Television has taught us that the crack CSI experts and their state-of-the-art technology can solve any crime through the power of science. In reality, more often than not the crime-detection technology of the past has turned out to be pseudoscience at best, and outright fraud at worst. And, of course, it has been used to put innocent people in jail. Here are 4 Ways The Crime Lab Can Frame You.
So you’ve heard about the AI systems that can detect if you’re lying in the courtroom, right? Or the new security cameras that will be able to automatically spot suspicious behavior? Or the Department of Homeland Security’s “Future Attribute Screening Technology” that will supposedly help law enforcement discover whether someone is going to commit a crime before the fact?
No? Well, you will. Like it or not, the billions upon billions of dollars that have been pumped into the terror-industrial complex since 9/11 have resulted in all sorts of new police state gadgets that are meant to help agents of the state determine your guilt.
But before you start to sweat about the God-like powers this technology seems to be putting in the hands of the government, it might be a good idea to ask ourselves a simple question: Does this technology work, or is it all hype? After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that the public has been duped into believing that the crack CSI experts and their state-of-the-art technology can solve any crime through the power of science. In reality, more often than not the crime-detection technology of the past has turned out to be pseudoscience at best, and outright fraud at worst. And, of course, it has been used to put innocent people in jail.
Here are 4 Ways The Crime Lab Can Frame You.
This is The Corbett Report.
#1 – Microscopic Hair Analysis Is Made Up Pseudoscience
You’ve doubtless seen it in a thousand crime procedurals on TV: a bloody murder scene where the murderer has been careful to remove all traces of evidence. There are no fingerprints or boot prints to be found, no identifying marks or objects. And then one eagle-eyed investigator finds it. The teeny-tiny piece of evidence that cracks the case wide open: a single hair.
From there, as we all know, it’s just a question of letting the investigators do their work to match up that hair to a sample of hair taken from the key suspect and hey presto! You’ve found the guilty perp.
Except for one pesky little problem: it’s completely made up. Not the TV show, the science. The entire field of “microscopic hair comparison” is a made-up pseudoscience invented for the express purpose of helping the FBI convict whoever the prosecutors want to convict.
If this sounds like a jaw-dropping accusation, it is. And it is now formally acknowledged by the FBI and published on the front page of The Washington Post:
“The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.”
As the Post goes on to explain, the government launched the largest-ever post-conviction review of forensic evidence last year after it was discovered that 26 of the FBI’s 28 microscopic hair comparison “experts” overstated the results of their analysis on the witness stand. Specifically, in 268 trials in which hair evidence was used against defendants a stunning 257 of them (i.e. 95%) were found to have relied on flawed testimony. And wouldn’t you know it? In almost each and every case the flawed testimony just happened to benefit the prosecution.
The poster child for this injustice is Donald Gates. Convicted of the rape and murder of 21-year-old Georgetown University student Catherine Schilling in 1982, it wasn’t until 2009 that DNA evidence finally exonerated him of the crime. A key part of that conviction hinged on the testimony of FBI forensic analyst Michael Malone, who said that Gates’ hairs were “microscopically indistinguishable” from hairs found on the victim’s body. How sure was he of this figure? There were only two chances out of 10,000 that the hair belonged to another person.
Sounds pretty authoritative, doesn’t it? Two out of 10,000. So where did the number come from? It was completely made up. As Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project that helped to bring the FBI’s made-up pseudoscience to light, explains: “When a person says that the probability is one-in-10,000, that’s simply a made-up number. There’s no data to support it.”
And there is not just one Donald Gates out there. Of the 257 cases where faulty hair analysis was used to help convict the defendant, 32 were sentenced to death and 14 of them have already been killed.
But the absolute worst example of this fraud comes in the case of Santae Tribble. He was a 17-year-old picked up as a suspect in the robbery and murder of a taxi driver in Washington, D.C., in 1978. He was convicted of the murder in 1980 (despite having an alibi, testified to by half-a-dozen witnesses, that he was out of state at the time) largely on the basis of a single strand of hair taken from the murderer’s stocking mask. The prosecution stressed that the hair “matched [Tribble’s] in all microscopic characteristics” and threw out an even more outrageous made-up statistic: there was one chance in ten million that the hair wasn’t his!
Tribble was exonerated in 2012 after his lawyers finally won access to mitochondrial DNA analysis of the hairs. It turns out the hair wasn’t Tribble’s. It wasn’t even human. It was canine.
