You May Be Surprised Just How Much Woo And Quackery Is Used In Your Criminal Justice System

You May Be Surprised Just How Much Woo And Quackery Is Used In Your Criminal Justice System June 28, 2018

If you’ve ever been gobsmacked at the lies anti-vaxxers spout, or the idea that eating enough broccoli can cure cancer, or that 2 million people praying at once can somehow alter the collective consciousness of the entire planet, then this post is going to blow your mind.

Junk science. It’s the topic of part four of my series about wrongful convictions called Reasonable Doubt. Other parts:

Atheists and skeptics routinely scoff at homoeopathic remedies that have no scientific data supporting them, but did you know that the American justice system (and many other justice systems like it) often admit similarly junky science as evidence in criminal proceedings? It’s true. Men and women have been convicted, incarcerated for life and executed based on “science” that is not actually science and is in fact, no more accurate than a crystal ball.

Junk science in the criminal justice system is science that has been debunked, refuted and discredited by actual science. Unfortunately, for the wrongfully convicted, debunking and discrediting evidence seems to have no effect on its validity in court. Prosecutors call expert witnesses to the stand, who use language like “does not exclude” or “is consistent with” to a jury of laymen. Jurors listen to a man of science say that this matches that, and trust that this man of science knows what he’s talking about. Rarely is the type of evidence and the scientific methods used to test and analyze it, scrutinized. It’s easy in this sort of situation, to persuade a group of laymen that fibre analysis is just as accurate as a DNA test, when in actual fact, it’s not at all. Despite this, junk science can be cited as a significant cause in 49% of all DNA exonerations since the founding of the Innocence Project.

There are many types of junk science, and I’m sure you’ve come across most of them if you’ve ever watched CSI, Law & Order or any of those other poorly done cop shows. Today, we’ll go over some of the most commonly referenced forms of junk science and some example cases in which someone has been convicted based on that junk science.

1. Hair and fibre Analysis – In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published a report that concluded hair and fibre analysis has no scientific support whatsoever. While some hair strands can be DNA tested with accuracy, the practice of comparing hairs under a microscope for similarities has been conclusively debunked. The FBI, in recent recognition of this, admitted to having expert witnesses testify about hair analysis in thousands of cases since 1985, including 27 men who sit on death row. They have pulled 2000 case files for review that contain hair and fibre analysis evidence and testimony. That’s two thousand men and women who could very well be innocent in prison… and have been there for decades.

The case of Anthony Hicks ended in a DNA exoneration after he spent five years in prison for a sexual assault he did not commit. Hairs found at the scene were said to have been “consistent with” Anthony Hicks’ hair, and hair found on Mr. Hicks was said to be consistent with the victim. Expert forensic scientists took the witness stand to explain that the hairs matched, and that made up the only physical evidence that pointed to Hicks. He was sentenced to 20 years.

2. Fingerprints – It’s true that everyone has unique fingerprints. However, many fingerprints contain multiple similarities in ridges and ruling out every single other human being who was living at the time of the crime, is something that has never actually been tested. There have been no studies conducted on the probability of error and ridge characteristic similarities.

Stephen Cowans was convicted of a 1997 shooting of a police officer. His conviction was based on the expert testimony of a forensic scientist who said a fingerprint found at the scene matched the prints of Cowans. After five years in prison, Cowans was exonerated based on DNA evidence recovered from the crime scene. The fingerprint analysis was proven faulty.

3. Dog scent lineups – Dog scent lineups are pretty self-explanatory. A dog is allowed to sniff the scent of the victim, and then sniff out the suspect or crime scene to detect a match. This type of identification has been recently ruled out as admissible evidence in many parts of the world, not because the dogs aren’t doing what they are supposed to, but because the methods with which their handlers train and conduct the lineups are inconsistent, uncontrolled and the handlers themselves may not know well enough what they’re doing. It’s impossible to get inside of a dog’s head, and even more impossible to rule out multiple scents, scent confusion and other variables. For years, however, this evidence was admissible in court and led to many convictions, such as that of Megan Winfrey:

4. Handwriting analysis – The idea behind handwriting analysis is that experts would be able to match a handwriting sample tied to the crime scene with that of the defendant while excluding every other person on Earth. The problem with handwriting analysis is that it has been minimally tested, in uncontrolled settings and there is no actual science supporting its effectiveness. Many states and countries have excluded handwriting comparison as possible evidence in a trial.

