Friday, April 20, 2012

The Psychology of Scientific Misinterpretations: The Big Bang Theory, Fred Zain, Cognitive Bias, and The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy

I am a huge fan of the comedy hit series “The Big Bang Theory”. Please don’t fret, this blog article IS about forensic science, …..with emphasis on DNA. If I were to focus upon everything I know about theoretical physics, this article would scarcely occupy more than ¼ page, ….even on a good day.

Refer to the final Big Bang Theory episode of Season 2, The Monopolar Expedition, ….with Part 2 of the storyline continuing into the first episode of Season 3.

Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a theoretical physicist, is chosen to go on a summer long expedition to the magnetic North Pole. On this adventure, he takes friends/colleagues: Leonard, Howard and Raj. When the four scientists return from the expedition, Sheldon is beside himself with satisfaction. Apparently, the group was able to collect exciting data that PROVED String Theory (On a good day, I might actually have a vague notion of this theory). Sheldon wasted no time in sending out notifications to everyone on his e-mail contact list-Sheldon’s long anticipated Nobel Prize in Physics was all but locked up.

Leonard, Howard and Raj approached Sheldon with a tragic reality check. They FIRST pointed out what an insufferable jerk he was--during the first portion of the expedition, …..when virtually NO USEFUL DATA had fallen into their lap. Sheldon’s comically remorseful friends confessed that their NOBEL PRIZE DATA, …..was nothing more than the result of an electric can opener—secretly being turned on and off.

Sheldon was informed that—due to the relentless aggravation of his North Pole bunk mates—it was a matter of 1) Pleasing Sheldon by temporarily falsifying some scientific data, ….or 2) Expel their expedition leader out into the cold, as a ‘snack’ for the polar bears. Sheldon, ….understandably hurt and humiliated, ….had no choice but to immediately author a follow-up e-mail, forfeiting his bragging rights to the next Nobel Prize in Physics.

Let us now analyze what happened here. What do you suppose Sheldon hoped to achieve at the North Pole? Fame, fortune, ….and of course most important, the scientist expected to prove himself CORRECT, ….a genius among all of the 'common folk' on our planet. What were his three colleagues trying to achieve with their falsified data? They simply wished to maintain a grasp upon their rapidly deteriorating sanity, ….while avoiding possible prosecution for dispatching their colleague to the local carnivores.

But why didn’t the scientists simply keep their lips sealed, publish their exciting breakthrough discovery, ….and let Sheldon enjoy his Nobel Prize? Oh come on, ….everyone out there MUST see the devastation associated with that notion! The alleged ‘breakthrough’ would have been FALSE! It would have defied Sheldon’s chief purpose—to be CORRECT. Further still, …. all four likeable scientists certainly would have been exposed, …as LIARS, ….as the contradictory data rolled in from subsequent research efforts. There is no comedy in that!

The primary problem with the scientists in this ticklish story, ….is that they entered their icy northern adventure, ….with an AGENDA. Sheldon’s agenda was “I will ascend to greatness!” When the North Pole efforts were not accommodating his agenda, ….he became insufferably cranky. Consequently, Sheldon became prone to a common scientific pitfall--known as ‘Observer Bias’.

The other three scientists simply wanted to be part of something cool (a subtle North Pole pun), …..or at least enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime trip and the pursuit of some nifty career possibilities. At first, …they were enjoying the excitement of the endeavor. However, Sheldon spoiled it all with his relentless frustration and poor behavior. So, ….the three friends developed a new AGENDA, ……LIE, …..and confess to Sheldon at a later time.

What is Observer Bias? How does this scientific disease fit in with the Monopolar Expedition, …or better yet, ….with forensic DNA misinterpretations? Upon consulting an internet-based psychology glossary, you will find that: Observer bias occurs when the observers (or researcher team) know the goals of the study or the hypotheses and allow this knowledge to influence their observations during the study

Stop briefly, …..and visualize a forensic analyst who KNOWS a suspect’s DNA profile, BEFORE all of the DNA from the evidence has been typed. Why do you suppose it is a horrible idea for this DNA analyst to permit a 'casual peek’ at this info BEFORE the experimental part of the crime lab work is complete?

Sheldon’s observer bias at the North Pole raised its hideous head when the scientist EXPECTED some sort of magnetic/electrical fluctuations, …..and embraced the data—without question—as soon as the phenomenon was observed. Alternatively, perhaps Sheldon should have OBSERVED how annoyed his friends were with his endless whining, and noted that the electrical fluctuations magically *materialized* right at the peak of their irritation. Even a low level of suspicion on Sheldon’s part might have encouraged him to investigate deeper and expose the devious plot perpetrated by his colleagues.

Before we discuss DNA, let us also touch upon Confirmation Bias. My psychology glossary defines this as follows: Confirmation bias is the tendency to look for information that confirms our existing preconceptions, making it more likely to ignore or neglect data that disconfirms our beliefs.

Sheldon so devoutly wished to uncover data confirming his existing preconceptions, he never noticed how the data seemed to resemble what you might achieve with an ordinary electric can opener. Upon observing the exciting fluctuations, Sheldon did nothing more than continue to collect as much CONFIRMATORY DATA as possible. Perhaps he could have crafted an entirely new set of experiments with potential to debunk his own hypothesis. Perhaps Sheldon could have slipped out into the cold while his friends were resting, and run a few supplemental tests—by himself. If Sheldon had taken such initiatives, he might have prevented the humiliation of retracting his Nobel Prize-bragging e-mail.

Again, having an AGENDA, ….an obsession with confirming one’s scientific hypothesis, … a DANGEROUS thing.

I will discuss the effect of Confirmation Bias on forensic DNA interpretations a bit later. However, if you want to jump ahead to a detailed examination of how ‘cognitive bias’ can affect forensic investigations, look no further than a recent PBS Frontline broadcast on this topic. This televised news article, entitled "The Real CSI", aired on Tuesday, April 17, 2012.

Let us now drive home the concept of cognitive bias with examples. Few that I stumbled across on the internet were more hilarious than the following:

She loves me, and there are so many ways that she has shown it. When we signed the divorce papers in her lawyer’s office, she wore my favorite color. When she slapped me at the bar and called me a “handsome pig,” she used the word “handsome” when she didn’t have to. When I called her and she said never to call her again, she first asked me how I was doing and whether my life had changed. When I suggested that we should have children in order to keep our marriage together, she laughed. If she can laugh with me, if she wants to know how I am doing and whether my life has changed, and if she calls me “handsome” and wears my favorite color on special occasions, then I know she really loves me.

I recently stumbled across an outstanding blog site, hosted by journalist, TV producer, media director, David McRaney, entitled "You Are Not So Smart--A Celebration of Self Delusion". In his September 11, 2010 posting, Mr. McRaney summarizes what is traditionally referred to as “The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy”. I take some exception to this—as I know some Texans—many of my friends live in Texas. Furthermore, it is quite clear that numerous unaccounted for ‘sharpshooters’ are running a-muck in New Mexico, Arizona, and countless other states. McRaney begins by pointing out the following astounding facts:

“Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were both presidents of the United States, elected 100 years apart.

Both were shot and killed by assassins who were known by three names with 15 letters, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, and neither killer would make it to trial.

Spooky, huh? It gets better.

Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy, and Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln.

They were both killed on a Friday while sitting next to their wives, Lincoln in the Ford Theater, Kennedy in a Lincoln made by Ford.

Both men were succeeded by a man named Johnson – Andrew for Lincoln and Lyndon for Kennedy. Andrew was born in 1808. Lyndon in 1908.

What are the odds?”

Before you go rushing off, ….shouting from the mountaintops that something truly incredible or sinister has been uncovered here, …..please listen up. McRaney continues:

“When you are befuddled by the Lincoln and Kennedy connections, you neglect to notice Kennedy was Catholic and Lincoln was born Baptist. Kennedy was killed with a rifle, Lincoln with a pistol. Kennedy was shot in Texas, Lincoln in Washington D.C. Kennedy had lustrous auburn hair, while Lincoln wore a haberdasher’s wet dream.”

The ‘CELEBRATION OF SELF-DELUSION’ point of McRaney’s blog article is the Texas, ….(or insert state name of your choice here) Sharpshooter Fallacy—which is derived from an old joke describing a backwoods gentleman who test fires several bullets at an old barn wall. A thought dawns upon the man, ….he grins widely, ….and rushes off to grab some red paint and some white paint.

