$7.5M Award paid for BIASED evidence analysis via FOX6Now.com

MILWAUKEE —  Robert Lee Stinson spent 23 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Now, he is finally getting justice for a conviction based on flawed evidence. His long-awaited day in court came amid a national effort to put forensic science on trial.

 

For decades, television shows have conditioned people to believe that people can pinpoint a criminal suspect with a shoe print, tire mark, or a single strand of hair, and they can do it with absolute certainty. However, the advent of DNA technology has proven that other forensic disciplines, once thought to be bulletproof, are susceptible. Those errors have put hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people in prison.

The conviction and exoneration of Robert Lee Stinson

When Robert Lee Stinson walked out of New Lisbon Correctional Center at the age of 44, his smile revealed a full set of teeth.

“It’s been a long time. Twenty-three years. I was accused of something I didn’t do,” Stinson said when he was released in 2009.

More than two decades earlier, one of those teeth was missing, and that’s all it took to convict him of murder.

“That was essentially the case. The whole case against Mr. Stinson,” said Keith Findley, co-founder of the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences.

In fall 1984, the body of 63-year-old Ione Cychosz was discovered in the backyard of a home near 7th and Center. She’d been raped and beaten to death. There were bite marks all over her skin.

“Whoever left these bite marks had some irregular dentition,” Findley explained.

Milwaukee police brought in a dental expert from Marquette University to examine the marks. Doctor L. Thomas Johnson helped police develop a sketch, which showed the killer would likely have a cracked or missing upper right tooth.

“It’s a difficult job,” Dr. Johnson said during a 2007 interview with FOX6 about forensic odontology.

Stinson lived just steps from the crime scene, and had a missing upper right tooth.

“The detectives closed this case after seeing Mr. Stinson,” said Heather Lewis Donnell, Stinson’s attorney since 2009.

The jury never saw the sketch, which showed a different tooth missing than the one in Stinson’s mouth, but they did hear Dr. Johnson say that the bite marks “had to have come” from Stinson. There was no margin for error. A second expert agreed.

“So they were saying, ‘It has to be him,'” Lewis Donnell explained.

She said the level of certainty the dental experts relayed to the jury in 1985 was never supported by the science.

“That they had the ability, their science had the ability to say, ‘It was this person, and only this person,'” Lewis Donnell said.

“It’s really kind of preposterous,” Findley said.

Twenty-three years would pass before Findley and the Wisconsin Innocence Project would prove the doctors were wrong.

“Did you ever think this would come?” a reporter asked Stinson after his 2009 release.

“No, I didn’t. No, I didn’t, but with the help of the Innocence Project — came through,” Stinson responded.

DNA technology would eventually identify the real killer as Moses Price, but Findley said the bite mark analysis that put Stinson away instead was flawed from the start, and more recent research proves it.

“It’s essentially junk,” Findley said.

Questioning bite mark analysis

For more than 50 years, Dr. Johnson was a pioneer in the field of forensic odontology. He led a team of dentists that identified victims of the 1985 Midwest Airlines crash, and he helped police identify the remains of victims dismembered by serial killer Jeffery Dahmer.

However, Findley said using bite marks to solve crimes is an entirely different process.

“Matching human remains is not the problem. Matching bite marks to a particular individual is a huge problem,” Findley said.

Matching actual teeth to actual dental records is precise, but a growing body of research finds that bite marks left on the skin are unreliable, because skin is a terrible medium for retaining bite mark indentations.

“Because skin is malleable,” Lewis Donnell explained.

“It stretches. It bloats. You bruise in funny patterns,” Findley explained further. “And that’s where the science has completely fallen apart.”

Study after study now questions the validity of bite mark analysis, with one expert calling it “the poster child for bad forensic science.” A 2009 report by The National Academy of Sciences went further, citing “serious problems” across the entire “forensic science system,” from fingerprints to firearms, and footwear to hair comparison.

Changing the face of forensic science

It was that government report and another that followed in 2016 that ultimately prompted Findley to join some of the nation’s leading criminal defense experts in launching The Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences. The first symposium was held in June at Northwestern University.

“This is one of our inaugural events,” Findley said during the symposium. “We can’t wait for the federal government to fix this.”

“We want to ensure that the science we’re producing is reliable and defendable,” said Jennifer Naugle, deputy administrator of the Wisconsin State Crime Lab.

Naugle said she’s on board with improving the science behind forensic science.

“‘The only thing we’re trying to do is seek the truth through science. That’s it. That’s really all it is,” Naugle said.

She said a 2016 report by the Obama Administration unfairly lumped more reliable techniques used every day, like fingerprint and firearms analysis, with things like hair and bite mark analysis, which has been largely discredited.

“That’s not something we would ever do at the Wisconsin State Crime Lab,” Naugle said.

“We’re not suggesting that all of the forensic disciplines are useless. They’re not, but what we are suggesting is that they need to be improved,” Findley said.

Dr. Johnson retired in 2013, but the following year, he published his final study on bite mark analysis. It concluded it is sometimes possible to narrow the source of a human bite mark to about 5% of the population. In other words, nowhere near a precise individual match. The FOX6 Investigators contacted Dr. Johnson by telephone, but he is 93 years old and unable to hear well. His wife declined an interview on his behalf.