Jesse Miller, Jr. was charged and convicted of robbery and the murder of a Chik-Fil-A manager. His conviction was due, in part, by the testimony of an expert handwriting analyst. The analyst examined a written note at the scene that contained a series of numbers believed to be the combination for the safe in the restaurant. Jesse was exonerated this year by DNA evidence after serving five years of a life sentence.

5. Shoe prints, Toolmarks and Bullet striations – It makes sense that every tool, shoe or gun might leave behind a unique mark or print. The problem here is that the possibility of discovering those unique qualities in tool marks, shoe prints and bullet striations to the exclusion of every other object like it, ever built, has never been proven. There is no actual science backing up the claim that every tool, gun or shoe leaves a unique mark or that we can assess how unique a mark is with the tech we currently have.

Carl Earl Lawson was convicted of the murder of a child, based in part by the expert testimony that shoes found in his possession matched shoe prints found at the scene. He was exonerated by DNA evidence after spending six years in prison.

6. Polygraph tests – Aldrich Ames was the highest paid spy in American history. He spent decades on clandestine assignments for the CIA, when he switched sides and became the USSR’s inside man at the agency. He was convicted of espionage and is currently living out life in a federal penitentiary.  From prison, he penned the following letter to Steven Aftergood of the American Federation of Scientists. The letter contains his many criticisms of the polygraph test, and it later came out that he, himself, beat the test:

Ames Letter PDF

You can read a transcript here. Ames admitted that he beat the test administered by the CIA while he was working as a double agent for the KGB. He was advised by the KGB to relax during the test and he would pass. He did. Twice.

Shockingly, polygraph tests are still used commonly today, despite the fact that false positives have been produced at an alarmingly high rate. In 2003, the National Academy of Sciences published a report that stated that most of the “science” behind the polygraph is unreliable, not based in actual science and biased.

Despite this, a failed polygraph test is still admissible in court in many states and counties. Unsurprisingly, when a jury hears that a defendant fails a polygraph test, the rest of the evidence then becomes tainted or skewed. Juries go into trial unaware of the fact that a polygraph test is not actually scientific and many believe that it is trustworthy and reliable.

7. Blood Analysis – While blood typing is scientific, it’s often inaccurate, especially in crimes where the sample may be contaminated by other samples from the victim. Admitting blood type evidence into court in front of a jury of laymen, is not a good practice, either. Juries will often hear that the blood type of the defendant matched that of the blood found at the scene, but they won’t be told that near half the world’s population also matches that blood type, unless the defendant’s counsel is on the ball.

Both Paul House and Alejandro Dominguez spent years incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit, based on blood typing evidence. DNA tests on that very same evidence, saw them both exonerated.

These are some of the most common types of junk science still used in courtrooms around the world. Dishonourable mentions go to hypnosis or regression therapy, psychological profiling, blood spatter analysis and bite marks. None of these admissible forms of evidence are based in actual science.

How do we fix this problem? It’s simple. Only allow the admission of evidence that is based on tested, peer-reviewed, and reproducible science.

From the Innocence Project:

It’s not difficult to convince a jury of laymen that something is or is not valid evidence. A jury is not made up of scientists. It’s made up of gas station attendants, retail managers, veterinarians, that lady who serves you at the McDonald’s drive-thru. There is no required level of scientific knowledge to be eligible to serve on a jury. That is not to say juries are stupid. They are, however, largely uninformed. Prosecutors use that fact and the chances that the defense lawyer is likely subpar and won’t poke holes in the accuracy of the science, to get the convictions they are under immense pressure to obtain. This leads to many wrongful convictions and plays a serious role in near half of all the DNA exonerations of men and women by the Innocence Project.

As a citizen who is eligible to serve on a jury, this is all information you need. Who knows, maybe one day it will help you spare a man the death penalty.

