Thursday, February 21, 2008

Mississippi: Forensic "science" train derailing

Last August, I blogged about forensic odontologist Michael West of Mississippi, whose testimony had sent dozens of people to prison, including at least five to death row. West has been the subject of exposes on 60 Minutes and in Newsweek and the National Law Journal. Last week, two of his victims were finally freed after serving a combined total of more than 30 years in prison.

In addition to both being African American, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Each was dating a woman whose female toddler was kidnapped, raped, murdered, and dumped in the woods. In each case, Dr. West testified at the behest of District Attorney Forrest Allgood that he had found bite marks that other professionals missed, conclusively tying them to the crimes.

In each case, West was wrong. Two weeks ago, police arrested the true culprit, whose DNA matched that found at the crime scenes. Albert Johnson promptly confessed, leading to the release of Brewer and Brooks.

"The bite-marks men: Mississippi’s criminal forensics disaster" is the title of a report in yesterday’s Slate magazine about the cases and their implications:

These may turn out to be the first in a string of exonerations we'll see coming out of Mississippi. For the last 20 years, the state's criminal autopsy system has been in disrepair. Nearly every institution in the state has failed to do anything about it….

According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, a doctor should perform no more than 250 autopsies per year. Dr. [Steven] Hayne has testified that he performs 1,200 to 1,800 autopsies per year....

Hayne isn't board-certified in forensic pathology, though he often testifies that he is. The only accepted certifying organization for forensic pathology is the American Board of Pathology. Hayne took that group's exam in the 1980s and failed it. Hayne's pal Dr. West is even worse.... He once claimed he could definitively trace the bite marks in a half-eaten bologna sandwich left at the crime scene back to the defendant. He has compared his bite-mark virtuosity to Jesus Christ and Itzhak Perlman. And he claims to have invented a revolutionary system of identifying bite marks using yellow goggles and iridescent light that, conveniently, he says can't be photographed or duplicated.

Mississippi's system is set up in a way that increases the pressure on forensics experts to find what prosecutors want them to find. The state is one of several that elect county coroners to oversee death investigations. The office requires no medical training, only a high-school diploma, and it commonly goes to the owner of the local funeral home. If a coroner suspects a death may be due to criminal activity, he'll consult with the district attorney or sheriff, then send the body to a private-practice medical examiner for an autopsy. The problem here is that a medical examiner who returns unsatisfactory results to a prosecutor jeopardizes his chance of future referrals. Critics say Hayne has become the preferred medical examiner for Mississippi's coroners and district attorneys, because they can rely on him to deliver the diagnoses they're looking for.
The article continues here.

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