Santae Tribble served over two decades in prison because the FBI passed off a dog hair as his.
#2 – The FBI Crime Lab “Confuses” Urine Samples With Explosive Residue
Urea nitrate is (as the NCTC’s handy dandy “Counterterrorism Calendar” will tell you) “a high explosive produced by combining dissolved urea fertilizer with nitric acid.”
Urine, on the other hand, is the liquid created by your kidneys from filtered waste and excess water in your blood that is excreted through your urethra.
You’d think that the top crime lab in the US of A would be able to tell the two apart. But you’d think wrong.
This is just one of the startling revelations from Dr. Frederic Whitehurst, a former Supervisory Special Agent in the FBI Crime Lab turned whistleblower who revealed just how bad things really are in the crime lab.
On The Corbett Report in 2012 Dr. Whitehurst talked about the shoddy work in the FBI crime lab and the fact that agents routinely altered reports and handled evidence improperly to help support the prosecution in high-profile cases. One famous example: the OKC bombing. In Dr. Whitehurst’s estimation, one agent in the lab gave false testimony about ammonium nitrate samples found in the rubble that helped the feds prosecute their case against Terry Nichols.
One particularly egregious example involved the FBI conclusion that urea nitrate found at the scene of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing could be traced back to urea nitrate explosives. As Whitehurst explained:
“When urea nitrate explosive is detonated the urea nitrate breaks into urea and nitrate. […] And we found high concentrations of urea at the World Trade Center, and we found urea nitrate explosive at a bomb making factory which we could point back to the folks that were the suspects.
“I wrote a report that we found urea nitrate ions, and that was consistent with the presence of a urea nitrate based explosive. However, it was also consistent with the urea which was used on the streets of New York at the time as a bio-friendly ice melter, and nitrate ions, which are in the acid rain belt. Urea is in sewage, it’s coming out of your fingers right now, it’s in urine. Sewage mains burst at the crime scene as a result of the explosion at the WTC.
“FBI management ordered my boss to tell me to take those alternative explanations for the data out of my report. And I remember the day very well. It was raining, it was dreary out on E Street behind the FBI building. I was looking out the window and I told my boss, ‘Well they can just fire me. I’m not going to lie in this report and then lie in a court of law.’
“[…]In order to convince our managers that these things were true, Steve Burmeister (my partner at that time) and I made some samples and told a fellow they came from the crime scene. One of them was actually urine. I collected my own urine in a beaker and dried it down and extracted it with acetone, and turned that sample over to this fellow. And then Steve Burmeister mixed urea fertilizer and ammonium nitrate and gave it to the guy. And his response in detecting these things was ‘OK, we got them now. It was a urea nitrate bomb.’
“And then we went to our manager and said, ‘Here’s the problem. And this is what’s going to catch you when we get to court. This guy is ready to declare a urea nitrate bomb and he doesn’t know what he’s doing.’”
If only this were a case of incompetence. Sadly, it’s much worse than that: It is high-level pressure to promote and elevate those who are willing (or able) to come up with the “right” answer in order to secure the conviction, no matter how wrong their methods, and drum out any (like Dr. Whitehurst) who do not play along.
As Whitehurst summed up: “How far would the government go to […] get the jurors to believe something? How far would they go? At the crime laboratory it was a regular practice for people to testify outside of their area of expertise. One agent altered my reports for five years […] most of which were altered to support the prosecutor.”
How are you feeling about America’s top law enforcement now?
#3 – Lie Detectors Are A Lie
In the big book of Hollywood tropes, the lie detector test deserves its own special page. It’s hard to think of a crime drama without some reference to it. “He passed the lie detector test? I guess he is innocent after all.” Or, “He failed the lie detector? Book him, Danno!”
Yeah, turns out that’s a lie, too. And one that’s been known for decades (at least). As far back as 1998 the Supreme Court noted, “There is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable: The scientific community and the state and federal courts are extremely polarized on the matter.” Decades later the consensus is still that there is no consensus, but there is less polarization on the matter. In short: as a criminal tool, it is unreliable at best and dangerous at worst.
The fundamental lie about lie detectors is that they detect lies. They do not. They merely measure physiological responses during questioning. But no one, not even polygraph proponents, maintain that there is any telltale physiological “symptom” that the nervous system gives out when someone is lying. Instead, the theory is that the right examiner asking the right question in the right way and correctly interpreting the results in comparison to baseline examples can infer an attempt at deception.