Read the previous parts in this series here:

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Further reading:

Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay

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  • Jim Jones
  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    In the movie “My Cousin Vinny” the guy from the FBI testifies that he examined the chemical composition of the tiremarks left at the scene of the crime, and compared them to the tires on the defendents’ car. He used a HP dual column gas chromatograph with flame ionization detection. He testified that the chemical composition was identical (the prosecutor: “iiiiii-dentical”)

    In the end, it was established that the tiremarks were left by a different car. It just had the same make and model tires as the defendents’ car. And, apparently, the same chemical composition.

    So the fact that the tires and the tiremarks had identical chemical composition did not matter. Other tires can have the same chemical composition.

  • Milo

    I’m curious- if you ban the use of hair and fiber analysis, finger prints, hand writing analysis, shoe prints, tool marks, bullet striations, blood analysis, and if eye witness testamony and confessions are suspect, how would anyone ever be convicted?

  • Brian Curtis

    Too often, justice in the courts is not “what can proven with reliable evidence” but simply “what a jury can be convinced to believe.”

  • MadScientist1023

    DNA evidence is still valid as long as samples aren’t contaminated. Fingerprint, shoeprint, tool, and bullet analysis shouldn’t necessarily be banned, but they need to be better studied and juries need to be better informed as to their limitations. Police interrogation procedure needs to be revised to stop providing so many false positives so that confessions can actually be trusted.

    It doesn’t help anything that police keep relying on these faulty techniques to identify suspects. Once they think they’ve found the guy, they stop looking. If they’re doing that based on faulty evidence, they are letting the real criminals go uninvestigated. Maybe if they looked at all their suspects more carefully instead of zeroing in on a single one based on faulty evidence and false confessions, they would find there was more compelling evidence out there for the right person.

  • Wile F. Coyote

    No wonder the attorney’s for the school district thought they had a shot at winning in Kitzmiller v. Dover.

  • anxionnat

    Several years ago, when I was in grad school, I was called for jury duty. The lawyers questioned me, and another woman. She was a veterinarian. The lawyers from both sides questioned us about our respective areas of study, as well as asking what courses we’d taken. (We’d both had three years of chemistry: organic, inorganic, and biochem.) She had studied pharmacy, in relation to non-humans. I didn’t have any pharmacy background. We figured out later, after we were both dismissed, on our way to the parking lot, that one of the lawyers must have thought that, because we both had chem and bio backgrounds, they may have thought we knew something about illegal drugs. (This was laughable. The case was a meth lab bust.) I’ve been thinking about this recently because Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently reported the same type of anti-science bias in jury selection when he was called for jury duty, and because my sister (BS in Physics) and my brother-in-law (PhD Physics) were both tossed off juries. The lawyers both made it abundantly clear that they didn’t want people with a scientific background on the jury, whereas relatives and close friends of cops were ok. I am not sure why this antiscience background bias occurs, but I suspect that I, and the others I’ve mentioned were trained as scientists all over the world are, not to limit the hypotheses we are considering to “guilty” or “not guilty.” We are taught, and get better at it as our training goes on, to generate multiple hypotheses, and to test those multiple hypotheses using evidence. The lawyers don’t want anyone who has been trained this way to interrupt their “guilty” or “not guilty.” I am certain that if a grad student presented two hypotheses, “Yes” and “No” to his or her committee, or used flimsy evidence that has no scientific reliability, that grad student would flunk her/his orals, and be laughed out of the profession permanently. Unfortunately, that’s not how the law works, and why they get so many false positives. They don’t understand the testing of evidence, so they’d rather pick some high school grad who happens to be married to a cop in preference to scientists who *do* know how to evaluate evidence. (And I still haven’t figured out why a meth lab bust has anything to do with Ecology or Veterinary Medicine, or what child abuse has to do with Physics.)

  • Robert Baden

    One person who was falsely convicted due to bite mark evidence but cleared by DNA analysis is going around testifying at trials how bite mike analysis results in false convictions. Prosecutors must just love him.

  • Jim Jones

    Someone said that the purpose of the legal system is to get a definite result, a correct result is far less important.

  • Lucy Hill

    To be fair, I looked into the vaccine issue in great detail, and the anti-vaxxer’s are the ones making the best scientific points, whereas the pro-vaccine side is just about selling products

  • Brian Curtis

    Another problem is the lack of qualifications to properly evaluate the evidence, and assuming that a few hours’ Googling makes up for it. “Judge for yourself!” sounds great as long as nobody points out that you lack the expertise to judge, even if you can find the relevant evidence amid all the noise.

