There’s no shortage of crime-fighting TV shows where protagonists brandish the latest forensic science techniques. Whether it’s DNA testing, tool mark identification, bite mark measuring, or blood spatter analysis, it’s assumed that these methods are reliable, consistent, and valid measures of criminal activity. Of course, the evidence is available for experts with trained eyes and the proper equipment, but the science isn’t without fault.
Even those at the upper echelons of criminal justice have been found guilty of fraud in forensics. In 2015, the FBI admitted to decades of relying on faulty hair analysis in trials, a grave error in criminal proceedings. Among those convicted on fraudulent evidence are 32 defendants sentenced to death, 14 of whom have either died in prison or already been executed.
Overstating the utility of common forensic methods has serious consequences. In recent interviews with three prominent professors, ForensicsColleges.com explored the impact of a recent bombshell in the community: a September 2016 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). The PCAST publication cast doubt on common forensics methods due to insufficient testing. It found that only single-source DNA had both of the requisite types of scientific validity: foundational (i.e., accurate in a controlled lab environment) and applied (i.e., applicable in a real world context). While multiple-source DNA, fingerprinting, and other forensic methods may be useful, they require further testing to establish both foundational and applied validity. Notably, all three of the interviewed professors highly recommended a strong core of hard science courses to thrive in forensics careers.
While the future of forensics methods is beyond the scope of this article, it’s important to remember examples where the collection or processing of evidence have failed. This article explores five fascinating cases of fraud in forensics to underscore the importance of using scientifically valid and reliable methods in this growing career field.
On November 2, 2007, American college student Amanda Knox returned to her flat in Perugia, Italy. She found the bathroom she shared with her roommate, Meredith Kercher, covered in blood. The carnage disturbed Knox, who described her roommate as “neat and tidy.” Knox had spent the night with her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, and she attempted to get into Kercher’s room, which was locked. Sollecito tried to force the door open and failed, prompting him to call the police.
Filomena Romanelli, the third roommate, returned home following a phone conversation with Knox. Fearing the flat had been robbed, Romanelli began rummaging around, unknowingly disturbing the crime scene. It was Romanelli who uncovered Kercher’s two cell phones in a garden nearby and she requested that the police break into Kercher’s room. After the police refused, Romanelli’s friend broke through the door to uncover Kercher’s bloody and partially naked body. Autopsy reports indicated that most of Kercher’s injuries—bruising and cuts near the genital region—were sustained as a result of being restrained during the sexual violence.
Both Knox and Sollecito were arrested and charged with Kercher’s murder due to trace amounts of Knox’s DNA found on the kitchen knife—the presumed murder weapon—and Sollecito’s DNA found on Kercher’s bra clasp. Once Meredith Kercher’s room was thoroughly searched, police uncovered fingerprints and DNA belonging to Rudy Guede, who had gone on a date with the victim the night of her murder. Still convinced of Knox and Sollecito’s guilt, the prosecution spun a narrative claiming the couple had partnered with Guede in Kercher’s murder.
During the June 2011 appeals trial, experts uncovered the numerous flaws in the forensic evidence levied against Knox and Sollecito. For example, the police didn’t wear caps or change gloves as they collected items, allowing cross-contamination of the objects in the room. Experts also noted that while the alleged murder weapon did contain trace amounts of Knox’s DNA, it was curiously free from the victim’s DNA.
On March 27, 2015, both Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were exonerated for the murder of Meredith Kercher.
On June 13, 1994, the bodies of Ron Goldman and the ex-wife of OJ Simpson, Nicole Brown, were found outside of Brown’s home. They’d been stabbed multiple times.
When detectives arrived at OJ Simpson’s home to inform him of the death of his ex-wife, they noticed blood on Simpson’s white Ford Bronco. Without a search warrant, Detective Mark Fuhrman jumped over the external wall and opened the gate for the other three detectives present, claiming they believed Simpson might have been injured and went to investigate. While walking along the outside of the house, Mark Fuhrman uncovered a matching bloody glove to one found at the crime scene.
During the trial, all of the missteps of the forensic team came to light, including the possibility of evidence tampering (and obvious evidence mishandling), as well as the glaring absence of evidence security. The defense noted several items that had gone missing, including a vial of blood from OJ Simpson. Jurors, infuriated by evidence of racism within the LAPD, questioned whether the missing blood was a result of planted evidence on the part of the detectives. Furthermore, Simpson’s Bronco, which had been impounded at an LAPD facility, was entered at least twice without authorization.
OJ Simpson was found not guilty on October 3, 1995.
On September 28, 2000, David Camm—a retired Indiana State Trooper—returned home to find his wife and two children dead of gunshot wounds. Camm believed his son was still alive and attempted CPR on the seven-year-old. When his son failed to respond, he called 911. Three days later, Camm was arrested for the deaths of his family. A state forensic analyst claimed that Camm’s t-shirt had been stained with the wife’s blood in patterns suggesting he was the perpetrator.
During Camm’s trial, the prosecution stated that Camm had dual motives: a $750,000 life insurance policy and alleged infidelity. On March 17, 2002, the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to 195 years in prison.
In 2004, the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial. The case caught a break in 2005 when the DNA of career criminal, Charles Boney, was matched to a sweatshirt at the scene of the crime. Boney’s history included attacking women. Boney ultimately claimed it was Camm who murdered the family. Camm was charged once again—this time as a co-conspirator with Boney.
