NJ Death Investigation System Called a ‘Disgrace’

An 18-month NJ Advance Media investigation found serious failures at nearly every level of New Jersey’s patchwork system of medical examiner offices. The state’s past two top medical examiners resigned in protest.

New Jersey entire system for investigating deaths is a national disgrace, reports NJ.com. An 18-month NJ Advance Media investigation found serious failures at nearly every level of New Jersey’s patchwork system of medical examiner offices, the obscure agencies charged with one of the most fundamental tasks: figuring out how somebody died and why. The probe found families left to grieve without answers or closure, innocent people sent to jail and murders unsolved. Pathologists across the U.S. says the New Jersey system is so bad that slowly decomposing bodies sometimes clog storage rooms of morgues by the dozens, stacked two to a gurney, awaiting examination or burial for months.

New Jersey’s past two top medical examiners resigned in protest over a lack of money and power to fix things. Governors and lawmakers for nearly four decades have largely ignored the system’s shortcomings and the tragic consequences, and failed to demand answers. Experts estimate an effective system should be run in New Jersey for about $31.5 million a year, $3.50 per resident. Taxpayers now pony up about $26 million for a system marred by neglect and dysfunction. The newest state medical examiner, Andrew Falzon, has won praise for trying to right the ship since he was confirmed last year. The state has hired more pathologists and support staff, improved turnaround times for autopsies and brought in an outside monitor to study the system and recommend changes. Past studies and recommendations still collect dust, as do the many reform bills that have been introduced in the legislature since 2003, all of them going nowhere.

from https://thecrimereport.org

A Short History of the FBI Crime Laboratory

     Shortly after becoming the FBI’s fourth director in 1924, J. Edgar Hoover envisioned a national crime laboratory under the auspicies of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover had been influenced by August Vollmer, the…

     Shortly after becoming the FBI's fourth director in 1924, J. Edgar Hoover envisioned a national crime laboratory under the auspicies of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover had been influenced by August Vollmer, the innovative chief of the Berkeley, California Police Department and John H. Wigmore, author and professor at Northwestern University Law School.

     August Vollmer and Wigmore had pioneered the formation of the Scientific Crime Detection Lab formed in Chicago in the wake of the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre. These practitioner scholars believed that the developing fields within forensic science, coupled with highly trained criminal investigators, would someday bring victory over crime. Hoover had already made the image of the latent fingerprint the unofficial logo of the FBI. A FBI crime laboratory would advance Hoover's goal to create the ideal crime fighter--an highly educated, well-trained scientific crime detection professional.

     In April 1931, Hoover sent Special Agent Charles A. Appel, Jr. to Chicago to enroll in a short course sponsored by the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory that at the time was a private, fee-charging lab partially funded by the university. Most of the lab's cases consisted of forensic document examination, firearm identification (then called forensic ballistics), and research and development in the polygraph, a newly developing field of scientific lie detection. (In 1938 the Scientific Crime Detection Lab would be taken over by the Chicago Police Department.) Hoover also sent agent Appel to police departments in St. Louis (in 1906 the first police department to establish a fingerprint identification bureau), New Orleans, and Detroit, the only law enforcement agencies besides Berkeley and Los Angeles that operated crime labs.

     The FBI Technical Laboratory, with Charles Appel as its head, opened its doors on November 24, 1932 (in 1942 it was renamed the FBI Laboratory) in a nine-by-nine foot room in the Southern Railway Building at Thirteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. Special Agent Appel, its director and only employee, performed firearm identification work. Appel used the newly invented comparison microscope and a device designed for the examination of gun barrel interiors. To produce forensic exhibits of bullets, Appel utilized basic photographic equipment. The FBI Lab, as advertised by Hoover, provided evidence analysis and testimony for the bureau as well as for any local law enforcement agency that requested forensic analysis. Hoover also promised research and development in the various forensic science fields. Hoover's ambitious undertaking eventually made the FBI an indispensable and highly visible cog in the nation's crime fighting machine.

     By 1940, the laboratory, now located at FBI headquarters in Washington, DC, employed firearm identificaton experts, questioned document examiners, forensic chemists, physicists, metallurgists specializing in tool mark identification, forensic geologists (soil examinations), hair and fiber analysts, forensic serologists (blood and bodily fluids examinations), and latent fingerprint identification experts. The laboratory, employing over a hundred people, had gotten so large Hoover divided the lab into three sections: questioned documents; physics and chemistry; and latent fingerprint identification. At this time, only fifteen police departments and sixteen states operated crime labs. The FBI Lab continued to grow. By 1958, it employed two hundred scientific, clerical and administrative personnel.

