber, L.A. Times; earlier on shaken baby syndrome] More about Deborah Tuerkheimer’s 2014 book Flawed Convictions, which I haven’t seen, is here.

Forensics roundup

The man who exposed the shoddy forensics of Shaken Baby Syndrome — and got prosecuted

John Plunkett, who just died at age 70, was a Minnesota medical examiner who grew skeptical of the forensic theory behind Shaken Baby Syndrome.

He started investigating cases in which children had died in a manner similar to the way accused caregivers had described the deaths of the children they were watching — by short-distance falls. What he found alarmed him. In 2001, Plunkett published a study detailing how he had found symptoms similar to those in the SBS diagnosis in children who had fallen off playground equipment. It was a landmark study. If a short-distance fall could produce symptoms similar to those in SBS cases, the SBS diagnosis that said symptoms could only come from shaking was wrong. By that point, hundreds of people had been convicted based on SBS testimony from medical experts. Some of them were undoubtedly guilty. But if Plunkett was right, some of them almost certainly weren’t.

After he gave expert testimony that led to an acquittal in Oregon and thus became “a threat to SBS cases all over the country,” the county district attorney indicted Plunkett over supposed inconsistencies in his testimony. Those proceedings eventuated in the dropping of some charges and Plunkett’s acquittal on the rest; in the mean time, however, they chilled the willingness of defense attorneys elsewhere to rely on his testimony. [Radley Balko]

Crime and punishment roundup

  • Prosecutors too often dodge mens rea (knowing wrongfulness) as precondition for crime. SCOTUS can help by better defining “willfully” [Ilya Shapiro and Reilly Stephens on Cato certiorari brief in Ellison v. U.S.]
  • False abuse accusations, a dozen years later: “The Girl Who Told The Truth” [Michael Hall, Texas Monthly]
  • Retired federal judge Kevin Sharp: mandatory minimum sentences forced me to do injustice [Cato Policy Report]
  • Kansas is unique in extent to which it adds large classes of drug offenders to sex offender list, new bill would change course [Maurice Chammah, Marshall Project]
  • Like a contingency fee: “Tennessee state forensic scientists have a financial incentive to secure DUI convictions, says a Tennessee appeals court, as the $250 fee imposed on guilty motorists pays their salaries (and some of their positions were nearly cut in a recent budget crunch). Which violates due process.” [John K. Ross, “Short Circuit”, on Tennessee v. Decosimo]
  • Amicus brief from Cato Institute and other groups in Ross Ulbricht/Silk Road case argues that Internet deserves robust Fourth Amendment protection [Ilya Shapiro and Aaron Barnes]

Now out: Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington on Mississippi forensics scandal

On Thursday I attended a Cato forum with Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington on their new book on the extraordinary Mississippi forensics scandal, “The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South.” Excerpt of blurb from event:

Over the past 25 years, more than 2,000 individuals have been exonerated in the United States after being wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit. There is good reason to believe that tens or even hundreds of thousands more languish in American prisons today.

How this can happen unfolds in the riveting new book from Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington. The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist recounts the story of two Mississippi doctors—Dr. Steven Hayne, a medical examiner, and Dr. Michael West, a dentist—who built successful careers as the go-to experts for prosecutors and whose actions led many innocent defendants to land in prison. Some of the convictions then began to fall apart, including those of two innocent men who spent a combined 30 years in prison before being exonerated in 2008.

Balko and Carrington reveal how Mississippi officials propelled West and Hayne to the top of the state’s criminal justice apparatus and then, through institutional failures and structural racism, empowered these two “experts” to produce countless flawed convictions on bad evidence and bogus science….

The book recounts in detail the unlikely claims that can be put across for supposed autopsy and bite-mark evidence, especially when no well-informed lawyer appears on the other side to push back. In addition to an exceedingly high volume of autopsy reports for police, Hayne was also available for medical expert witness testimony in civil litigation. We’ve been on the story for ten years: see links here, here, here, here, and here.

