Posts Tagged ‘Evidence’
Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012
By Virginia Farrell
Sandy Williams, the defendant in a 2000 sexual assault case and the plaintiff in
Williams v. Illinois
On Monday, June 18th, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 that lab technicians do not need to appear for cross-examination, as long as their reports are “out-of-court statements.” This decision stems from sexual assault case in Chicago, now known as Williams v. Illinois No. 10-8505. In 2000, an unidentified man abducted a young woman, forcing her into his car, raping her, and robbing her. The woman then went to a nearby hospital, where doctors performed a rape kit on her, taking vaginal swabs. They sent the swabs to Cellmark Diagnostic Laboratories in Germantown, Maryland. The DNA results matched Sandy Williams, whose DNA sample came from an unrelated arrest. The forensic analyst who took the DNA sample from Williams testified at the trial on her methods and procedures. The prosecutors did not enter the Cellmark DNA report as evidence, and, as a result, no one from the lab testified in the trial. Instead, Sandra Lambatos, the state analyst who conducted the computer search, testified that the two DNA samples matched. In this case, the DNA expert’s testimony was evidence, not Cellmark’s DNA report.
Detail of a lab table in the Orchid Cellmark Laboratory,
the forensic laboratory involved in the case
This ruling engages with the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause, which guarantees that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” The current legal interpretation traces back to the 2004 case Crawford v. Washington, where the Supreme Court ruled that defendants have the right to confront witnesses if the evidence provided is testimonial hearsay, not just if it has an indicia or sign of reliability. Williams v. Illinois casts several previous Supreme Court Confrontation Clause rulings into doubt, including Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts in 2007, which ruled the defendant has the right to cross-examine any analyst who prepares any DNA, blood, ballistic or other laboratory reports introduced at a trial. Later, in the 2011 Bullcoming v. New Mexico, Donald Bullcoming appealed his DUI charges, citing a Confrontation Clause violation because his attorneys were unable to cross-examine the exact analyst who performed the blood alcohol level test. The Supreme Court sided with Bullcoming and ruled that the defendant must be able to interrogate the exact lab technician who performed the test, not a colleague or supervisor familiar with the test. In the light of Williams v. Illinois, these rulings, previously clear, seem hazy.
The Williams v. Illinois ruling could have far-reaching consequences for prosecutors, law enforcement agencies, and crime labs nationwide, and many prosecutors and state lawyers consider it a victory. If the Supreme Court had ruled that all analysts and technicians could be called upon to testify, trials would have become even more costly for the government. Testifying would also pull technicians away from crime labs, which could slow down the already backlogged labs, further postponing trials. At the very least, Williams v. Illinois is a ruling of legal efficiency.
Elena Kagen, lead dissenting Supreme Court justice on Williams v. Illinois No. 10-8505
But is legal efficiency what should matter? Four justices on the Court said no. Dissenters on the Supreme Court included Justices Elena Kagan, Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Kagan explained in her dissent: “Before today’s decision, a prosecutor wishing to admit the results of forensic testing had to produce the technician responsible for the analysis. But that clear rule is clear no longer.” Kagan cited a previous case, The People of the State of California v. John Ivan Kocak, where a Cellmark technician, after being cross-examined, admitted to mislabeling samples which wrongly implicated a defendant. With Williams v. Illinois as precedent, in future cases that mistake might not come to light. Kagan also asserted that the splintered majority decision is barely a decision at all, and has “left significant confusion” over whether lab technicians can be called in to testify. With such confusion, can Williams v. Illinois really be called a decision at all?
Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011
One of the toughest things a forensic professional has to face in their career is testifying as an expert witness in court. It is not uncommon to be challenged in court on many topics, including one’s own background, education, and employment history. This is why we thoroughly prepare for our time in court in various ways. Many of us pass rigorous training programs before we are allowed to work a case on our own. We spend hours catching up on the latest forensic journals and research, as well as getting advanced criminal justice and science degrees. The nature of forensic science breeds people that are always challenging themselves by constantly learning and contributing to the field.
That being said, many of you have experienced the “CSI Effect,” which has resulted in lay people calling themselves experts in the field. Many of us have faced the occasional person at a crime scene telling us how to do our jobs, saying they “saw it done on CSI.” We usually humor them and explain the limitations in our field. However, there are a select few that take their opinions too far, affecting both the field of forensic science and the lives of people on trial.
Such is the case of Leigh Stubbs, a Mississippi woman who was sentenced to 44 years in prison on questionable forensic testimony. Ms. Stubbs was convicted of physically assaulting her friend Kim Williams, despite no physical evidence. Here is where Michael West enters the scene, carrying with him a reputation of shady forensic practices and an inflated resume. Mr. West’s resume stated that he was a self proclaimed expert in the following fields: wound patterns, trace metals, gunshot residue, gunshot reconstruction, crime scene investigation, blood spatters, tool marks, fingernail scratches, coroner investigations, video enhancement, and something called “liquid splash patterns.” Recognized by the American Bar Association and American Board of Forensic Odontologists as an unscrupulous witness, Mr. West was not modest in the least, quick to point out that he had an error rate on par with Jesus Christ. He attempted to compare Ms. Stubbs’ dental impressions with only photographs of Ms. Williams’s injuries. Mr. West also somehow managed to enhance surveillance footage of the women, producing results that even the FBI said was insufficient for details.