Not long after that, he leads various friends and neighbors out to the grassy knoll next to his barn (sorry, I couldn’t resist—what with the Kennedy theme already in place). His associates are genuinely amazed at all of the painted targets on the barn wall, ….each with a bullet hole PERFECTLY located in the center of the target. The backwoods gentleman enjoys all of the comments and admiring attention. His delight and contentment persists right up to the point at which one savvy neighbor walks over to the barn and notices that the paint is still a bit sticky, ….and sees that some of the paint has been sloshed into some of the bullet holes, …..and drips of paint are running down the INSIDE wall!

Speaking of sharpshooting liars, say “Hello” to Fred Salem Zain. From 1979 through 1989, this guy was a self-anointed forensic expert with the West Virginia Department of Public Safety Crime Lab. Zain falsified test results in as many as 134 cases. He testified in countless rape and murder cases about analysis he had never performed and scientific data that simply did not exist. Zain presented himself brilliantly in the courtroom. Judges, juries, prosecutors, and defense attorneys had no reason to doubt his testimony. Over the years, the man rose to the position of Chief of Serology.

In 1989, Zain’s fabulous reputation with the prosecutors in West Virginia landed him a promising opportunity as the Chief of Physical Evidence for the Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office in San Antonio, Texas. In his new job, Fred Zain dazzled Bexar County prosecutors with his SHARPSHOOTING testimony—centering on fabricated results. Little or no effort was ever attempted to disqualify this brazen charlatan as an expert witness. Curiously, Zain was not even properly qualified to be doing forensic lab work in the first place. Examination of college transcripts eventually revealed that Zain was a mediocre scholar who had failed organic chemistry. Apparently, no one ever bothered to look at his transcripts prior to elevating the man from position to position.

Fred Zain was well aware that he was operating in a legal system that relied almost entirely on expert testimony from prosecution witnesses. For the last twenty years, this tilted landscape has been gradually shifting toward a more balanced position.

Zain’s inevitable downfall came as consequence of the State of West Virginia v. Glen Woodall. In 1987, Woodall was sentenced to a prison term of 203 to 335 years. At Woodall’s trial, Zain testified that semen samples recovered from the victims were consistent with the defendant. In 1992, DNA testing cleared Woodall of any guilt. Woodall sued the State of West Virginia for false imprisonment, and received a $1 million settlement. This ultimately led to an extraordinary investigation of the entire body of Zain's work—as ordered by the West Virginia Supreme Court.

As a consequence of Fred Zain’s appalling tactics, nine men have since been exonerated in West Virginia. $6.5 million have been paid out by the state of West Virginia as restitution for the wrongful convictions. In Bexar County, Texas cases, Zain testified to conducting tests that his lab was incapable of doing in the first place. Bexar County paid out more than $1.1 million for wrongful convictions at the hands of Zain. The disgraced man died of colon cancer in 2002.

It is important to note that Fred Zain represents a radical example—an individual who became hopelessly intoxicated with his perception of power. The man fell prey to an exaggerated degree of cognitive bias, lost objectivity, and an obliterated sense of humanity. Although there have been few scientists resembling Fred Zain, there are countless others who—to a much lesser degree—struggle to overcome observer effects, falter with their sense of objectivity, and arrive at flawed decisions.

I am personally familiar with a closed case involving analysis of DNA from a commonly ‘handled’ object. That object was located at a crime scene. The investigators *hoped* to find trace DNA from the defendant on that object. The DNA pattern—a mixture from at least two individuals— was found on a sample from the item, as shown below:

Locus 1                               14, 15, 16
Locus 2                               28, 28
Locus 3                               14, 15, 16
Locus 4                               10, 13, 14
Locus 5                               10, 10
Locus 6                               6. 10, 11
Locus 7                              10, 13
Locus 8                              12, 13, 13.2
Locus 9                               5, 6, 8
Gender Locus                    X, Y

The defendant’s DNA profile was as follows:

Locus 1                               16, 18
Locus 2                               28, 30.2
Locus 3                               14, 15
Locus 4                               14, 14
Locus 5                               7, 11
Locus 6                               6. 10
Locus 7                              10, 11
Locus 8                              12.2, 15.2
Locus 9                               5, 9
Gender Locus                    X, Y

The analyst observed that 10 of the defendant’s 18 DNA markers were indeed consistent with the DNA mixture observed on the object from the crime scene. Based on this observation (or observation bias?) the analyst reported that the defendant could not be excluded as a possible contributor to the DNA mixture profile found on the object. Furthermore, the analyst reported that the DNA mixture profile was 570 times more likely to be comprised of DNA from the defendant and an unknown individual, ….rather than from TWO entirely unknown individuals.

Were these conclusions and the corresponding statistics appropriate, ….or a product of cognitive bias? The answer to this question came many months later.

Long before the trial, an associate of the defendant mentioned to the investigators that he recalled being near the object in question, ….days before the crime, ….and *might* have actually touched it. This associate was NOT a suspect. He had a verified alibi for the entire day during which the crime was committed. Regardless of the alibi, the police rightfully collected a biological sample from this associate, and had it processed for his DNA profile.

The associate’s DNA profile was reported as follows:

Locus 1                               14, 16
Locus 2                               28, 28
Locus 3                               15, 16
Locus 4                               10, 13
Locus 5                               10, 10
Locus 6                               6. 10
Locus 7                              10, 13
Locus 8                              13, 13.2
Locus 9                               6, 8
Gender Locus                    X, Y

Virtually ALL of the associate’s DNA markers were present and accounted for within the DNA mixture profile found on the crime scene object. This provided overwhelming support to the associate’s statement to police that he *might* have touched the object.

It is vital to note that only six DNA markers could NOT have come from the associate. Considering that the defendant possesses ONLY THREE of those six DNA markers, it was suddenly quite apparent that an as yet unidentified person (not the defendant) had contributed the remaining DNA component to the mixture.

In subsequent reports, the “…570 times more likely…” analyst understandably avoided further references to the potential importance of the DNA mixture found on this particular crime scene object, ….hmmm, ….fascinating. Perhaps you have heard the old adage, "There are liars, .....DAMN LIARS, .....and statisticians."

The actual DNA results observed by forensic analysts resemble what some of us have seen on an EKG printout. While EKG stands for Elektrokardiogram (the Dutch/German version of the term), DNA data comes to crime lab analysts in the form of an electropherogram printout. Each DNA marker is visualized by the analyst as a ‘heartbeat-like’ peak, which rises above a low, squiggly baseline of ‘background noise’.

When analyzing evidence for DNA, the crime lab occasionally finds an extremely limited quantity of DNA available for typing. With such a limited DNA yield, the data printout often provides only a partial profile, rather than a FULL DNA profile. This is due to the fact that various DNA peaks are simply too small. Thus, the question for the OBSERVING scientist becomes, …. “Just exactly how tall does a REAL DNA peak need to be?”

The DNA peaks are measured in ‘RFUs’. All crime labs are compelled to conduct studies on their DNA profiling instruments/systems to determine an RFU threshold at which each potential DNA marker peak can be trusted as REAL DNA, … opposed to a meaningless artifact. Even when there is ONLY a modest amount of DNA, RFU levels for each DNA marker might be in the 100’s, 1000’s, or as much as SEVERAL 1000 RFUs.

Again, when the amount of DNA on a crime scene object is profoundly limited, the peaks might be all the way down near the threshold level for reliable interpretation. Under these circumstances—keeping in mind the ASTONISHING sensitivity of modern day forensic DNA detection systems—accurate, unbiased interpretations are of paramount importance.

Let us say that a crime lab establishes an ‘Analytical Threshold’ at 50 RFUs. The lab might set this threshold due to the fact that, when their instruments are running WITHOUT DNA, the analyst routinely observes a background noise level that fluctuates between perhaps 5 RFUs and 15 RFUs. Within these random events of static/noise, some unexplained spikes—similar to sudden gusts of wind—might actually reach 20 RFUs, 25 RFUs, ….and on rare occasions, much higher. To understand, the occurrence of random noise, spikes, artifacts, etc. one might attempt to learn more about Chaos Theory (Warning: Expect a migrane!).

Larger artifact spikes—often occurring during collection of DNA data from evidence samples—might be attributed to effects that include, but are not limited to: stutter peaks, nonspecific amplification products, pull-up peaks, dye blobs, electrophoretic spikes, or products of static/electrical interferences. Hmm, ....this is reminiscent of  Sheldon's electric can opener-induced fluctuations.