Now that Dr. Johnson is retired, there is only one board-certified forensic odontologist in Wisconsin — Dr. Donald Simley in Madison. He declined an interview for this story because Dr. Johnson is a close personal friend and mentor. Dr. Simley has not testified in a bite mark case since 2003. While he believes there is still value in this type of evidence, he said police are better off swabbing a bite mark for DNA than trying to match a suspect’s teeth.

Across the country,  the Innocence Project has exonerated more than 160 people who were convicted with flawed forensic evidence, including 10 because of bite marks.

“This evidence is dreadful,” said Jennifer Mnookin, UCLA School of Law, during the symposium.

Yet, bite mark evidence is still admissible in more states, including Wisconsin, where, ironically, Stinson’s case still serves as the legal precedent.

“Even though Stinson has now been conclusively exonerated, and the bite mark evidence in his case has been shown to be false,” Findley said.

Robert Lee Stinson seeks justice in federal court

Ten years after Stinson’s release, his federal civil rights case against the dentists and the City of Milwaukee finally went to trial.

“There was a lot of powerful and moving testimony,” Lewis Donnell said.

Just before the case went to the jury, they settled out of court. The City of Milwaukee will pay Stinson $7.5 million. Stinson’s attorney said the remaining terms of the settlement — including any amount other defendants have agreed to pay — will remain confidential.

“We’re just really grateful that this is how it ended, and that Mr. Stinson got some measure of justice after all he’s been through,” said Lewis Donnell.

Thirty-four years later, Stinson can finally move on, but the injustice he endured is sure to leave a mark.

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MILWAUKEE — He spent 23 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Now, a Milwaukee man is finally getting justice for a conviction based on flawed evidence. His long-awaited day in court came amid a national effort to put forensic science on trial. For decades, television shows have conditioned people to believe that people can pinpoint a criminal suspect with a shoe print, tire mark, or a single strand of hair, and they can do it with […]

via ‘It’s essentially junk:’ $7.5M bite mark settlement underscores national call for better forensic evidence — FOX6Now.com

Forensic science — FBI Bullet-Lead Technique Dead Wrong — Intel Today

 

Forensic science — FBI Bullet-Lead Technique Dead Wrong

“For over thirty years, FBI experts testified about comparative bullet lead analysis (CBLA), a technique that was first used in the investigation into President Kennedy’s assassination. CBLA compares trace chemicals found in bullets at crime scenes with ammunition found in the possession of a suspect. (…) Although the FBI eventually ceased using CBLA, the Bureau’s conduct in first employing the technique and then defending it after it was challenged provides an insight into how forensic science sometimes works.”

Paul C. Giannelli

“We cannot afford to be misleading to a jury. We plan to discourage prosecutors from using our previous results in future prosecutions.”

Letter from Dwight E. Adams — then FBI lab Director — to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III

Since the 1960s, testimony by representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in thousands of criminal cases has relied on evidence from Compositional Analysis of Bullet Lead (CABL), a forensic technique that compares the elemental composition of bullets found at a crime scene to the elemental composition of bullets found in a suspect’s possession. Different from ballistics techniques that compare striations on the barrel of a gun to those on a recovered bullet, CABL is used when no gun is recovered or when bullets are too small or mangled to observe striations. Follow us on Twitter: @Intel_Today

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A True Story — In 1995, former Baltimore police Sgt. James A. Kulbicki was convicted of first-degree murder. The prosecutor convinced the jury that, in 1993, Kulbicki had killed his mistress —  22-year-old Gina Nueslein– with his off duty .38-caliber revolver.

The scientific evidence was “irrefutable”. The bullets recovered from the victim’s body and from the crime scene had been fired by his gun.

“I wonder what it felt like, Mr. Kulbicki, to have taken this gun, pressed it to the skull of that young woman and pulled the trigger, that cold steel,” the prosecutor asked rhetorically during closing arguments.

Forensic Science — In order to move along a stable straight trajectory, a bullet must spin on itself. To achieve such spin, spiralling “grooves” are machined in the inside of the weapon barrel.

The size of these “grooves” as well as the “lands”, the angle of the grooves, their number per length and the direction of rotation — clockwise or anticlockwise — generally permit to identify a type of weapon. For instance, Colt traditionally uses a left-hand twist while Smith & Wesson uses a right hand twist.

Moreover, specific imperfections of a barrel may allow in some case to match one bullet to a particular weapon. In the best-case scenario, two bullets fired by the same gun will not look alike but they are likely to show areas of resemblance.

When such test is not conclusive or not possible — because the bullets fragments are too small or because the gun is not recovered — it is still possible to analyze the lead content of the fragments and compare it to bullets known to belong to a suspect.

The Scientific Evidence Against Kulbicki

Maryland’s top firearms expert told the jury that the size of the bullet was compatible with Kulbicki’s gun and that he had cleaned the gun.

He added that he had not been able to identify the marks from the barrel.

Last, he testified that the lead content of the bullet that killed his mistress was identical to the content of bullets from a box belonging to Kulbicki.

