Posts Tagged ‘Forensic Science’
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/
Friday, July 1st, 2011
The National Museum of Crime and Punishment is pleased to offer a brand new CSI Summer Camp!
Five days long, this day camp offers a chance to investigate the murder of Dead Fred using real forensic techniques including blood spatter analysis and fingerprint lifting. After processing the crime scene and analyzing the evidence, campers will interview possible witnesses and suspects to solve the case! On the last day, campers will see how well the evidence they’ve processed holds up in a mock trial roleplay experience.
To register for the camp and for more information about this exciting summer experience, click here.
Wednesday, June 29th, 2011
By Laura A. McKee
Laura McKee is a graduate student in museum studies at Johns Hopkins University. She works as a curatorial and exhibitions intern at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment.
“Presided over almost 100 executions” would stand out on any résumé, but in the case of Jim Willett, it would also be true. As a 21-year-old business major at Sam Houston State University, Willett accepted what he thought would be a temporary position as a guard at the maximum-security “Walls Unit” in Huntsville, Texas. He was given a rifle and a fabric patch and told to relieve the man coming off his shift in a guard tower. Fearfully, he obeyed. That was in 1971. Five years later, Texas reinstated the death penalty and executions by lethal injection resumed in 1982. By then Willett had ascended up through the correctional officer ranks and even left Huntsville for a time to work at other units, but he returned in 1998 as warden of the 1,500 men incarcerated in Walls. At that point, his responsibilities took on a challenging new dimension, and he found himself escorting a total of 89 condemned persons (88 men and one woman) to the death chamber. He watched them struggle violently or go quietly as they were led out of their cells. He watched them eat their final meals and heard them say their final words. He watched them as they were infused with a cocktail of chemicals. He watched the expressions on the faces of their relatives and on the faces of their victims’ families. He watched them die on the gurney. He clocked a record 40 executions in 2000. That same year, he won the James H. Byrd, Jr. Memorial Award for top correctional administrators at the larger facilities run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. But he wondered about the morality of putting prisoners to death, leading to this penetrating observation and question: “In most cases, the people we see here are not at all the people they were when they came into the system … does that mean we rehabilitated them?” At the end of the day, however, he chalked it all up to just doing his part of the job, and was glad that he had not been the judge or had served on the jury that had decided their fates.
Mr. Willett helped to narrate the Peabody Award-winning documentary “Witness to an Execution” that aired on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” in 2000. After he retired from Huntsville, he co-wrote the autobiographical book Warden with his friend, the author Ron Rozelle. Willett’s exhibition case at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment holds these and other objects relating to his remarkable 30-year tenure in the Texas prison system.
Check out our entry on recent developments with the death penalty and some issues with it
Thursday, June 16th, 2011
In 1974, at the young age of nineteen, James Bain was arrested for the kidnapping and rape of a nine-year old Florida boy. Despite his pleas of innocence, an alibi, and no hard evidence tying him to the crime, Bain was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. At the time, DNA testing was non-existent and the conviction was simply based on the little boy picking out his “attacker with the bushy sideburns and mustache.” While it was rumored that the little boy was more or less “directed” to Bain, he would spend another 35 years in prison before DNA testing would prove his innocence – making him the longest serving inmate based on a wrongful conviction.
Why are these mistakes happening and how do we prevent them from happening again? While some wrongful convictions can be attributed to the intentional falsifying of scientific results (misconduct), which not only discredits an entire laboratory but will ruin one’s career, a far more startling reason is the unintentional falsifying of scientific results.
When a violent homicide or sexual assault occurs, especially when involving a young child, the public will most always react with grief, outrage, and an immediate demand for justice. The public pressure is first felt on the detectives handling the case, as they know a speedy arrest will put the public at ease. Once a suspect is in custody, the responsibility then falls upon the scientists to link the suspect to the crime through the analysis of all evidence related to that crime.
Because most forensic scientists work in the public sector, they are often thought of as working for the prosecution side, when in all reality, they are simply there to find the truth with no bias as to whom the results will benefit (i.e. prosecution vs. defense). However, this team/group mentality, and the feeling of having to produce favorable scientific results, although unintended, seems to affect scientists on a much higher level.