Based on the common observance of such random annoyances, forensic DNA analysts are commanded by crime lab management NOT to bother with analyzing anything below the 50 RFU analytical threshold. Such peaks are likely to be nothing more than spurious, elevated background noise.

Let us also suppose that a crime lab sets a ‘Stochastic Threshold’ of 100 RFUs. The term ‘stochastic’ is defined as ‘random’. Thus, any DNA data observed by an analyst BELOW 100 RFUs is substantially prone to stochastic effects. This means that—due to random, poorly-characterized effects—data below 100 RFUs might be noteworthy. However, the data may be ONLY PART of the DNA landscape at those various loci. The MISSING data is a consequence of the insufficient quantity of DNA present on the original sample collected from the item. Such absences of DNA data points are called 'Allelic Drop-Out Effects'.

The unfortunate reality that only part of the DNA data can be visualized, ….with an unknown portion of the data missing, ….creates a breeding ground for cognitive bias, observer effects, and catastrophic misinterpretations. This reality may represent the single most profound flaw in today's forensic DNA analysis laboratories.

Properly setting crime lab DNA threshold levels makes it quite simple for the analysts. When a tiny, insignificant peak is—let us say—only 32 RFUs, the analysts are commanded to ignore what is most likely nothing more than background noise, ….DO NOT ANALYZE. It is also simple for the analyst when a couple of peaks are—let us say—109 RFUs and 132 RFUs. Although these are substantially small peaks, they DO represent interpretable data.

The real challenge arrives when peaks are between the two thresholds. What the analyst MUST NEVER DO, is resort to anything resembling the following approach to interpretations:

“For the most part, I will ignore those peaks below 50 RFUs. Meanwhile, I will embrace all of the peaks rising above 100 RFUs. However, let me get back to you at a later time with my interpretation of any peaks measuring between 50 RFUs and 99 RFUs. This will give me time to carefully OBSERVE the DNA profiles from various known suspects. I will note which individuals happen to demonstrate consistency patterns with those questionable peaks. In fact, ….once I repeat that comparative exercise numerous times, I might even go back to some 47, 48, and 49 RFU peaks and take those into consideration as ‘something seems to be there’ or ‘that might be close enough to call it GOOD’—depending, of course—on what the suspect DNA profiles look like in the first place.”

Noting which individuals "happen to demonstrate consistency" with the evidentiary DNA fosters a fallacy that parallels 'noting consistencies' between the ENTIRELY UNRELATED Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations.

Ladies and gentlemen, such an interpretive approach to any investigation effectively characterizes the very essence of cognitive bias, backwoods sharp-shooting, and ….JUNK SCIENCE.

Michael J. Spence, Ph.D.

April 20, 2012

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Railroaded By Forensic Experts: Freed by DNA

In 1992, Kennedy Brewer was convicted and sentenced to death in Noxubee County Mississippi. He was accused of raping and killing a 3-year-old girl. Levon Brooks, was sentenced to life in prison for a separate but similar crime, the rape and murder of another 3-year old child. The Noxubee County Sheriff flippantly stated that a possible DNA match could not be sought on either case due to Mississippi’s lack of a DNA database -- this revelation was news to Mississippi’s crime lab director.

Ten years passed before both men were cleared of any involvement in the crimes. The actual perpetrator, Albert Johnson, confessed to both homicides. To top it off, DNA evidence supported Johnson’s confession. Despite the confession and the new evidence, and in defiance of all common rationality, both men spent an additional 5 years awaiting retrial in local jails. This was due to the fact that Forrest Allgood, the Noxubee County prosecutor, was anxious to bring back his star witnesses, medical examiner Steven Hayne, and forensic odontologist Dr. Michael West.

For two decades, Hayne has been responsible for about 80% of the autopsies conducted in the state of Mississippi. On April 8, 2008, the Innocence Project and the Mississippi Innocence Project collaborated on a formal allegation calling for the revocation of Haynes license to continue practicing medicine. The 1000-page document cited evidence of misconduct and fraudulent testimony that has sent an undetermined number of innocent people to prison, and in some cases, death row.

By many accounts, Michael West is even worse than Hayne. His bite mark testimony has already been disproven by DNA in various instances other than the Brewer and Brooks cases. Consequently, West resigned from professional odontology groups in order to avoid sanctions and possible expulsion.

In an unprecedented move, under pressure from The Innocence Project, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood revoked the county’s prosecutorial authority and paved the way for the exonerations of Brewer (February 2008) and Brooks (March 2008). Speaking for The Innocence Project, Peter Neufeld stated, "In two decades of working on these cases, we have never seen a more stark and troubling example of a rush to judgment at the hands of notorious forensic analysts who conspired to commit fraud."

Michael J. Spence, Ph.D.

March 21, 2012

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Eddie Lowery

In 1981, Eddie Lowery was serving our country as a soldier in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. He and his wife were raising their 3-year old daughter in the tiny community of Ogden. On the evening of July 26, 1981, Eddie was attending a get-together with friends. When he decided to step out and make a trip to a nearby store, his life was changed forever. The catastrophic events were set into motion when Eddie accidentally hit a parked car. Once the police arrived to assess the incident, Eddie cooperated and spoke with the officers-giving them the details they requested.

When Eddie arrived at the police station the following day, law enforcement officers began questioning him about the rape of an elderly Ogden woman. The police were intrigued that the sexual assault had taken place very close to the time and location of Eddie's mishap with the parked vehicle. Of course, Eddie denied any knowledge or association with the terrible crime. However, investigators insisted that he return the next day for more questioning. “I thought I’d tell them what happened and they’d believe me and I’d go back to my normal life,” Lowery said. The investigators became fixated on Eddie, with their interrogation tactics becoming increasingly aggressive. The officials denied Eddie's request for an attorney and they provided NO opportunity to place any phone calls.

Ultimately, Eddie agreed to take a lie detector test. “I wanted to clear my name. I wanted to help,” he said. Eddie's tormentors violated any and all investigative standards, .....they lied. They told Eddie that he had failed the lie detector test. Convinced that the fender bender in the victim's neighborhood was NOT a coincidence, the police relentlessly badgered and threatened Eddie.

After hours of this torture, the man simply broke down. “I was totally mentally exhausted,” Eddie said. “I didn’t know how to get out of the situation.” To bolster the validity of the ill-gotten, entirely false confession, the investigators began spoon-feeding the facts of the case to their prisoner. Eddie merely repeated the information back to them. He did whatever it took to please them. The interview was NOT recorded. “I beat myself up for years for giving them a false confession,” Lowery said. “They had no other evidence. ... Because I wasn’t there.”

The foundation of Eddie's rape trial was centered entirely on the ridiculously flawed confession. His first trial resulted in a hung jury, but during the second trial the jury convicted him of rape, aggravated battery, and aggravated assault. At age 22, Eddie received a sentence of 11 years to life. He was sent to the Lansing Correctional Facility. During his time in prison, Eddie never had an opportunity to see his daughter. The young girl grew up without him.

On three occasions, Eddie went before his parole board. Each time, he denied involvement in the rape. With the years passing him by, Eddie FINALLY DECIDED TO LIE ABOUT THE RAPE. He told his parole board that he did it. He told them that he was sorry for committing a crime that-IN REALITY-he did not commit and simply could NEVER commit. Pleased with this revelation, the parole board allowed Eddie to advance through the system and complete the required sex offender course, where he had to CONTINUE LYING about his life as a rapist. In 1991, after serving ten years in prison, Eddie was finally paroled. But his life for many years to come had been all but ruined.

Eddie moved to Kansas City, found employment, remarried, and had two children. In 1994, he received a letter informing him that-due to a new law-he was obligated to register as a sex offender. “I assumed everyone would find out. It just put me in a deep depression. It was a humiliating time in my life,” Eddie said.
A few years later, he began hearing about how DNA testing was helping to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

Eddie was fortunate to secure the assistance of Manhattan, Kansas attorney, Barry Clark, and the New York-based Innocence Project. Through a great deal of harrowing efforts, Barry and Eddie were eventually able to locate the original rape kit, which was still in an envelope in the Riley County, Kansas records vault. “When he (Clark) told me that they found the rape kit, I knew that I was going to be found innocent of this crime,” Eddie said.