     The FBI Laboratory, by the end of the 1980's, had grown into the busiest and most famous crime lab in the world. It had also become one of the top tourist attractions in Washington, DC. But even in its heyday, because of the quantity of forensic examinations and laboratory hiring criteria, there were problems with the quality of some of the work. The FBI Lab was the biggest and the most famous, but not the best. Overwhelmed by a staggering caseload, Hoover did not hire top-rate scientists. Moreover, there was not time for research and development. This led to some bad science and a problem with scientific objectivity.

     The FBI lab had to compete for personnel with a growing number of city, county, and state crime labs.  Because the FBI only hired lab employees who also met the criteria for the position of special agent, not all of the lab personnel had sufficient scientific backgrounds.  All FBI Lab personnel (except clerical employees) were first sent into the field to work as agents for three years. Many of these agents  had to be dragged kicking and screaming back to DC to work inside the lab. some of these agents had used their degrees in science to get into the FBI to become investigators, not bureau crime lab criminalists. Moreover, the close identification with law enforcement created by three years in the field worked against scientific objectivity. (The FBI has since changed its crime lab hiring criteria.)

     J. Edgar Hoover died in office in May 1972. By 1990, there was nothing left of his reputation and status as an American law enforcement pioneer. The mere mention of his name on a TV sitcom or a late night talk show brought instant laughter. Once a powerful and innovative man, Hoover, like so many other American historical figures--Charles Lindbergh for one--had been reduced by a tabloid culture and hack journalism into a character you might find in an underground comic book. The post-Hoover image of the FBI agent, while having lost some of its luster, did not go down with the Hoover ship. Notwithstanding his fall from grace, Hoover's most profound contribution to the art and science of criminal investigation, the FBI Crime Laboratory, is still considered the gold standard of forensic science in America.

    

from http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com/

Phenotyping Uses DNA to Create Suspect Sketches

The DNA sketch technology is a relatively new tool that can generate leads in cold cases or narrow a suspect pool. For some ethicists and lawyers, it’s an untested practice that if used incorrectly could lead to racial profiling or ensnaring innocent people as suspects.

After her oldest daughter was killed last year, Michelle McDaniel and her family isolated themselves in their small Texas town out of fear that the unknown killer could be standing in line with them at the grocery store or passing them on the street. Last month, Brown County sheriff’s investigators sent McDaniel a sketch of the man they suspected in her daughter’s death, despite having no witnesses. The sketch was created using DNA found at the crime scene; a private lab used the sample to predict the shape of the killer’s face, his skin tone, eye color and hair color, the Associated Press reports. Within a week, the sheriff’s office had a suspect in custody.

For McDaniel, the DNA sketch technology known as phenotyping was an answered prayer. For police officers, it’s a relatively new tool that can generate leads in cold cases or narrow a suspect pool. For some ethicists and lawyers, it’s an untested practice that if used incorrectly could lead to racial profiling or ensnaring innocent people as suspects. Several private companies offer phenotyping services to law enforcement to create sketches of suspects or victims when decomposed remains are found. The process looks for markers inside of a DNA sample known to be linked to certain traits. Police in at least 22 states have released suspect sketches generated through phenotyping. It works like this: Companies have created a predictive formula using the DNA of volunteers who also took a physical traits survey or had their face scanned by recognition software. That model is used to search the DNA samples for specific markers and rate the likelihood that certain characteristics exist.

from https://thecrimereport.org

MA To Drop 6,000 Drug Cases Over Evidence Tampering

Prosecutors will dismiss more than 6,000 convictions tied to Sonja Farak, a former chemist who authorities say was high almost every day she worked at a state drug lab for eight years. It was the second time in less than a year that cases have been dropped because of misconduct by a chemist; more than 20,000 cases were tossed in April after another incident.

Massachusetts prosecutors will dismiss more than 6,000 convictions tied to a former chemist who authorities say was high almost every day she worked at a state drug lab for eight years, reports the Associated Press.The move comes months after the American Civil Liberties Union and the state’s public defender agency asked the state’s highest court to throw out the cases tainted by Sonja Farak, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to stealing drugs from the state crime lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and tampering with evidence. “Dismissal vindicates the rights of our clients to due process and fair prosecution and restores the integrity to the justice system by sending a clear message to prosecutors that no conviction will be allowed to stand in the face of such fraud,” said Randy Gioia of the Center for Public Counsel Services.

