Bad lead matching and shoddy police work leads to federal
overview of state crime labs
By Ken Russell, Contributing Editor
TV forensics experts determine the “truth” on such matters as DNA, ballistics and fingerprints, and present their results in court. These experts are seldom challenged. The same thing happens in real life - the guilty go to prison and the innocent go free. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wanted to re-introduce capital punishment and proposed using forensics to make really, really sure the accused was guilty before being put to death. I am really, really glad he dropped the idea because forensics, as now performed, are not nearly that certain.
Newspapers tell of convictions and imprisonments on the basis of bad forensic work. Bad forensics can also ensure that the guilty are acquitted - O. J. Simpson was acquitted largely because of shoddy police forensic work.
Let us consider something we used to teach our sophomores - lead smelting and refining. Almost all lead occurs as sulfide ores that contain lesser amounts of other metals. Smelting removes the sulfur and refining removes most of minor elements, notably gold, silver and copper. The composition of the refined lead may be easily and inexpensively determined by, for example, spectrographic analysis.
Someone at the FBI decided that if the compositions of two bullets “matched” well enough the two were from the same box of ammunition. Then if the box of ammunition was tied to the defendant, so was the subject bullet.
My reaction to the claim is “HUH?” One crucible of refined lead could make millions of bullets, and the molten lead is not necessarily of uniform composition. A composition match does not prove a darned thing.
This erstwhile expert was clearly working far above his pay grade, but sold the idea to superiors who really should have known better. For the next two decades, thousands of innocent people were convicted on the basis of totally hokum bullet matching. The FBI was the only lab in the country that was using the technique, which should have been a warning that something was wrong.
Finally someone in a high position got the National Academy of Science to address the lead-matching issue. They turned thumbs down and the FBI stopped matching bullets to a particular box.
Recently the Academy performed an extensive study of the nation’s crime labs. Law enforcement agencies resented the intervention of mainstream science in the courts and an arm of the Justice Department tried to block the study. It failed and the resulting report decried the lack of science and the use of shoddy practice. It recommended establishment of a federal agency to oversee the crime labs.
Are the government forensics labs really in that bad a shape? Regrettably, some are. There are also a lot of labs that do their work well, but do not get much publicity.
The police forensics lab in Detroit was so bad that it was shut down. A study found a shocking error rate. The police crime lab in Houston was heavily criticized and also shut down. A leaky roof and contamination of evidence were cited, along with general incompetence and sloppiness.
Some years ago there was an uproar at the Massachusetts State Crime Lab about sloppy procedure, including horrific reports of mishandling of human tissues. Romney hired a new director who mostly stirred the mess he inherited and engaged in turf wars. He also reportedly misplaced two corpses and a pair of eyeballs. Current Gov. Deval Patrick fired him and is now looking for a new director.