As the Office of Technology Assessment noted in their exhaustive 1983 overview of the validity of the polygraph:
“The instrument cannot itself detect deception. Therefore, polygraph tests require the examiner to develop questions to be asked in each case, compare the physiological response (as measured by the instrument) to the different questions, and infer deception or truthfulness based on these comparisons. […] In sum, OTA [the Office of Technical Assessment] concluded that there is at present only limited scientific evidence for establishing the validity of polygraph testing. Even where the evidence seems to indicate that polygraph testing detects deceptive subjects better than chance (when using the control question technique in specific-incident criminal investigations), significant error rates are possible, and examiner and examinee differences and the use of countermeasures may further affect validity.”
And as USA Today noted in a 2002 review of the technology:
“A 1997 survey of 421 psychologists estimated the test’s average validity at about 61%, a little better than chance. And University of Utah psychologists published a 1994 report that suggested biting your tongue, pressing your toes to the floor and counting backwards by 7’s during control questions would screw up the accuracy of polygraphs.”
So if you ever find yourself being questioned by the thought police of the coming 1984 police state about whether you have ever questioned the official government story of 9/11, and they happen to be using a lie detector test on you, just remember: 42, 35, 28, 21…
#4 – Fingerprints Are Also Subjective And Unreliable
Alright, so the real-life CSI guys can’t rely on hair analysis. And the FBI crime lab is useless. And the detectives with their lie detector tests are essentially quacks. But what about fingerprints? They’ve been a rock-solid part of criminal investigation since the originator of eugenics, Francis Galton, first started examining them in the 19th century (looking for the telltale signs of the master race, no doubt). Surely there’s good hard science backing them up, right?
Nope! It’s all basically guesswork and interpretation, and the fallible humans doing that guesswork (even if angels of the noblest sort) are going to get it wrong. A lot.
One startlingly simple demonstration of this fact was designed by Itiel Dror, a cognitive neuroscientist who recognized that fingerprint analysis is largely subjective and thus prone to copious amounts of cognitive bias. His idea: get analysts to re-analyze fingerprints that they’d already looked at and see if they come up with different analyses. Five fingerprint “experts” were recruited for the test. They were given (without their knowledge) sets of fingerprints that they had examined in the past, but this time with different case histories that included information designed to bias them in the opposite direction of their original analysis. The result: the “experts” contradicted their original analyses in most of the cases.
The real-world consequences of these biases and errors are all too real for the innocent people who have been imprisoned on the basis of false fingerprint matches.
Take the case of Marion Ross, a 51-year-old Scottish bank clerk who was brutally murdered at her home in Kilmarnock in 1997. During the investigation, a thumbprint of police constable Shirley McKie was found on the bathroom door frame of Ross’ home. When she denied ever having been in the house, McKie was arrested and charged with perjury. Being a good constable, McKie implicitly trusted that the thumbprint identification was correct, but that there had been some other explanation for how her thumbprint ended up there.
It wasn’t until two years later, when a pair of renowned US fingerprint “experts” determined the print was not hers after all, that she overturned the perjury charge. She pursued a civil case and was awarded £750,000 in damages.
But then the person who was convicted of the murder, David Asbury, was also convicted on the basis of a single fingerprint at the crime scene. As you might have guessed by now, that conviction was overturned five years later when it was found the fingerprint identification had been faulty.
Maybe it’s time to update the old detective cliche of the magnifying glass and the fingerprint?
These are not the only phony techniques that the CSI-ers employ to pin the blame on whoever the prosecutor wants. There are many such subjective areas of interpretation-based “forensics.” (Bite marks, anyone?)
But the point is a bigger one. Despite the fact that so many of these forensic technologies have been proven fraudulent in the past, police and prosecutors are actually looking to increase their use of gadgets for “solving” crimes…or framing those they want to prosecute. So why should we simply believe these “mind-reading” tools and other fantastical devices will be any different than fingerprint or hair analyses? What if these new AI whiz-bang googads, too, are just a big con designed to help prosecutors convince gullible juries that this or that person is “almost certainly” guilty of whatever thoughtcrime (or pre-crime) the government invents in the future?
Considering how much is at stake, it’s imperative that we don’t just take these corrupt prosecutors and lying crime lab technicians at face value. Just ask Santae Tribble.