Multiple studies have shown that even the most meticulous scientist can be affected by something known as cognitive bias. Cognitive bias can be used to “describe many observer effects in the human mind, some of which can lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, or illogical interpretation.” Some experts have even stated that something as simple as “merely knowing the details of a crime or discussing it with police or prosecutors beforehand can introduce significant bias to a lab technician’s analysis.” Other causes of wrongful convictions exist, such as eyewitness misidentification, false confessions/ incriminating statements, and snitches, which all can be attributed to a person’s mistake (in regards to misidentification) or their deliberate actions. However, it’s the invalidated and improper forensic science, possibly resulting from the cognitive bias, which has contributed to approximately 50 percent of the wrongful convictions [to date]. But how do we correct/change a behavior when even ones’ self is unaware of their own actions?
The Innocence Project (innocenceproject.org), which is a “national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice,” states that there has been 269 post-conviction exonerations in the United States, with 198 of them based on DNA testing. Out of the 198 post DNA exonerations, the true suspect(s) have been identified in 120 of those cases. While this number may seem small in comparison to the number of accurate convictions, it has still brought about big changes to the legal system.
While I believe the intentions of The Innocence Project are noble, how do we hold someone accountable for an unintentional mistake? We are raised to be able to forgive, but where do we draw the line? Despite never having to suffer through such an ordeal as having an innocent loved one sent to prison for years, I do feel they deserve some form of compensation. But how and who decides how much each year you spend in prison is worth monetary wise? How do you reimburse for lost years of a life – as time is not something that can be recovered? Florida, last year, passed a law that automatically grants former inmates found innocent $50,000 for each year they spent in prison. No legislative approval is needed. Many reform laws have been put into place in recent years as well, which are aimed at preventing wrongful convictions in the first place. Ohio is considered to have a “model reform law” in which the newly enacted law requires:
- Preservation of DNA evidence in all cases of serious crime, such as homicide and sexual assault
- Police incentives for the recording of all interrogations from beginning to end in cases of serious crime
- Police lineups and photo identification procedures to be conducted in double-blind fashion, meaning the officer who oversees the eyewitness procedure with the witness does not know who among the sample pool is the suspect
- An expansion of Ohio’s post-conviction DNA testing law to allow for DNA testing to be done during the parole phase of the justice cycle
Based on Florida’s law, James Bain is entitled to $1.75 million in compensation. But to me, thirty five years in prison is not worth a measly $1.75 million. With the creation and implementation of any additional reform laws, we can hopefully avoid such tragic circumstances in the future. For more information on wrongful convictions, visit www.innocenceproject.org.
Read our blog entry on a few exonerations in Illinois
Monday, May 2nd, 2011
Osama Bin Laden, a name that strikes fear in to American hearts and the hearts of our allies, is dead. A man that has been haunting the spirit of our nation for the last decade was killed in mere minutes by a team of American Navy SEALS, inside of his custom built hideout in Abbottobad Pakistan. Three other males were killed in the raid, one of them being Bin Laden’s son who has not been named at this time. Bin Laden was shot in the head when he and his bodyguards resisted forces. Officials say that one woman was also killed when she was used as a human shield for one of the males. No Americans were harmed, but in a matter of moments after President Obama’s speech, the State Department issued an alert, warning US embassies of the possibility of anti-American violence.
Despite the fact that the operation went seamlessly, the Bin Laden raid was not an easy one. His compound was surrounded by 8 feet of barbed wire. There were also additional 7 foot security walls within the compound. So what factors contributed to Bin Laden’s defeat you may ask? US officials say that inside information was an integral part of the operation’s success. The Bin Laden family was also the only family that burned trash, and the only million dollar home that was without phone or internet connections; a giveaway that the compound was ideal to hide someone of great significance. Administration said that the raid was kept so secretive that no foreign officials were told in advance, and very few within the US government were privy to prior knowledge of the history that was about to unfold a world away.
On September 11, 2001, over 3,000 lives were lost in the worst attacks of terrorism on American soil. On May 1, 2011, the man responsible for this horrific amount of innocent bloodshed was finally brought to justice. Bin Laden’s capture sent throngs of cheering Americans in to the streets in both Times Square, and in front of the White House. Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93, issued a heartfelt statement saying, “This is important news for us, and for the world. It cannot ease our pain, or bring back our loved ones. It does bring a measure of comfort that the mastermind of the September 11th tragedy and the face of global terror can no longer spread his evil”.
Please check back soon for updates on the forensic discoveries relating to Bin Laden’s capture and killing. For more information, please click here or here.
Read about the role of forensicsin Bin Laden’s defeat