As it so often happens, DNA testing provided freedom to yet another innocent individual. In this case, the wrongfully punished man was no longer incarcerated. However, Eddie was able to gain back at least a SEGMENT of that which had been stolen from him years earlier. On April 3, 2003, Eddie was officially declared innocent of the crime--based on the DNA evidence. The cowardly detectives who pressured him into a false confession have never expressed remorse to Eddie Lowery. The cowardly prosecutor, to this day, refuses to admit that Eddie could not have possibly had anything to do with sexually assaulting the 74-year old victim. Sometimes people have to embrace concepts of denial such as this, ....otherwise seeing themselves in the mirror each day is simply too unbearable.

As a consequence of the scientific testing, and the power of the DNA database, law enforcement officials were able to identify Daniel Brewer as the perpetrator of the sexual assault on July 26, 1981 in Ogden, Kansas. Brewer, who was residing in New York, NY, was extradited to Kansas, charged, and convicted of not just one, but TWO sexual assaults.

THE HORRIFYING TRUTH: The law enforcement officials and prosecutors who badgered and convicted Eddie Lowery had become keenly aware of multiple sexual assault incidents in the tiny community of Ogden, Kansas, ....each occurring very close to the time frame when Eddie was brought in and bullied into a confession. What did these geniuses think? That TWO serial rapists were prowling that one microscopic Kansas town at precisely same time? Brilliant. As a consequence of his wrongful conviction and exoneration, Eddie Lowery was justifiably awarded $7.5 million dollars. This burden was carried by the taxpayers of Riley County, Kansas. This is yet another stunning example of the countless misguided efforts to investigate and prosecute crimes.

Michael J. Spence, Ph.D.

March 14, 2012

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Understanding DNA Transfer Events

Previously, I discussed the circumstances that might persuade defense attorneys to explore using a DNA expert. One of these perplexing circumstances is driven—in part—by astonishing advances in the sensitivity of DNA detection. Recent DNA technologies, referred to as LOW COPY NUMBER (LCN) analysis (also called ‘low template’, ‘high sensitivity’, or ‘trace DNA’ analysis) allows crime lab analysts to PUSH DNA DETECTION CAPABILITIES to the point at which useful data is obtained from only 15-20 cells, or perhaps as few as just 1 or 2 cells. Such extremes in testing sensitivity are causing courtroom battles to emerge, due to the mere LIMITATIONS OF SCIENTIFIC ACCEPTANCE. Adding fuel to this fire, these conflicts intensify significantly when DNA expert witnesses fall into the trap I prefer to call the 'touch DNA misnomer'.

Embracing the phrase "touch DNA" on the witness stand, with NO scientific proof that touching ever occurred, is the 2011-2012 idiotic equivalent of yesteryear's 'DNA Fingerprinting misnomer'. STR-based forensic DNA typing technology involves NO examination of fingers. Nor does it relate to latent print examinations, an entirely separate forensic discipline. Why do some individuals insist upon confusing society with terms that simply do not apply?



In 1910, Dr. Edmond Locard, professor of forensic medicine at the University of Lyons, France, was the founder of the world's first forensic science lab. This great scientist was also the first forensic scientist to formally emphasize the importance of transfer events in the investigation of crimes.

Dr. Locard's incredible intuition evolved into the time-tested Locard Exchange Principal, stating that "Every contact leaves a trace." Locard's principal became universally accepted over forty years BEFORE James Watson and Francis Crick proposed the first accurate model of the DNA double helix. The exchange principal was also widely embraced over seventy years BEFORE Colin Pitchfork became the first person to be identified and convicted of a crime, using the power of DNA typing.

As an insult to the celebrated history of Dr. Locard's principal, *some* modern day prosecutors—with the support of their crime lab analysts—attempt to downplay the plausibility of DNA transfer events. Despite the fact that the crime scenes are crawling with CSI's who enthusiastically center their efforts on Locard's teachings, some courtroom comedians are allowed to drone on with their ridiculous folly of reasoning. JURORS PLEASE TAKE NOTE: TRACE MATERIAL EXCHANGE EVENTS ARE NOT THE PRODUCT OF OVERACTIVE SCIENTIFIC IMAGINATIONS.

The ludicrous efforts to downplay Locard are readily invalidated. EVERY WINTER—new strains of common cold viruses and influenza viruses succeed with their inevitable campaigns of terror throughout earth's human population. How do these prosecutors and their supporting scientists (and I am using the term ‘scientists’ loosely) suppose these viruses are so swiftly spread from human to human?

During a particularly frosty stretch of weather, look around, visit various homes, take a stroll through the local mall. Nasal cavities are draining, infected individuals are coughing and sneezing. Crumpled up facial tissues are strewn EVERYWHERE. Those tissues came from the people who are actually considerate enough to use a Kleenex every now and then—rather than their shirt sleeves OR THEIR HANDS.

Trillions of viral particles are spread by the actions of the infected, ….to door handles, telephones, computer keyboards, car keys, steering wheels, stairway railings, currency, vending machines, TV remote controls, pens, pencils, clothing, bedding, the list is endless. Each year, we are BEGGED by the Centers for Disease Control to “Wash your hands!” Any healthy person, who fails to wash his hands, and makes the mistake of rubbing his own tired eyes, ….well, ….you do the math. It takes a number of days for viral particles to establish a foothold in a human respiratory system.

DNA differs very little from viruses. Yes, our genetic molecules are much more friendly, and not very invasive. DNA causes no sore throats, no runny noses, and no coughs. Beyond that, DNA and viruses are quite similar in that they are both submicroscopic clumps of matter. Transfer events DO occur with BOTH forms of matter. Please do not let any courtroom snake oil representatives succeed in convincing you otherwise.

Today's state-of-the-art DNA detection technology can decipher a full DNA profile from less than one BILLIONTH of a gram of DNA. One way to grasp such extraordinarily tiny amounts of DNA is to visualize the mass of material in a standard packet of artificial sweetener. These packets contain one gram of material. Imagine setting aside 1/1000th of a single packet and disposing of the remaining 999 parts. The spec of powder set aside would weigh one milligram. Now imagine setting aside 1/1000th of this milligram and discarding the remainder. You now have one microgram of material (which is 1/1 millionth of the original sweetener packet). This amount of material cannot be clearly seen without the use of a microscope. By some means, you must now set aside 1/1000th of your microgram of artificial sweetener-this is one nanogram, or 1/1 BILLIONTH of the original starting material. One nanogram of DNA is PLENTY of genetic material for generating a FULL DNA profile. The astonishing sensitivity of forensic DNA typing technology does not diminish the fact that we are indeed working with a profoundly tiny mass of DNA.

Scientific debates focusing on the mechanisms of casual/incidental transfer events, involving such tiny amounts of DNA, are far from settled. In December 2010, some of the world's most renowned authorities on forensic trace DNA (Roland Oorschot, Kaye Ballantyne, and R. John Mitchell), published a REVIEW in Investigative Genetics. Quoting these authors directly from the "Transfer Issues" section of the review:

"Greater effort needs to be made by police/crime investigators to investigate how a DNA sample arrived at the location where it was found, as well as by scientists to better understand the impact of activities on the relative amounts of DNA from particular sources at a crime scene. In some instances, it is possible to derive the chain of events that led to a trace DNA sample being present at a crime scene - for example, prior visits to the scene or the known use of an item. Awareness of these variables, and their impact on transfer events, will assist in weighting the likelihood of proposed alternative scenarios." 

In 2010, Allan Jamieson and Georgina Meakin of The Forensic Institute (Glasgow, UK), published an article in The Barrister Magazine entitled: "EXPERIENCE IS THE NAME THAT EVERYONE GIVES TO THEIR MISTAKES"

The following is a quote from this article:

"The examination of evidence for handler DNA can reveal DNA of people who have, or have not, handled the item; the stronger profile may, or may not, be the person who last handled the item; An inference of direct contact between an individual and the item may or may not be supportable, depending on the circumstances of the case. In other words, we did not know enough to make any sensible scientific judgements as to how DNA came to be on an item." 

Later, the article continues:

"Frequently, the underlying hypothesis is that touching, or direct contact, is a more likely scientific explanation for the finding of a DNA profile on an item than indirect contact. This to the extent that it may be described as providing ‘extremely strong’ support for direct versus indirect transfer.  In our view, such an opinion on DNA transfer is not supportable based on case experience or on the available scientific research."

Finally, a 2009 article in Law Officer (a journal for police and law enforcement) is entitled: 'TRANSFER THEORY IN FORENSIC DNA ANALYSIS'. The author, Suzanna Ryan, arrived at the conclusion:

"Obviously, the inadvertent transfer of DNA is an area that should be further studied. Since so many of the available journal articles present conflicting information, more work is needed to see how likely it is to both transfer and detect DNA in a secondary or even a tertiary fashion, especially considering the sensitivity of modern forensic DNA analysis."

