Monday, May 14, 2012

ASCLD Meets Frontline

On April 17, PBS aired a Frontline documentary on “The Real CSI.” Within the week, the president of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD), Jill Spriggs, gave the following assessment to her fellow crime lab directors:
In the last week, published reports dusted off the same old forensic cases from the past and regurgitated negative information from years ago in order to provide doubt in the minds of the public and the court. I don’t know about you but some of my neighbors watched the Frontline documentary and had many questions. “Were latent prints really not a validated science?” “Is latent print analysis not what I thought it is?” “Were bite marks really a product of bad forensic science?” “How could anyone rely on bite marks?” “And, how many employees use certificate mills to obtain a forensic science certification?” My answer—You can be confident about latent print evidence. Latent prints are a validated science. Of all of the millions of fingerprint samples in the databases throughout the world, no two people have ever matched the same fingerprint. Bite marks are not an accredited crime laboratory discipline and “no” we don’t use forensic science certification mills to certify our analysts.
Watching the documentary, I shared her sense of boring familiarity. What’s new here? Same faces, same criticisms. But Ms. Spriggs’ rejoinder likewise is outdated in the logic it uses to shrug off the criticisms. Frontline summarized real problems with the way the American criminal justice system produces and consumes forensic science evidence. Although ASCLD is not responsible for these problems, let’s look more carefully at the three matters that Ms. Spriggs mentions.

1. Credible Credentials

In case after case, witnesses bolster their credentials as forensic experts with credentials from the American College of Forensic Examiners Institute—the organization depicted as a diploma mill on the Frontline show (and elsewhere). Courts often take the bait. For example, in People v. McWhorter, 212 P.3d 692 (Cal. 2009), the California Supreme Court juxtaposed a defense expert’s seemingly strong credentials—he “was certified by an organization known as the American Board of Recorded Evidence; and was a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners” with his puzzling inability to “identify the computer program he used to enhance or ‘electronically emboss’ the image in question [and to] satisfactorily explain the full nature of the process he used to create it.” Id. at 726.

It is appropriate to note that “we [all government crime labs?] don’t use forensic science certification mills to certify our analysts.” But what about the rest of the forensic science community—and the courts? Some prosecutors seem to have no compunction about presenting their witnesses as qualified at least in part because they are “a life fellow for The American College of Forensic Examiners” or some such thing. Chavarria v. State, 307 S.W.3d 386, 387 (Tex. Ct. App. 2009).

Judges and lawyers need to learn which organizations have meaningful standards and which do not. If there were less demand for dubious credentials, expert witnesses—government employees and private consultants alike—would have less incentive to pad their CVs with such credentials.

2. “Bite marks are not an accredited crime laboratory discipline”

Disavowing bite-mark evidence because it comes from outside the public laboratory is not responsive to the question, “Were bite marks really a product of bad forensic science?” Does ASCLD believe that forensic science is limited to the reports of crime laboratories? That forensic odontologists are not accredited? The American Board of Forensic Odontology "was organized in 1976 under the auspices of the National Institute of Justice" and "is accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) as a forensic specialty offering board certification to qualified forensic dentists." If the public cannot trust this field's accredited expertise, why should it trust "an accredited crime laboratory discipline"? (There are a number of possible answers, but Ms. Spriggs does not provide them.)

3. “You can be confident about latent print evidence. Latent prints are a validated science.”

Latent prints often contain valuable information for ascertaining the origin of the print. However, the Frontline interviewees pointed to the lack of objective criteria for deciding when prints do or do not come from the same source and the danger that unconscious bias could influence these judgments. These problems notwithstanding, there are scientifically sound studies suggesting that latent fingerprint examiners can get the correct answers most of the time. The Frontline show could be faulted for failing to acknowledge this research while publicizing the NIJ’s refusal to fund a rigorous, comprehensive audit of actual laboratory work. Such a study should be done to complement the recently acquired experimental data, but why would Frontline omit these findings from its televised and online materials?

Yet, Ms. Spriggs does the same thing. Rather than refer to the scientific research that is responsive to the calls for better validation, she repeats the same old story: We can have great confidence in the work of latent print analysts because “[o]f all of the millions of fingerprint samples in the databases throughout the world, no two people have ever matched the same fingerprint.”

What is wrong with this proof of validity? First, whether any individuals have the same fingerprint tells us virtually nothing about the ability of analysts to compare prints accurately. In the Frontline show, Jennifer Mnookin made this point when she explained that the task confronting a latent print analyst is to discern when a partial print comes from a particular person’s finger. That task is distinct from deciding whether pairs of full prints come from different fingers.

Second, just because there are millions of prints on file, it hardly follows that “the millions of fingerprint samples in the databases throughout the world” match. The FBI alone has over 71 million prints in its database. To verify that no pair of these exemplar prints match would require approximately 2.5 x 1015 (2.5 quadrillion) comparisons of pairs of 10 prints. It would take an examiner, working at the incredible pace of one comparison per digit per second, some 800 million years to complete this task. When the FBI’s contractor, Lockheed Martin, tried to prove the non-existence of matching prints in the database using an automated matcher, it limited itself to a mere 51,000 prints and failed to establish uniqueness.

Ms. Spriggs importuned her fellow crime lab directors to “speak out on these issues. . . . Don’t wait another day! Get started!” Indeed, there are important things to be said.

1 comment:

  1. Great job of playing the PBS tune.PBS failed miserably in their investigation:1.Leah Bartos was a shill easily discovered via her journalist coursework, acfei seminars, and her internship with Post Mortem- no forensics background=one big lie.2.PBS had a role to smear forensic science and their slanted and bias view demonstrated it-fair balanced and accurate was not their mission. 3.As guilty as PBS was in their hype and logical fallacies to support their witch hunt their total suppression of the facts that the ACFEI has a membership containing thousands of MD,PHD,and graduate degree holders, is accredited and supported by 12 organizations consisting of testing, accreditation,and state and federal agencies,requires yearly CE completion,provides yearly seminars and conferences,and has a peer reveiwed journal revealed that this organization followed Berkeley's course of Juicy Juicy Scandal/Slander.
    Just for your own information there are those of us who are lifelong learners-Rennaisance individuals- and relish the challenge of taking courses and securing degrees and credentials as an attestation that they objectively satsified the requirements of a given program. Padding ones resume with life achievements- they are called credentials and degrees- sounds more like sour grapes coming from those who lack them.