It is the second time in less than a year that prosecutors have been forced to throw out thousands of cases due to misconduct by drug lab chemists. More than 20,000 convictions were tossed in April after chemist Annie Dookhan was caught tampering with evidence and falsifying tests. The total number of Farak’s cases that will be dismissed could grow, because several prosecutors haven’t provided numbers to the Supreme Judicial Court. Most of them are low-level drug cases and officials say they’re not aware of anyone who’s still behind bars as a result of a tainted conviction.

from https://thecrimereport.org

“Forensic Testimony” by Dr. C. Michael Bowers

     Dr. C. Michael Bowers, the renowned forensic odontologist (dentist) known for his scientific integrity and independence, is the author of an important text called, Forensic Testimony: Science, Law and Expert Evidence. The book bring…

     Dr. C. Michael Bowers, the renowned forensic odontologist (dentist) known for his scientific integrity and independence, is the author of an important text called, Forensic Testimony: Science, Law and Expert Evidence. The book brings together the subjects of forensic science and the art of expert testimony.

     Dr. Bowers, an early skeptic of human bite mark analysis, discusses the problems of judicial acceptance of junk science into the courtroom. The author also addresses the dueling expert and other problems in forensic science.

     Forensic Testimony should be required reading for judges, trial attorneys, forensic scientists, and criminal justice students. Highly recommended. 

from http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com/

Missing In America: A Nation of Missing and Lost Persons

     On May 29, 1971, Cheryl Miller and Pamella Jackson, high school juniors from Vermillion, South Dakota, were in a 1960 Studebaker Lark en route to a party held at a gravel pit near Elk Point, a town near the Iowa border thirty miles …

     On May 29, 1971, Cheryl Miller and Pamella Jackson, high school juniors from Vermillion, South Dakota, were in a 1960 Studebaker Lark en route to a party held at a gravel pit near Elk Point, a town near the Iowa border thirty miles east of their hometown. Along the way, the girls asked a car full of boys for directions to the party site. According to the boys, while leading the girls to the gravel pit, they looked in their rearview mirror and didn't see the Studebaker.

     The Vermillion High School Students did not arrive at the party, and did not return home. The Studebaker went missing as well. (The youths who gave Miller and Jackson directions were never suspects in their disappearance.) The missing persons investigation led nowhere, and died on the vine. Decades after they went missing, no one had a clue regarding what had happened to the Vermillion students. It seemed they had just vanished off the face of the earth.

     Early in 2007, Aloysius Black Crow, a South Dakota prison inmate, told the authorities that he had secretly audio-taped a fellow prisoner who had confessed to him that he had raped and murdered the Vermillion girls. David Lykken, the 54-year-old man Aloysius Black Crow said he'd taped, was a convicted rapist and kidnapper who was serving a 227-year prison sentence. In 2004, the police had found human bones, articles of female clothing, and a purse on Lykken's farm. (In 1971, Lykken would have been 18-years-old.)

     A Union County Grand Jury, based upon the jailhouse snitch's audio-tape, indicted Lykken on two counts of murder, kidnapping, and rape. As it turned out, the confession Aloysius Black Crow had taped was a fake. The charges against Lykken were dropped, and in 2008, the jailhouse informant pleaded guilty to perjury.

     On Tuesday, September 24, 2013, a fisherman on Brule Creek near Elk Point, spotted the wheels of a car sitting on its roof in the drought-shallowed creek. Several hours later, the authorities pulled a 1960 Studebaker Lark out of the water and mud. Inside the rusted vehicle, police officers discovered what appeared to be the skeletons of two people, remains presumed to be those of Cheryl Miller and Pamella Jackson.

     On April 15, 2014, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley told reporters that forensic scientists have confirmed the identities of the remains as being Miller and Jackson. Investigators and forensic experts determined that the vehicle's ignition and headlights had been on when the car went into the water. The car was also in the third gear. Given the absence of gunshot or knife wounds, and no signs of alcohol consumption, the deaths went into the books as accidental.

     As a missing persons case, the 42-year-old mystery was solved. While the case was officially closed, family members would never know the exact circumstances of the crash, or how quickly the girls had died.

     If the lakes, rivers, creeks, and ponds in the United States suddenly went dry, there wouldn't be enough forensic scientists to analyze all of the remains. America's waterways are grave sites for thousands of missing persons, people whose stories will never be told.

       

from http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com/

Daphne Caruana Galizia’s Murder and the Security of WhatsApp

Daphne Caruana Galizia was a Maltese journalist whose anti-corruption investigations exposed powerful people. She was murdered in October by a car bomb. Galizia used WhatsApp to communicate securely with her sources. Now that she is dead, the Maltese police want to break into her phone or the app, and find out who those sources were. One journalist reports: Part of…

Daphne Caruana Galizia was a Maltese journalist whose anti-corruption investigations exposed powerful people. She was murdered in October by a car bomb.