In 2009, the convictions were reversed by the Indiana Supreme Court. During the third trial, the defense presented evidence that the initial blood splatter expert had falsified his credentials and had no history of working with blood splatters. Additionally, a Dutch forensic expert found Boney’s DNA under Kim Camm’s fingernails and her DNA on his sweatshirt, two pieces of evidence which sealed his conviction.
On October 24, 2015, after spending 13 years in prison for the deaths of his wife and two children, David Camm was acquitted and released.
On May 11, 1978, newly engaged Carol Schmal and Lawrence Lionberg were found shot in the head. Schmal had been raped seven times. An eyewitness claimed to have seen Dennis Williams, Kenneth Adams, and Willie Rainge in the abandoned townhouses where the bodies of the victims were found. Another witness named Paula Gray—a woman with an IQ of 55 who would later recant her testimony, thereby facing perjury charges—added Verneal Jimerson to the attackers. A final eyewitness named Marvin Simpson came forward five days after the murders identifying four completely different men as the killers, but the police failed to investigate these claims. The “Ford Heights Four”—all black men—were tried by an all-white jury.
During the first trial in 1978, state serologist Michael Podlecki testified that at least one of the rapists had type A secretor blood, a trait shared with approximately 25 percent of the population. Podlecki also testified that both Williams and Adams tested positive for being type A secretors, an assertion later refuted by an independent forensic witness. When the prosecution presented hairs found in the back of Williams’s car, Podlecki claimed they were consistent with the victims. Williams, Adams, Rainge, and Gray all received harsh sentences. Jimerson was not initially convicted because Gray had withdrawn her testimony, although she later testified against him in a plea deal with the prosecutors and he was sentenced to death.
After various appeals and retrials, students from the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism—including award-winning NPR journalist Laura Sullivan—presented new evidence in 1996. They uncovered Marvin Simpson’s genuine eyewitness account. Coupled with confessions from the murderers and DNA evidence, Williams, Adams, Rainge, and Jimerson were finally exonerated after 17 years in prison.
In 1999, the Ford Heights Four won a $36 million in damages from Cook County—the largest settlement for a civil rights case in U.S. history.
On December 23, 1991, a fire ravaged Cameron Todd Willingham’s house killing his two-year-old daughter and one-year-old twins, while Willingham escaped with minor burns. His wife had been out Christmas shopping and despite her insistence that Willingham had never been abusive and had no motive for the crimes, he was arrested.
At the trial, James Grigson—a psychiatrist known as “Doctor Death” for frequently recommending the death penalty for defendants—was called as an expert witness. Grigson cited Willingham’s tattoo of a skull and serpent and some of his music posters as evidence that he was a sociopath. He did not perform a thorough psychiatric evaluation.
Furthermore, Johnny Webb, a jailhouse informant, testified against Willingham claiming he had confessed to the arson leading to the murders. Webb would later recant his testimony, telling a reporter he was mistaken as a result of being on multiple medications for bipolar disorder. The recanted testimony was never reported to Willingham’s attorneys and the prosecution ultimately cited the statute of limitations.
Manuel Vasquez, a state deputy fire marshall, took the stand and testified to seeing “puddle configurations” (i.e., areas of rapid burning) suggesting the use of accelerants in the fire and indicating arson. Vasquez also had claimed that Willingham’s first and second-degree burns were most likely self-inflicted with the intent to avert suspicion. It wasn’t until many years later that investigators would attribute his wounds to Willingham being in the fire before the flashover (i.e., when the entire room suddenly ignites in flames). Sadly, Willingham was found guilty and executed February 17, 2004.
Acclaimed fire investigator and scientist Gerald Hurst found Vasquez’s claims to be dubious and stated that there was no evidence to suggest arson.
In 2010—after more than a year of renewed investigation and stiff opposition from embarrassed state authorities, including Governor Rick Perry—the Texas Forensic Science Commission led by Dr. Craig Beyler concluded that there was not ample evidence for arson and Vasquez’s testimony was “hardly consistent with a scientific mind-set and was more characteristic of mystics or psychics.”
For aspiring forensics professionals, these documented abuses of the science are presented as cautionary tales. The collection and meticulous analysis of evidence aren’t easy processes and the techniques are still far from perfect. It’s worth noting that as of June 2017, the federal government remains committed to keeping current processes in place. Rebuffing scientists who had presented evidence of false applications of DNA analysis, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated, “I don’t think we should suggest that those proven scientific principles that we’ve been using for decades are somehow uncertain and leaving prosecutors having to fend off challenges on the most basic issues in a trial” (Washington Post, April 2017).
Despite setbacks in the advancement of the science, there are groups committed to exonerating falsely accused people with sound forensic evidence. For example, the Innocence Project aims “to free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.” Founded in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, it has helped to free 350 people on DNA evidence and identified 149 alternative perpetrators as of June 2017.
In short, forensic science depends not only on types of evidence with foundational and applied validity, but also on the dedicated efforts of ethics-minded groups such as the Innocence Project. How many innocent people are serving sentences for crimes they didn’t commit? How many criminals are walking free due to untested rape kit backlogs? Forensic scientists can be part of the solution.