It is vital to keep in mind that the average adult human sheds approximately 36,000 skin cells every 60 seconds. This number varies broadly among individuals, as there are profound differences between those who can be characterized as 'good shedders', and others who are 'poor shedders'.

A single drop of saliva, expelled during a cough or a sneeze, will contain approximately 500,000 salivary epithelial cells. Forensic Biologists can attest to the fact that 500 to 10,000 nanograms of DNA are routinely recovered during collection of a single oral swab. Once again, recall that ONLY ONE NANOGRAM is optimal for generating a complete DNA profile. This mass of DNA can be readily extracted from as few as 200 cells. This tiny number of cells could sit-nearly invisible-upon the very tip of a toothpick.

How many falsely accused individuals have been wrongfully imprisoned as a consequence of a few hundred cells finding their way to an incriminating location?

Michael J. Spence, Ph.D.

March 7, 2012

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Norfolk Four

About a year ago, I crafted an article on my website, listed under "Most Fascinating Criminal Cases". This piece centered on The Norfolk Four, ....and what appeared to me as one of the worst ever U.S. cases of false confessions. The case also seemed to be one of the worst instances EVER of a reckless disregard for investigative responsibility and adherence to logic.

"The Confessions", aired on PBS November 9, 2010.

This case involved the investigation and conviction of four men -- current and former sailors in the U.S. Navy -- for the 1997 rape/homicide of a young woman in Norfolk, Virginia. Frontline’s coverage of the “Norfolk Four” revealed malicious, high-pressure police interrogation techniques -- the threat of the death penalty, sleep deprivation, and intimidation. The outrageous, irresponsible tactics caused each of the men to confess, despite the glaring lack of any evidence linking any of them to the crime. When the dust settled, eight men had been charged. Five of those men had been coerced into confessions, .....four of them false. Most baffling, .......only ONE DNA profile had been recovered from the case evidence.

Twenty-five-year-old Danial Williams, married for 11 days, was the first to be arrested for the rape/murder of Michelle Bosko. Williams attempted to explain to FRONTLINE how he came to confess after a brutal, humiliating interrogation that spanned ELEVEN HOURS.

When Williams FINALLY confessed, the details were not consistent with the physical evidence. Instead of doubting the validity of the confession, investigators badgered Williams into a ‘revised’ confession that presented a 'better fit' to the crime scene evidence.

Williams' DNA failed to match the DNA observed from Ms. Bosko's sexual assault kit, Of course, this pesky little DNA hiccup did not create any doubt among the investigators. Instead, they simply addressed the glitch by hauling in Williams' roommate, Joe Dick. Yes, the investigators launched yet another interrogation.

Dick's interrogation was conducted by one of Norfolk's most formidable detectives, Robert Glenn Ford, who had a reputation for getting confessions. Utlimately, Ford delivered a second confession, ......from a second suspect. Detective Ford was SO formidable, Joe Dick actually began to believe in his own guilt. Dick proceeded to implicate another sailor, Eric Wilson. Another startling development, .....the police eventually hammered out their THIRD confession.

At some point, one might expect law enforcement officials to view three confessions (with ONE DNA profile) as a sufficient number of defendants. No, the police relentlessly plowed ahead. In the end, four men confessed to the rape and murder of Michelle Bosko. Another three men were arrested before an eighth man, a convicted rapist named Omar Ballard, was found to be the only DNA match with the sexual assault evidence.

Ballard confessed to the rape and murder of Michelle Bosko. Furthermore, Ballard made it clear that he did it alone -- a statement that was consistent with the physical evidence uncovered at the crime scene. However, with a significant percentage of the U.S. Navy already incarcerated for this ONE crime, the police and prosecution refused to change course. Instead, they presented a new theory of the crime.

The investigative team presented their theory that seven guys were pacing around the parking lot. The group of men were contemplating how they might break into an apartment in order to rape and murder a young woman. At that moment, Omar Ballard happened to be strolling by. The aspiring rapists/murderers decided to approach Ballard -- a complete stranger -- and inquire if he had any thoughts on the matter. Before long, all eight men managed to squeeze into the tiny apartment and proceeded with their brutal plan.

Of course, NO witnesses ever came forward, to corroborate the collection of men in the parking lot. Nobody ever reported the wild group, .....forcing their way into the apartment. And lastly, not a soul remembered hearing a disturbance consistent with such a series of events involving so many people. From an initial theory of a single assailant, namely Danial Williams, the prosecution theory had now evolved into a profoundly improbable tale. Such a scenario might as well have been cooked up by a babbling mental patient.

All four sailors are now out of prison -- one served his sentence, and the other three were granted conditional pardons, after some 11 years in prison. But the men were not exonerated as felons or sex offenders.

Imagine everyone's surprise when, in the summer of 2010, Detective Robert Glenn Ford was indicted for extorting money from defendants in exchange for getting them favorable treatment. He was tried in U.S. District Court in Norfolk and took the stand in his own defense. On October 27, 2010, Ford was found guilty on two of four extortion charges and one charge of lying to the FBI.
Michael J. Spence, Ph.D.

February 29, 2012

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Tim Masters Case: Colorado

In Fort Collins, Colorado, a passing bicyclist discovered the sexually mutilated body of Peggy Hettrick. The woman’s body was near the home of 15-year-old Tim Masters. Since February 12, 1987 – the day after the killing – Masters insisted that he did not commit the crime. When police found gruesome sketches that had been drawn by Masters, they focused the next several years of their investigative efforts upon the teenager. In 1999, twelve years after Hettrick’s death, these efforts finally saw Masters convicted of the homicide and sentenced to life in prison. This was despite the fact that no physical evidence was ever found that tied Masters to the crime. I'm surprised that the authorities did not simply execute the 15-year-old boy on the spot-the minute they discovered the ghastly sketches. Who needs physical evidence anyway?

In 1995, eight years after the homicide and four years prior to the Masters conviction, Fort Collins police investigated Dr. Richard Hammond, a 44-year-old eye surgeon. In Dr. Hammond’s home, they found sophisticated cameras and an enormous collection of pornography. At the doctor’s home, as well as at his medical office, police found countless homemade videos. These videos included precisely detailed shots zooming into the vaginal areas of females using the downstairs toilet in the Hammond home as well as the patient toilet at his medical office. The doctor was using carefully controlled, cleverly concealed cameras. His unsuspecting victims ranged from girls in their early teens to women in their forties. Other hidden cameras captured women's breasts as they stood at the restroom mirrors. Police also discovered a storage unit Dr. Hammond was renting that contained thousands of pornographic materials and containers filled with sex toys and jewelry. He also had a secret bank account and a secret apartment. Dr. Hammond was arrested on sexual-exploitation charges. Days later, the man committed suicide in a Denver hotel room using an IV drip filled with cyanide.

Although Dr. Hammond was often known to disappear for hours and he frequently left town on mysterious trips, his wife had no knowledge of her husband’s secret identity. His friends, stunned by the news of the doctor’s arrest, described him as extremely polite and professional. His partner and his colleagues, equally floored by the news, had always admired Hammond’s specialized expertise with a scalpel.

Detective Dave Mickelson of the Fort Collins Police Department was particularly alarmed by two facts. First, the Hammond home was located just 100 yards east of where Peggy Hettrick's body had been found eight years earlier. Second, the woman’s body had been skillfully carved up by her killer, with special focus on the intricate vaginal parts and the nipples of her breasts. These facts, taken together with Dr. Hammond’s obsession with female genitalia and breasts, and his surgical expertise, prompted Detective Mickelson to approach his superiors.

Despite pleas from the detective for a thorough investigation of Hammond as a suspect in the Hettrick homicide, his concerns were promptly dismissed. All of the evidence that was seized during the investigation was destroyed within six months after Dr. Hammond's arrest and subsequent suicide. Four years later, Tim Masters was tried and sent to prison for murder.

In a January 2008 news conference, Colorado special prosecutor, Don Quick, announced that a defense-commissioned DNA test pointed not to Tim Masters, but to an unknown male. The validity of the DNA test was supported by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Quick filed a motion citing four instances in which police and prosecutors should have provided evidence to Masters' original defense team. When Quick requested for the conviction to be vacated, Judge Joseph Weatherby promptly agreed. Tim Masters, at the age of 36, was released from prison.