Related: The dubious forensics of “shaken baby syndrome” have been known for years. This Mississippi man remains on Death Row for it. [excerpt from book in Reason]

A Canadian hair-analysis lab and its fateful findings

“Motherisk, a once-respected lab inside [Canada’s premier] Hospital for Sick Children, performed tests for more than 100 child welfare providers in five provinces, an investigation reveals.” The lab performed hair-strand drug and alcohol tests “on at least 25,000 people across Canada. The tests were discredited, but not before they were used in at least eight criminal cases and thousands of child protection cases. Now, many of those cases are under review.” While many of the cases drew on evidence other than the hair tests, false positives for drug or alcohol abuse could be a factor in temporary or permanent removal of children from parents [Toronto Star]

In British Columbia, a mother is desperate to convince the children she lost years ago that she didn’t choose drugs over them.

In Nova Scotia, a 7-year-old girl prays for her brother, who was adopted into another family.

And in Ontario, a mother whose daughters were taken shortly after they were born is waiting for a reunion that may never come.

More on questionable crime labs: Radley Balko on a new Massachusetts scandal (not the big previous one); John Oliver.

DeVos, Title IX, and sex on campus, cont’d

Part II of Emily Yoffe’s investigation for The Atlantic is if anything more explosive than the first: the campus assault survivor movement promotes concepts of the effect of trauma on memory (contradictory, fragmentary, belatedly-retrieved and even suggestion-induced memories ought not be discounted as forensically probative) that replicate key elements of the repressed childhood memory/dissociation scandal of a generation past (“believe the victims”). And Part III and last: What role does race play?

Debra Saunders quotes me in her new column on Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s new decision to reconsider the Dear Colleague and Blueprint policies of the Obama years: [Las Vegas Review-Journal/syndicated]:

Their decision [four Harvard law professors’] to release this memo, said Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, sends the message that if you want to defend the policy, “you’re not going to have to argue with Libertarians and conservatives” only, you are going to have to argue with left-leaning legal scholars who also care about fairness and due process….

“So much momentum has built up for federally driven changes in campus discipline and rules, so much momentum for unreasonableness,” Olson said, but the unfairness was so striking that it brought together feminists, Libertarians and Trump supporters.

Still, he added, “It took a great deal of courage for [Education Secretary Betsy DeVos] to do this. It would have been easy for her to find some way to dodge it, or postpone it.”

More accounts of discipline at particular campuses: Jesse Singal, New York magazine (USC, Matt Boermeester case, putative victim denies abuse); Nicholas Wolfinger, Quillette (University of Utah).

Crime and punishment roundup

Crime and punishment roundup

  • Dairy Queen manager charged with involuntary manslaughter following suicide of teen employee reportedly bullied on the job [AP, Missouri]
  • Court orders new trial: carpenter, in school to argue against son’s school suspension over knife, had displayed knife he carries as part of work [Lancaster Online, Commonwealth v. Goslin]
  • Desires for retribution aside, hanging homicide rap on dealers after overdoses unlikely to solve opiate problem [Mark Sine and Kaitlyn Boecker, Baltimore Sun]
  • “Man wrongly convicted with bite mark evidence confronts bite mark analysts” [Radley Balko]
  • Judge Neil Gorsuch and over-criminalization [C. Jarrett Dieterle, National Review]
  • Debate over DoJ oversight of city police forces continues [David Meyer Lindenberg, Fault Lines (report on Chicago) and more]

Prosecution roundup

  • Fourth Circuit will review forfeiture case of “pre-conviction, pre-trial restraint of untainted property” [Ilya Shapiro, Cato]
  • “Voodoo Science in the Courtroom: The U.S. has relied on flawed forensic-evidence techniques for decades, falsely convicting many” [Alex Kozinski, WSJ; ABA Journal] “Highest court in Massachusetts throws out another shaken-baby syndrome conviction” [Radley Balko on Boston Globe]
  • Federal judge Andrew Hanen gets results! “Justice Department orders more ethics training for lawyers” [Politico, earlier]
  • Like settlement slush funds, contingency-fee prosecutions divert money from the public fisc to influential private players [Margaret (“Peggy”) Little, CEI]
  • California appeals court: Orange County district attorney’s office’s war on a judge was legal but represented “extraordinary abuse” [C.J. Ciaramella]
  • “New Jersey Bill Would Punish Eating, Drinking While Driving” [Reason]