At one point in the trial, Mr. West told the courtroom that he believed Ms. Stubbs to be a lesbian, and even used his “expert knowledge” to claim that it was common to see this kind of violence in homosexual relationships. Despite the odd and flagrantly false testimony, Ms. Stubbs was sentenced to 44 years in prison, having no prior criminal record. With the help of the Innocence Project, she is trying to clear her name. Several innocent people Mr. West has sent to prison on his false testimony have either been exonerated, or are currently appealing their cases.
In a recent sting operation, it was found that Michael West was knowingly giving false forensic information, and yet his cases are still defended by the prosecution to this day. The presence of Michael West in forensic science makes the true professional’s job much harder, and unfortunately he is not the only one out there. There are people who testify as fingerprint experts, crime scene investigators, and even coroners, who have falsified their credentials and placated to the defense. While this has an effect on forensic science, it has a much greater impact on the lives of those who are truly innocent.
For more on the Stubbs case, go here. Others like it can be found by searching Mr. West’s name.
Read more about the influence of TV shows like CSI
Friday, August 12th, 2011
On August 18th the Museum is holding a 1-day version of our CSI Camp for ages 12 and up. In one day you’ll learn everything involved in a criminal investigation, from the crime scene investigation to crime lab analysis to detective work (including suspect interrogation!), through hands-on activities and interactive roleplay!
If you missed your chance to come to the week-long camp, now’s the time to make up for it! Sign up now at our camp website–that’s also where you can find details on the camp itself. Hope to see you there!
Monday, August 8th, 2011
UPDATE: The DNA found on D.B.’s tie after the hijacking is not a match to Marla Cooper’s uncle, according to the FBI.
A photo of L.D. Cooper that Marla Cooper provided
In a few months it will be the 40th anniversary of the time a man calling himself Dan Cooper (D.B. to the press) hijacked an airplane and managed to get $200,000 and parachutes in exchange for the passengers’ lives. Since he parachuted into the night no one has knowingly seen or heard from him, and the case is still unsolved–the only unsolved skyjacking in US history.
If the newest lead pursued by the FBI pans out, D.B. may actually turn out to be a Cooper. D.B. may have plotted the hijacking within earshot of his 8-year old niece Marla–as Marla Cooper herself claims.
The difficulty in proving the claim is the same as any cold case: there is very little physical evidence available. It’s made more difficult by the fact that, according to the family, Cooper’s been dead for over a decade. The FBI is working on matching his fingerprints to some found on the plane. While D.B. touched a number of items on the plane that maintained fingerprints, he was not the only person to do so, and separating the hijacker’s prints from the rest has been difficult, even with the family’s cooperation in providing items owned by the new suspect.
For more on the developing story, see here.
Read about another cold case, the Tylenol Murders
Thursday, July 21st, 2011
A little-known but fascinating field within the forensic sciences, forensic linguistics can be applied to many different types of cases. The field involves the study of language as applied to the law, and includes interpretation of legal documents and trademark disputes, but perhaps the most interesting cases are criminal investigations.
Document analysis can apply to a number of different types of crimes: an important document may be forged, a kidnapping may involve a ransom note, a bombing may be preceded by a threatening letter. In cases where the document in question was written by the criminal, identifying the author can be key to an investigation.
Of course, a look at the handwriting of a ransom note or bomb threat may help determine if it was written by a particular suspect. Handwriting, however similar it is to our classmates when we learn to write in school, becomes more and more unique as we grow up and adopt our own habits and style. This unique style is very difficult to hide, and tends to break through even if we try to disguise our writing, and a forensic handwriting analyst can look for these stylistic cues to see if two documents were written by the same person.
Did you know?
David Kaczynski was able to identify his brother as the Unabomber by recognizing
the word phrasing in his “manifesto”.
Handwriting isn’t the only way to identify the author, however. Language can be as unique to the individual as handwriting—even if we learn to speak or write the same language, we develop a unique version of the language based on what types of words and language structure we prefer. This individualized language is called an idiolect, and by looking for similarities in the language, a forensic linguist may be able to tell if two documents were written by the same person—just like handwriting.
Even without a suspect to compare an idiolect to, forensic linguists can do a lot with a written document. We use language differently based on where we’re from, how old we are, our educational background, even our gender—an experienced linguist may be able to build a demographic profile from the language in a ransom note or bomb threat. And just like handwriting, language is very hard to consciously control. Trying to disguise the clues in the language we use rarely keeps the linguist from seeing these unique patterns.
For more on forensic linguistics and how it applied to the Unabomber case, go here and here or visit the Museum to see our new exhibit!
Read about more forensic techniques and technologies/