Based on the clear instances of misconduct, Fort Collins District Attorney Larry Abrahamson has vowed to review all "contested convictions" in which advances in DNA testing may prove useful. Abrahamson also said that he has met with the Fort Collins police chief and his investigators to discuss the importance of information flow between law enforcement authorities, prosecutors, and counsel for the defense. 

Michael J. Spence, Ph.D.

February 22, 2012

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley Released-End to a Hostage Crisis

My question of the week: Were the wrongfully convicted West Memphis Three held hostage by the state of Arkansas-as a means to evade the inevitable devastating costs of civil litigation?

Think about it, ....and then comment.

There was a Satanic Panic, ....but NO CULT was ever revealed to exist in the town. The local police LOST EVIDENCE from a blood soaked suspect who cleaned himself up in a restaurant bathroom on the night of the murders. The local police stubbornly refused any assistance from the Arkansas State Police resources, .....and instead, allowed an unemployed waitress to spearhead a ridiculous "undercover operation".

The coerced confession from a mentally-handicapped teenager was an abomination-a violation of fundamental standards. The judicial process involved a parade of idiotic state witnesses, all allowed by a judge who had clearly made up his mind long before the trial ever started.

When modern day DNA technology was employed to examine-FOR THE FIRST TIME-a variety of vital evidence items, the resulting data pointed to ANYWHERE but the three individuals who were sitting in prison for allegedly committing the crime. The DNA results exposed the fact that the foolishly conceived initial  investigation needed to include an immediate focus on the FAMILY MEMBERS and the FAMILY HOMES of the three murdered boys. After all, intelligently conceived investigations BEGIN with those people closest to the victims, ....and work their way out-toward marauding bands of zombies.

Contrary to the DNA evidence, the release of the innocent young men was denied, .... and mysteriously delayed by the political/judicial power structure in Arkansas. Ultimately, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were offered an Alford Plea. By accepting this, they agreed to a legal maneuver allowing them to maintain their innocence. At the same time, by accepting the plea agreement, they acknowledged that the state most likely possessed enough evidence to convict them-in the event of a retrial.

In short, it is quite clear to me that the state of Arkansas-keenly aware of the faulty conviction-simply held the three innocent men as hostages. The hostage crisis persisted until an agreement was signed. The plea compromised (but hopefully did not eliminate) the likelihood of THREE quite lucrative wrongful conviction law suits. It is notable: Damien Echols was on Arkansas' death row. Thus, the state's threat of committing a wrongful homicide against one of their prison inmates also helped to secure the money-saving agreement.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Satanic Cow Dung: The West Memphis Three Story

The case of the WEST MEMPHIS THREE proved to be a black hole for moral principals at all levels of criminal investigation and due process within our criminal justice system.

May 5th, 1993, West Memphis, Arkansas: Three 8-year-old boys were brutally murdered. Their bodies were submerged in a shallow, muddy creek running through a wooded area near two interstate highways. The names of those whose lives were so tragically cut short were Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore. This crime embodied the absolute apex of our fears. What could be worse than a senseless attack on innocent children?

Any readers choosing to dig deeper into this case might begin with the book that got me started. Devil’s Knot-The True Story of the West Memphis Three, by the award-winning author, Mara Leveritt. Another book is Blood of Innocents, by Guy Reel. You may want to view the HBO trilogy of documentaries, Paradise Lost-The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, followed by, Revelations: Paradise Lost 2, and much more recently Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. CBS presented their assessment of the story, 48 Hours: A Cry for Innocence. Another valuable source of information is the legal defense website:

The principal purpose of the article I have written here is to illuminate the outrageous foolishness of the investigative process that occurred after the May 5th, 1993 tragedy. Three teenagers were ultimately imprisoned for a triple homicide that they CLEARLY did not commit.

Anyone familiar with the West Memphis Three case will agree that, in the early 1990’s, the community of West Memphis, Arkansas was unnecessarily preoccupied with a perceived threat associated with a local satanic cult. Please be advised, .......THERE WAS NO CULT.

The satanic cow dung panic was initiated and choreographed by a leader within the Crittenden County Juvenile Probation Office. This man—the town's self-appointed 'Anti-Satan Czar'—leapt into action as soon as he learned of the heinous crime against the three defenseless boys. Anyone in the community who was willing to stop for a moment and listen—especially the local law enforcement officials—were informed by the Czar that the triple homicide could not possibly be the result of anything other than witches and cult-related human sacrifices. The Czar even jotted down a list of ‘local cult-members’ as a reference for the police. This obviously disturbed man GUARANTEED that the police investigation would lead to the imprisonment of juveniles on his list. Have you ever heard of a SELF FULFILLING PROPHECY?

As law enforcement officials insisted that they were NOT centering their efforts, based exclusively on the Czar's irrational hallucinations, ....that was PRECISELY what they did. As the police claimed objectivity, vital details of the case circumstances—many of them inaccurate—were promptly leaked to the media and the public at large. The triple homicide was the 555th local police case of 1993, earning the case number 93-05-0555. Mysteriously, the case number was somehow transformed into 93-05-0666. Regardless of denials to the contrary, case numbers simply do not change by themselves. Trust me on this one, .....I once worked for a Midwestern state police force.

During the weeks that followed the homicides, the small community was gripped by an escalating atmosphere of hysteria. This was fueled by a general consensus that satanic killers were prowling throughout the local region. Again, .....THERE NEVER WAS A CULT.

Two hours after the three boys were reported missing, the first opportunity for a breakthrough developed in the case. A call to the police dispatch center came from workers at a local Bojangles restaurant just a short distance from where the three 8-year-old boys were last seen. A black man, reportedly covered in blood and mud, was found in the women’s restroom, attempting to clean himself up. The man, clearly in a state of disorientation, had defecated on himself, as well as on the floor. He left the restaurant before the police arrived.

The following day, after the bodies were discovered in the nearby woods, the Bojangles manager badgered the police until they agreed to a follow-up visit at the restaurant. The follow-up investigation revealed that remnants of bloodstains were indeed present in the restroom. Various samples were collected as evidence to be analyzed by the crime lab. Defying logic, none of the collected samples ever made it to the crime lab. Instead, Detective Bryn Ridge later testified that this potentially crucial evidence had been lost.

It is important to note that a hair, identified as originating from an African American, was later recovered from a sheet used by the perpetrator to wrap the body of one of the murdered boys. We will never know if there was a connection between the negroid hair and the African American man at the restaurant. But of course one major flaw in pursuing this coincidental appearance of a demented man at the restaurant, ....on the night of the homicides. The man was NOT listed on the Anti-Satan Czar's List of local teenage misfits. The first opportunity of a case breakthrough was LOST. Nice work guys!

The West Memphis Police mysteriously declined all offers of assistance from the Arkansas State Police. To this day, no reasonable explanation has justified this decision to rebuff the vastly superior investigative resources available from the state agency. Consequently, during the first month after the homicides, the investigation rapidly deteriorated into a chaotic mess. Beyond a month after the crime, the principals studying the case had yet to receive a single autopsy report from the medical examiner.

Typical of most high-profile criminal investigations, one principal inspector emerges to spearhead the historic crusade toward truth and justice for the victims. Enter, stage left, ......a waitress. Not just any waitress, ....but a 32-year-old, alcoholic waitress with a penchant for raiding her employer’s cash register, getting fired, writing bad checks, lying about being afflicted with a brain tumor, and occasionally passing out in her front yard from extreme intoxication.

For those keeping score at home, ....West Memphis, Arkansas, 1993, justice for three murdered children was sought by turning—NOT to the state police—but to the demented nonsense spewed forth by an 'Anti-Satan Czar', ....and now, ....a waitress. If you think I might be putting you on here, please consult Devil’s Knot, view the HBO documentaries, and surf the web. Yes, ....truth IS stranger than fiction.

With her eyes firmly fixed on a promise of $30,000 in reward money, the unemployed waitress went undercover in hopes of the long-anticipated investigative breakthrough. It is amusing to note that the prosecution and the local law enforcement officials actually expressed enthusiastic support for this foolishness. The waitress attempted to get cozy with a teenaged neighbor residing in her trailer park. ‘Get cozy’ translated into providing the under-aged minor with alcoholic beverages. Of course, the authorities simply looked the other way on this felonious glitch. The teenager, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley, was on the Czar's list of local cult members. It was official. The cult hysteria had now evolved into a bizarre, police-endorsed clown act.