“Out of the billions of bullets in the world, is this just a coincidence that this bullet ended up in the defendant’s off-duty weapon,” a prosecutor asked.

A prosecutor told the Jury that the evidence presented by the forensic experts was “a significant piece of evidence” and a “major link” to establish Kulbicki’s guilt.

The jurors agreed. Kulbicki was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

False Testimony

Joseph Kopera, one of the forensic experts who testified at the trial, presented the formal reports to the defense.

But his working notes were not given to them either at the trial, or at the appeal, which Kulbicki lost.

These notes conflict with the report on all grounds.

Kopera testified that the fragments were consistent with a large-caliber, probably a .38.

His notes tell that the first fragment came from a medium caliber and that the origin of the second fragment could not be determined.

Kopera testified that the gun had been cleaned. His notes read, “Residue in barrel: Yes. Bore condition: Dirty.”

Kopera testified that he could not identify the grooves and lands on the fragments. His notes reveal that the fragment’s land width was 0.072 inches and its groove width was 0.083 inches.

Bullets fired from Kulbicki’s Smith & Wesson revolver had a land width of 0.100 inches and a groove width of 0.113 inches.

The difference is significant enough to state beyond doubts that Kulbicki’s gun did not fire the bullet that killed his mistress.

Kopera testified that he could not identify the twist. His notes indicate that he had detected a “slight left twist” while Kulbicki’s off-duty weapon makes right-twist markings.

Kopera testified that the lead content of the bullets were identical. It was not.

The amount of arsenic in the fragments significantly differed from the one contained in the bullets belonging to Kulbicki.

No Degree — At the trial, Kopera testified that he had an engineering degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology and a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Maryland. Neither institution has ever heard of him.

A Widely Used Technique

“Every critical part of Kopera’s testimony was false, misleading, based on improper assumptions or ignored exculpatory information,” Suzanne K. Drouet, a former Justice Department lawyer, told the judge in her recent motion seeking a new trial for Kulbicki.

“If this could happen to my client, who was a cop who worked within this justice system, what does it say about defendants who know far less about the process and may have far fewer resources to uncover evidence of their innocence that may have been withheld by the prosecution or their scientific experts?”

Following a 2004 National Academy of Sciences report that sharply criticized the FBI’s bullet-lead technique, the agency no longer relies on this method.

After retiring from the firearms section of the Maryland State Police, Kopera  committed suicide.

For more than 30 years, his expertise has helped secure countless convictions.

Nationwide, it has been estimated that the method has been used in more than 2,000 cases over four decades.

Several former FBI employees believe that a review of all cases where the CBLA method was used in testimony should be urgently conducted.

“It troubles me that anyone would be in prison for any reason that wasn’t justified. And that’s why these reviews should be done in order to determine whether or not our testimony led to the conviction of a wrongly accused individual,” said Adams, the former FBI lab director.

The second in command agree.

“I don’t believe that we can testify about how many bullets may have come from the same melt and our estimate may be totally misleading,” declared deputy lab director Marc LeBeau in a May 12, 2005, e-mail.

So far, the FBI has rejected such reviews on the basis that it would be very expensive. A sum of US$70,000 was mentioned.

Since 2005, the nonpartisan Forensic Justice Project, run by former FBI lab whistle-blower Frederic Whitehurst, has tried to force the bureau to release a list of bullet-lead cases under the Freedom of Information Act.

In academic circles, some experts have not hidden their anger toward the program and what seems to be an attempt to cover-up decades of fraudulent forensic sciences.

Clifford Spiegelman is a statistician at Texas A&M University. He reviewed the FBI’s statistical methods for the science academy.

“They said the FBI agents who went after Al Capone were the untouchables, and I say the FBI experts who gave this bullet-lead testimony are the unbelievables.”

Conclusion

Several lessons can be gleaned from the CBLA experience. In the conclusion of his excellent paper on the subject, Paul Giannelli wrote:

First, the failure to publish the empirical data that supports scientific conclusions is unacceptable. Scientists “are generally expected to exchange research data as well as unique research materials that are essential to the replication or extension of reported findings.”

Second, defense attorneys were unable to successfully challenge the evidence until William Tobin, the retired FBI expert, became a defense witness. This is not surprising because no defendant, no matter how rich, can conduct extensive empirical studies. A defense expert in a particular case can critique the bases of a prosecution expert’s opinion but can rarely replicate the research upon which that opinion rests.

Forensic Science: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

  Forensic science used in criminal trials can be surprisingly unscientific. Maybe a new television procedural could help change the public perception.

REFERENCES

Comparative Bullet lead Analysis: A Retrospective — Paul C. Giannelli

Comparative bullet-lead analysis – Wikipedia

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“For over thirty years, FBI experts testified about comparative bullet lead analysis (CBLA), a technique that was first used in the investigation into President Kennedy’s assassination. CBLA compares trace chemicals found in bullets at crime scenes with ammunition found in the possession of a suspect. (…) Although the FBI eventually ceased using CBLA, the Bureau’s […]

via Forensic science — FBI Bullet-Lead Technique Dead Wrong — Intel Today