What does forensic science have to do with wrongful convictions?
Let’s take a closer look at the Jason Baldwin case. He was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1994. He didn’t want to take the Alford Plea Deal in 2011. When it came down to it, Jason had full veto power because the State of Arkansas prosecutor wanted all three of the West Memphis Three to take the deal or none at all.
Damien Echols had been sitting on death row for 18 years. In the end, although Jason would have waited for a new trial to prove his innocence, this was what made him take the deal.
“They were going to kill Damien,” he said. It’s the concluding scene in the trio of HBO documentaries on the case, called “Paradise Lost,” and one of the most moving real-life scenes I’ve ever witnessed.
Jason, Damien, and Jesse Misskelly were the three teenage boys convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys in 1994. They eventually got the support of a large number of people all over the country. This included several very famous and wealthy supporters in large part due to the coverage provided by the documentary.
Their supporters were able to hire their own investigators to take a fresh look at the crime scene. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh of the Lord Of The Rings film trilogy fame came to their aid. They financed a whole new investigation which became the documentary “West of Memphis.” This documentary makes clear what both Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin said in the documentary is commonplace. This happens to other people all the time.
Bad Forensic Science and Wrongful Convictions
Bad forensic science is also referred to as misapplied forensic science. It is responsible for the wrongful conviction of defendants in almost 50% of those cases cleared by DNA evidence.
In Jason and Damien’s trial, the State of Arkansas employed a medical examiner who wasn’t licensed. He had failed his exam twice and hadn’t attempted it again. The fact is that examiners can take it up to 5 times in order to pass it.
This man wrongly interpreted the wounds on the bodies of the victims. It appeared as though the boys had been mutilated before they were killed.
In fact, the wounds found on the bodies of the three boys were interpreted by six other professional medical examiners in the same way. It is important to note that they had nothing to do with the case. The results were post-mortem wounds consistent with carnivorous animals due to their bodies having been outside overnight.
Once the supposed “satanic” or “ritualistic” nature of the crimes was taken out of the equation, the state’s case against the three men became nonexistent.
Here are several of the problems with the kind of forensic science used in trials, as reported by the Innocence Project.
Unreliable or Invalid Forensic Discipline
There are some forensic methods still in use which can’t consistently produce accurate results. One example of this is the comparison. Ironically, this is one of the methods Jason’s advocates are shown wanting to use in the second installment of the Paradise Lost documentary.
Insufficient Validation of a Method
Some forensic methods are in use which may very well be able to produce consistent and accurate results. However, it doesn’t have sufficient validation such as a large study.
Misleading testimony was clearly a key part of Jason Baldwin’s wrongful conviction. The medical examiner gave his testimony based on a misunderstanding of forensic evidence that the boys were mutilated and tortured.
Other ways in which this can be done is by exaggerating the significance of findings:
- How rare the findings are oversimplifying data.
- Implying the suspect is the source of the findings.
- Testimony that conveys only one conclusion (usually the prosecution’s conclusion).
Forensic testimony can also omit or downplay evidence which excludes the defendant from being a suspect by calling it “inconclusive” when it is actually exculpatory.
Another big problem, which we see at work in Jason’s story, is when forensic testimony fails to share just how limited the methods it uses are. Additionally, it does not reveal how often this method has been shown not to be valid.
A glaring example of this from Jason’s trial is the use of satanic ritual murder as the motive. The state had to show what motive Jason and his friends could possibly have to commit this crime. Satanic ritual abuse (so-called “satanic panic”) as a recognizable motive or cultural phenomenon was being debunked almost as quickly as the memoirs and psychiatric practices “uncovering” it were being published.
As in all things, even scientific pursuits, forensic pathologists can make mistakes. They can mix up samples or accidentally contaminate samples.
In some of the cases where defendants were exonerated by DNA evidence, it was found that forensic analysts actually fabricated result. In addition, evidence was hidden that would exclude defendants or reported results when testing hadn’t been conducted.
We would like to believe that forensic science is highly accurate and always produces conclusive results like on T.V. In reality, forensic science can be and often has been shown to be plagued by errors, corruption, and too high of a belief by prosecution and jurors in its ability to convict.
Visit The Innocence Project to read about the reforms and solutions that are necessary to make our justice system one where truly innocent people are protected and to see how you can get involved. You can also visit Jason Baldwin’s organization, Proclaim Justice, for more information on how you can help victims of wrongful incarceration.
If you or a loved one has been falsely accused and need a strong defense, please call today.
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