At her insistence, young Jessie introduced the waitress to a friend—18-year-old Damien Echols. Damien was the young man that the Czar had proclaimed to be the local cult leader. Soon after the waitress met the leader of a cult that—by the way—DIDN'T EXIST—she reported astonishing allegations to the local police. The booze-mongering waitress claimed that Damien had driven her and Jessie to a nearby town to attend an ‘esbat’—a gathering of witches. At the esbat, the waitress alleged that she had witnessed a drunken orgy. The local police enthusiastically documented her account of the event.

There were just a few fundamental flaws in these allegations. The most hilarious flaw, ....young Damien had never learned to operate a motor vehicle. That is correct: The teenager could not possibly have driven the waitress, Jessie, or anybody else, ANYWHERE. The waitress later felt obligated to admit that she was so intoxicated that evening, she had only a sparse recollection of whom she might have gone with, where she went, or if she was able to see anything once she arrived. She did, however, distinctly remember regaining consciousness the next morning, as she lay in her front yard.

The police later discovered that the waitress was unable to retrace her way back to the site of the 'esbat/orgy'. Nor was she able to identify any individuals who might have been in attendance. The check-bouncing waitress eventually confessed that she might have dreamed the entire episode, rather than actually experiencing it. Most important, she admitted that, in addition to the $30,000 reward, her statements were motivated by promises from local investigators to assist with her various legal problems.

Not to be deterred by the poor showing and improbable tall tales from their stealth waitress, the police believed that they NOW had probable cause to haul in Jessie Misskelley for questioning. This time, Jessie was the 'lucky one' being tempted by the suggestion of a substantial monetary reward for assisting the investigation. With no regard to parental consent, investigators badgered the teenager for 12 hours. The biggest mystery was the fact that *somehow*, only 20 minutes of these vital police interviews were recorded as an audio file. The rest was a jumbled mess of chicken scratch handwritten notes.

As the 12-hour interrogation dragged along, consider the fact that Jessie Misskelley is significantly learning disabled, …..with an IQ documented at 72. As an example of Jessie's limitations, recall that 1993 was the year that saw Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton inaugurated as the 42nd U.S. President. Jessie admitted that he had never heard of the man.

For the majority of the intense interrogation, Jessie insisted that he knew nothing about the triple homicide. He repeatedly stated that he was unaware of any type of local cult, had never attended an esbat, and was completely clueless as to what goes on at an esbat. When presented with an opportunity to take a polygraph test, Jessie did not hesitate. This test was enthusiastically administered, ...despite the fact that the investigators did not have a written waiver of Miranda Rights signed by Jessie’s father, a legal requirement when police interview minors. Jesse did not ask for his parents or an attorney to be present. Jessie passed the examination with flying colors.

Contrary to every standard of decency and ethics, the polygraph administrator, Bill Durham, falsely boasted that “Jessie is lying his ass off.” The other investigators took that as a signal to bear down EVEN MORE with their badgering tactics. Hours later, the professional tormentors (or should I say “unprofessional tormentors”?) ultimately broke the confused teenager’s will. Jessie foolishly attempted to give them the answers that they were demanding from him. He also sensed the possibility of gaining a substantial cash reward as an added bonus.

Unbeknownst to his parents, or an attorney who might have warned Jessie of the disastrous consequences of the story he was fabricating, the young man made statements implicating Damien Echols, 16-year old Jason Baldwin, ….and himself. Jessie was not allowed to go home—as he had previously been promised. Instead, the bewildered teenager was unceremoniously escorted to a jail cell. His repeated efforts to recant his statements were all too late. Finally, the local cops had verified the existence of that elusive satanic cult! Triumphantly, they immediately announced this marvelous breakthrough to the media. You can almost hear the banjos playing in celebration.

The Innocence Project has documented the fact that roughly 25% of the DNA exoneration cases involve innocent individuals who, during intense interrogations, MAKE INCRIMINATING STATEMENTS, DELIVER OUTRIGHT CONFESSIONS, OR PLEAD GUILTY. "These cases show that confessions are not always prompted by internal knowledge of actual guilt, but are sometimes motivated by external influences.” Skeptical? Examine the most amazing false confession case—which targeted innocent members of our U.S. Navy: THE NORFOLK FOUR. Read up on EDDIE LOWERY, ROBERT GONZALES, FREDDY PEACOCK, JOHN KENNETH WATKINS, ANTHONY JOHNSON, or perhaps the case of BOBBY RAY DIXON, PHILLIP BIVENS, AND LARRY RUFFIN, or the case of JONATHAN BARR, JAMES HARDEN, SHAINNE SHARP, ROBERT TAYLOR, AND ROBERT LEE VEAL. If you wish to dig further, try browsing through this MASTER LIST OF FALSE CONFESSION CASES.

An endless dissertation could be written at this point, focusing on the mountains of rambling inaccuracies associated with the coerced statements from Jessie Misskelley. There were numerous instances, upon which the investigators actually became angry, as Jessie made statements that they KNEW were incorrect. When Jessie repeatedly referred to the murders taking place during the morning of May 5th, their exasperation reached a peak. CLEARLY, the morning time frame presented just an itsy-bitsy discrepancy. The three victims were in school until 2:45 p.m. One of the victims, Christopher Byers, was last seen by his stepfather, closer to 6:00 p.m. The murders had to have occurred sometime between 90 minutes prior to sunset (sunset was 7:50 p.m.) and perhaps well after nightfall. Initial searches of the wooded area—where the bodies were found the next day—began about 40 minutes after sundown. No Jessie, ....the homicides COULD NOT HAVE TAKEN PLACE IN THE MORNING.

The frustrated detectives badgered Jessie, gradually encouraging him to say that the murders may have occurred sometime after noon, rather than before noon. They eventually convinced him to say that the murders were committed closer to the evening, rather than the afternoon. In an attempt to ensure that Jessie’s confession timeline had—at least—a fighting chance of holding water, the detectives ultimately pushed the teenager into saying, “Yes, it was dark.” Anyone reading this must be asking themselves, “Was this young man so mentally challenged, he cannot tell light from dark?”

Jessie told the police that the boys were tied up with lengths of rope and raped by Damien and Jason. This further infuriated the detectives, who knew that the boys were tied up with shoestrings, which to most trial jurors, don’t look at all like lengths of rope. The accusation of rape was apparently due to countless rumors swarming throughout West Memphis, (recall the previously-mentioned police investigative leaks to the public). The medical examiner later testified that there was actually no physical evidence that the boys had ever been raped.

As Jessie’s enormously flawed confession continued to follow it's highly improbable path, a customary investigative exercise would have been to walk the teenager through his timeline AT THE CRIME SCENE. People, ....this is the first thing they teach in Criminal Investigations 101. The interrogators could have verified or refuted an assortment of Jessie’s vague statements by escorting him to the wooded area and asking for specific details. Where and when did each event occur? Where were the bodies placed? Where were the bicycles placed? The detectives decided not to run the risk of bringing a ‘successful’ confession into doubt. Unbelievable.

Please analyze this: Doesn't it seem like quite an undertaking for anybody—let alone three misfit teenagers—to perpetrate such bloody human sacrifices, within the confines of a forest full of vegetation, fallen branches, and leaf litter, while casting off such an amazing LACK of blood or other biological evidence? Any experienced crime scene investigator would expect much more than the minimal residue of blood that was ultimately detected. Prosecutors alleged that the teens had simply done an amazingly meticulous job of cleaning up the crime scene. A widely embraced alternative solution to this riddle is that the creek in the woods was used strictly as a dumping area. The boys were not murdered there.

If the homicides took place at another location, how did the three impoverished teenagers—with essentially no means of transportation—commit three murders, transport the bodies, discard the bodies, and clean up not one, but TWO crime scenes?

Months after the homicides, investigators returned to the forest and randomly collected large sticks that ‘seemed to fit' as possible weapons used during the crime. Despite the absence of blood or any other physical evidence suggesting that these particular items had any vague connection to the crime, the court allowed prosecutors to proudly showcase these items to the jury. Unbelievable.

Somehow, the alleged 'satanic killers' managed to leave behind a nearly pristine crime scene, 100% devoid of their own hair, skin cells, biological fluids, or any other physical evidence. After immaculately covering their tracks, either Damien or Jason allegedly proceeded to toss a vital evidence item, a knife, into the lake RIGHT NEXT TO THEIR HOMES! It is important to pause and emphasize that no form of analysis has ever linked this particular knife to the brutal attack on the three young victims. Why wouldn't such meticulous killers choose to simply clean off the knife and toss it into a nearby muddy creek? This glaring flaw did not discourage prosecutors from waving the knife around in front of the jury, emphasizing WHERE it was found.