  • Great article! A few months ago I posted an entry about “How Scientific Is Forensic Science?” that brought up some of the same issues.

    Atheists and skeptics routinely scoff at homoeopathic remedies that have no scientific data supporting them, but did you know that the American justice system (and many other justice systems like it) often admit similarly junky science as evidence in criminal proceedings? It’s true. Men and women have been convicted, incarcerated for life and executed based on “science” that is not actually science and is in fact, no more accurate than a crystal ball.

    That’s absolutely true. Unfortunately, we hate to admit that our tendency to idealize science is a factor in this ongoing problem. People are accustomed to accepting expert testimony without question, and it’s not always easy for the layman to make distinctions between what’s presented as sound science and what’s reliable information. Judges are reluctant to allow challenges to an expert witness unless there’s a valid reason to suspect the testimony is flawed. This disproportionately disadvantages lower-income defendants, since they lack the resources to access experts who will challenge forensic data.

  • Oooh, this is excellent. Thank you!

  • George

    Those anti-vaxxer points are not based on science, I’m afraid to tell you. They are based on feelings such as fear of the misunderstood. Likewise, people who deny anthropogenic climate change also use “science” to make points, pulling out scientific-sounding excuses such as increased sunspot activity and increased volcanic output from Earth. These do sound plausible at first glance, and scientific, but they are complete rubbish.

  • dala

    Have some examples? All the anti-vax stuff I have seen was psudoscientific bullshit.

  • Zebulon Flux

    So says you. Your personal opinion on the matter is meaningless I’m afraid to tell you.
    There are some very serious questions that have to be asked regarding the vaccination of our children!
    The ones doing it are the government. When has the government EVER not been thoroughly corrupted by the vastly flawed human beings that run it?

    No one denies climate change.
    It is man made climate change and our ability to reverse ANY kind of climate change using global wealth redistribution and human depopulation that is being questioned and denied.

    We live in a very fragile bubble.
    The dinosaurs who had very limited scientific knowledge to say the least learned this lesson.
    The climate changed and the bubble the dinosaurs lived in busted and they all died.

    What makes you think we are any different than dinosaurs.
    If the climate changes and our bubble bust just like with the dinosaurs then we die.
    The dinosaurs had 185 million years. We may not even get a million or even 500 thousand years.
    Our time will simply come and we won’t be able to stop it.
    A million years later and it won’t even be like we were ever here to begin with.

    Pretending like we can change that with a one world Zionist or Islamic government isn’t going to stop it or even slow it down.

    It would just make the last remaining decades for the last human beings even more of a living hell.

  • Chamber

    Here’s my take on anti-vaxers You don’t want to vaccinate your kids, fine. That’s your choice. However, keep your little bucket of disease to yourself because when it gets the measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, polio,tuberculosis, that will be your fault & your responsibility to protect other new babies from your unvaccinated kid. So yeah, but hey at least it won’t be autistic… Or will be….cuz vaccines don’t cause autism. Another point I would like to make is that I would rather have an autistic child than a dead one.

  • Chamber
  • Chamber
  • Chamber
  • Zebulon Flux

    Great art work there! Something is going on with vaccines and our children.
    Vaccines are not what they used to be and are not what they are supposed to be.
    The government is holding our children’s health and lives hostage using vaccinations.
    I agree every child must be vaccinated but with untainted vaccines.

    Many Doctors and nurses do not vaccinate their own children!
    What is up with that?
    Our government has enacted laws that prohibit any law suits being brought against companies dispersing vaccines.
    Our government has enacted laws prohibiting the general public from knowing what a vaccine contains.
    Our government is run by people that only care about theirs!
    You had better believe there is a vaccine for our children and a different vaccine for their children!

    I never said no vaccines. That is horrifically stupid!
    I am saying we need to rise up for the sake of our children and demand from our government absolute transparency of the current vaccines and methods used!

    You should NEVER be left with a choice between damaged or dead children!
    It wasn’t like that before, it shouldn’t be like that now!