Galizia used WhatsApp to communicate securely with her sources. Now that she is dead, the Maltese police want to break into her phone or the app, and find out who those sources were.

One journalist reports:

Part of Daphne's destroyed smart phone was elevated from the scene.

Investigators say that Caruana Galizia had not taken her laptop with her on that particular trip. If she had done so, the forensic experts would have found evidence on the ground.

Her mobile phone is also being examined, as can be seen from her WhatsApp profile, which has registered activity since the murder. But it is understood that the data is safe.

Sources close to the newsroom said that as part of the investigation her sim card has been cloned. This is done with the help of mobile service providers in similar cases. Asked if her WhatsApp messages or any other messages that were stored in her phone will be retrieved, the source said that since the messaging application is encrypted, the messages cannot be seen. Therefore it is unlikely that any data can be retrieved.

I am less optimistic than that reporter. The FBI is providing "specific assistance." The article doesn't explain that, but I would not be surprised if they were helping crack the phone.

It will be interesting to see if WhatsApp's security survives this. My guess is that it depends on how much of the phone was recovered from the bombed car.

EDITED TO ADD (11/7): The court-appointed IT expert on the case has a criminal record in the UK for theft and forgery.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

MA Crime Lab Failure Could Void Convictions

The head of a Massachusetts crime lab office was fired after investigators found that staff withheld exculpatory evidence from defense lawyers in thousands of drunken-driving cases since 2011. The disclosure could threaten many convictions.

The head of a Massachusetts crime lab office was fired Monday after investigators found that staff withheld exculpatory evidence from defense lawyers in thousands of drunken-driving cases since 2011. The disclosure could threaten many convictions, the Boston Globe reports. State public safety officials concluded that the Office of Alcohol Testing routinely withheld documents from defense lawyers in a lawsuit challenging the reliability of breathalyzer test results due to an “unwritten policy not to turn these documents over to any requester.” The documents included evidence that breath testing devices had failed to calibrate properly during the office’s certification process. The report said the office had “made serious errors of judgment in its responses to court-ordered discovery, errors which were enabled by a longstanding and insular institutional culture that was reflexively guarded . . . and which was inattentive to the legal obligations borne by those whose work facilitates criminal prosecutions.”

The investigation was conducted by the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. The Office of Alcohol Testing is part of the State Police crime laboratory and oversees the state breath testing program. Director Melissa O’Meara was fired and replaced by Curtis Wood, the undersecretary for forensic science and technology. Daniel Bennett, the state’s secretary of public safety, plans to hire a retired state judge “with experience presiding over criminal cases” to help the office handle court-ordered discovery. The state launched its investigation in August amid allegations from defense lawyers that the office failed to turn over evidence that the machines may have provided hundreds of flawed results over a two-year period. “This is going to impact every single breathalyzer test case,” said defense lawyer Joseph Bernard. “Every single breath test from 2011 to the present will be impacted by this.”

from https://thecrimereport.org

Kenneth Douglas: The Morgue Employee From Hell

     First you’re murdered, then you’re raped. This represents the ultimate victimization. Having sex with a dead person, while a relatively minor crime, reflects behavior that is beyond deviant, and worse than bad. It’s disturbing to kn…

     First you're murdered, then you're raped. This represents the ultimate victimization. Having sex with a dead person, while a relatively minor crime, reflects behavior that is beyond deviant, and worse than bad. It's disturbing to know the world is populated with sexual deviants like Kenneth Douglas who can commit their disgusting acts for years without detection. However, while dead victims cannot speak, advances in forensic science have given them a voice. It's that voice that brought Mr. Douglas to justice.

     From 1976 to 1992, Kenneth Douglas worked the night shift at the Hamilton County Morgue in Cincinnati, Ohio. According to his wife, who reported him several times to his morgue supervisors, when he'd undress at home after work he "reeked of alcohol and sex." Eventually morgue officials told Mrs. Douglas to stop calling. Apparently they were not interested in knowing if one of their morgue employees was abusing corpses and contaminating evidence. When the 38-year-old left the morgue in 1992 it was not because officials fired him. He simply stopped showing up for work. The situation at the Hamilton County Morgue reflects a fairly typical example of governmental inertia.

     In 1982, ten years before Kenneth Douglas left the morgue, door-to-door salesman David Steffan confessed to beating and slashing the throat of 19-year-old Karen Range after she invited him into her home. The forensic pathologist found traces of semen in the murder victim's body. Steffen, however, said he had not raped the victim. The judge sentenced him to death. (Steffan remains on Ohio's death awaiting execution.)