Okay, let's discuss exactly HOW and WHEN this knife was found. The prosecutors and the police claimed that their sudden brainstorm to scour the nearby lake, months after the homicides, was kept quiet until Arkansas State Police divers had completed their search. This claim was contradicted by the huge front-page newspaper photo that was proudly displayed the following day. Comically, the photo showed the state police diver neck deep in the lake—moments after finding the knife—triumphantly holding the item above his head. If this 'lake diving search project' was being kept so hush-hush, how did the newspaper staff become aware in time to photographically capture this moment of investigative success?

Why would the investigating officials dare to risk contacting the media BEFORE they had found anything? As dismally poor as the investigation had been stagnating all of those months, the last thing the police needed was a newspaper photographer arriving at the lake, just in time to document yet another disappointing, wild goose chase.


In a stunning turn of events, ....just when the case looked so hopelessly circumstantial, PRESTO! A vital piece of evidence was revealed, instantly ready for a classic front page photo. One has to wonder, after all of those months in the lake, did the knife smell a bit fishy?

The prosecution eventually admitted that, at the time of Jessie Misskelley’s arrest in June, 1993, they had nothing more than the teenager’s confession and a rumor-driven, satanic cult panic. After many intense months of continued investigation, the prosecution had scarcely added any meat to this flimsy case. Jessie was found guilty anyway, and subsequently sentenced to life in prison. The words spoken by one of the jurors at the end of the trial was a profound representation of the baffling logic behind the verdict. The man stated that he was not surprised that the defense attorney chose NOT to put Jessie Misskelley on the witness stand. “I think that prosecuting attorney could have tore him apart and made him say anything.” Let that sink in for a moment.

Jessie Misskelley was immediately offered a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony at the Echols/Baldwin trial. When Jessie refused to consider this, the prosecutors began sweating bullets. During the several months leading up to the Echols/Baldwin trial, the investigation produced NO tangible proof that the homicides were even vaguely connected to a satanic cult. With no confession from either Damien or Jason, their entire case was built chiefly upon wildly absurd, small town gossip. Oh, .....and they had the 'fishy' knife too.

Prior to the trial, prosecutors offered Jason Baldwin 40 years in prison in exchange for testifying against Damien Echols. Midway through the trial, they came back to Jason and sweetened that offer to 20 years. Jason maintained that both he and Damien were entirely innocent. He stated that he would not lie to the court, and implicate an innocent human being, even if they had decided to offer him his immediate freedom in exchange for his testimony. You won’t find character like this among any of the monsters who kill children.

The knife from the lake was a colossal hoax, but the jury bought it. The testimony from a jailhouse informant was an equally transparent, shameless scam, but the jury bought that too. The claim of a ‘fiber match’ was a joke. Did the jury seriously believe that Jason Baldwin put on his mother’s red bathrobe prior to attending a triple homicide? A so-called expert for the prosecution suggested that fibers, could have become associated with the victims due to ‘secondary transfer’. The police could have searched anyone’s home in West Memphis and found additional ‘similar fibers’. Such fibers are also abundantly present throughout the clothing sections of Walmart, K-Mart, etc.

The jury earnestly soaked up the dull ramblings of the prosecution’s so-called occult expert. This QUACK came to the trial armed with a mail-order Ph.D. from a college degree 'warehouse' that was subsequently shut down for their fraudulent practices. The man had NEVER attended a single class that might have educated him on the occult. Consequently, he offered virtually nothing of scientific value on the witness stand. How this useless individual's testimony was allowed in a court of law is beyond comprehension. In spite of all of this, the two teenagers were found guilty. Jason was sentenced to life in prison. Damien was sentenced to death.

In March of 1997, the 'Anti-Satan Czar' resigned from the Crittenden County Juvenile Probation Office as a consequence of the mysterious disappearance of $30,000, funds which belonged to the county. Three years later, THIS useless individual pleaded no contest to the theft. Ironically, he never spent a day in jail, and was simply ordered to repay the missing funds at a rate of $241 per month.

In 2007, evidence from the West Memphis crime scene was finally tested using modern day DNA typing methods. None of the DNA data showed consistency with Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, or Jessie Misskelley. A hair, consistent with Terry Hobbs, stepfather to Stevie Branch, was found in one of the knots used tie up the boys. On January 28, 2010, JOHN FOGLEMAN, ONE OF THE PROSECUTORS IN THE CASE, WAS QUOTED AS FOLLOWS:

“They found a hair that belonged to a stepfather of one of the boys and another belonging to a friend of that stepfather. But what is really unusual about finding a hair from a stepfather on his stepson? I would think that would be something expected.”

More cow dung. Dear Mr. Fogleman: The hair, revealing consistency to Terry Hobbs, was weaved into the binding used to tie up a DIFFERENT CHILD, ....... Michael Moore, …....NOT the stepson, Stevie Branch! If you listen closely, you might be able to hear the banjo players starting up again. Was Fogleman EVER right, ....about ANYTHING? When he made this statement, the man was actually seeking a spot on the Arkansas State Supreme Court. God help us all.

The next article is entitled: The Tim Masters Case-Colorado

Michael J. Spence, Ph.D.

February 8, 2012

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Wrongful Convictions: Society Loses Out, ....Three Times Over

Americans demand a criminal justice system that is tough on crime. When we look closely at criminal cases, most of us sympathize with the victims, ….not the criminals. When a truly horrible crime is committed, and the guilty individual receives a lean punishment, we all lose. However, when the system malfunctions—and an innocent person is punished—society loses out, ….three times over.
  1. An innocent person is wrongfully incarcerated, ….or in some cases, ….PUT TO DEATH.
  2. A falsely targeted person (such as Chicago's Juan Johnson) might serve a few decades in prison. Once the power of DNA exonerates such an inmate, there is often an award of ENORMOUS COMPENSATION FROM THE CIVIL COURTS. The taxpayers are saddled with this burden.
  3. When a misguided criminal investigation/trial sends an innocent person to prison—this allows the REAL criminal to victimize MORE innocent people.
The most recent, glaring example of an ill-fated series of prosecutions occurred in Chicago (apparently, very little was learned from the Juan Johnson catastrophe). Along with various partner organizations, NORTHWESTERN LAW SCHOOL'S CENTER ON WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS played a key role in the DNA-based exoneration of JONATHAN BARR, JAMES HARDEN, SHAINNE SHARP, ROBERT TAYLOR, AND ROBERT LEE VEAL.

On November 19, 1991, 14-year-old Cateresa Matthews was abducted as she walked home from her middle school in Dixmoor, Illinois-a South Chicago suburb. A few weeks later, her body was found. The teenager had been sexually assaulted and shot. Almost one year later, Illinois State Police investigators interrogated a student from Cateresa’s middle school. Robert Lee Veal—who was 15-years old at the time—signed a confession. The document also implicated the other four boys.

Amazingly, the crime lab’s Forensic Biologist was able to analyze a semen sample from the body of Ms. Matthews. Unfortunately, the DNA type from this semen sample did not match any of the five suspected boys. Naturally, the prosecution ignored this fact and pushed forward with the case. The flimsy case was founded almost entirely upon coerced false confessions from three of the five boys.

In 2009, attorneys for the accused young men submitted requests for post-conviction DNA testing. When the Dixmoor Police Department refused to cooperate, Judge Michele Simmons ordered them to allow defense counsel to examine the stored evidence.

In March 2011, after DNA tests were *finally* forced by the Court, a DNA database match was discovered between case evidence items and a man named Willie Randolph. The Illinois State Attorney’s Office immediately submitted a motion, attempting to downplay the DNA results. After eight additional months of dodging justice, the Cook County Circuit Court finally began setting aside the convictions.

While the innocent young men were wrongfully incarcerated, Willie Randolph went on a 20-YEAR CRIME SPREE. The man was prosecuted for subsequent acts of domestic violence, burglary, and assault with a deadly weapon. It is anybody’s guess whether or not there were additional unsolved rapes/homicides—similar to the Cateresa Matthews case.

Randolph denied all wrongdoing. That issue was put to rest by the presence of his semen from the preserved 1991 evidence, taken together with the statements from a 2nd female victim. This new witness testified that Randolph raped her at the same location where Cateresa Matthews had been raped and murdered.

The next article is entitled:

Satanic Cow Dung: The West Memphis 3 Story

Michael J. Spence, Ph.D.

February 1, 2012