     In March 2008, police officers arrested Kenneth Douglas, the former morgue employee, on a drug charge. A detective ran his DNA sample through a database and came up with a match. The semen found in Karen Range's body was his.

     Following his indictment for gross abuse of a corpse in August 2008, Douglas pleaded no contest to the charge. The judge sentenced him to three years in prison.

     Four years later, investigators in Cincinnati discovered that Douglas' DNA matched semen that had been found in two other female corpses in the Hamilton County Morgue. One of these cases involved 24-year-old April Hicks who died in October 1991 after falling out of a three-story window. Kenneth Douglas, when confronted with the DNA evidence, admitted having sex with her body on the day she died.

     The other case involved the 1992 murder of 23-year-old Charlene Appling. Douglas confessed to have sex with her corpse as well. Mark Chambers pleaded guilty to strangling Appling and was sentenced to 10 to 25 years. (He was paroled in 2000.)

     Douglas shocked his interrogators by confessing to having sex with more than 100 Hamilton County corpses during his tenure at the morgue. He blamed his deviant behavior on crack cocaine and booze. (Blaming cocaine and alcohol was, of course, a load of crap.)

     In 2012, relatives of Karen Range, Charlene Appling, and April Hicks sued Hamilton County in federal court. The plaintiffs accused the defendant of "recklessly and wantonly" neglecting to supervise Mr. Douglas. In 2013 a U.S. district judge dismissed the suit on grounds the plaintiffs, while perhaps victims of negligence on the part of morgue administrators, had failed to establish that their constitutional rights had been violated. The plaintiffs appealed that ruling.

     In August 2014, a three-judge panel on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court's decision. This meant that the civil case could go forward against Hamilton County.

     In February 2015, Hamilton County settled the abuse of corpse lawsuit by paying the plaintiffs $800,000.

     Kenneth Douglas is now 63-years-old and out of prison. One can only hopes he stays off drugs and booze and stays clear of morgues.

     

from http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com/

Forensic Fraud and the ‘Insidious’ Culture of U.S. Courtrooms

Flawed forensic evidence is a key reason for many wrongful convictions in criminal cases. Setting rigorous standards for judges and prosecutors to follow in pretrial discovery would reduce its use, argues a study published in the Northwestern University Law Review.

Rigorous rules for pretrial discovery in criminal cases will curb the use of flawed forensic science, and reduce the wrongful convictions arising from the “insidious” prosecutor-dominated culture of American courtrooms, argues a study published in the Northwestern University Law Review.

Criminal justice proceedings, unlike civil and tort trials, too often rely on questionable forensic evidence that is rarely challenged by judges or prosecutors, according to the study.

The study authors suggest the root of the problem is not necessarily individual misconduct by court officers, but the lack of consistent rules that govern the presentation of critical forensic evidence before trial.

“Systems-level procedural problems…all too often contribute to the admission of flawed forensics in criminal proceedings,” the study says.

The study added: “These dynamics are more insidious than questionable individual prosecutorial or judicial behavior in this context. Not only are judges likely to be former prosecutors, prosecutors are ‘repeat players’ in criminal litigation and, as such, routinely support reduced pretrial protections for defendants.”

The study, entitled “Discovering Forensic Fraud,” was written by Jennifer D. Oliva, Associate Professor of Law and Public Health at West Virginia University; and Valena E. Beety, Associate Professor of Law at West Virginia University College of Law.

Pretrial discovery and disclosure rules similar to those used in civil cases could “halt the flood of faulty forensic evidence routinely admitted against defendants in criminal prosecutions,” the authors claimed.

The study focused on forensic odontology—the study of bite marks—which both the American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP concluded in 2015 were an “unreliable forensic discipline.”

But, the study noted, “shockingly, courts continue to admit bite mark evidence in criminal trials and do so virtually exclusively on the bases of precedent.”

Several states have already begun to adopt more rigorous rules. Texas, North Carolina and West Virginia, for example, strengthened their criminal discovery standards following disclosures of wrongful convictions.

In 2014, Texas passed the Michael Morton Act, requiring full open-file discovery of favorable evidence after the prosecution receives a request. The Act was named after a man who was found to have been wrongfully convicted of his wife’s murder after his prosecutor—who later became a judge—hid exculpatory evidence.

The study called on other judicial systems around the country to follow suit.

“Such leveling of the playing field may return integrity to prosecutors’ offices and restore trust in our criminal adjudications,” the authors said.

This study was prepared by TCR news intern Julia Pagnamenta. She welcomes readers’ comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org