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The Perils of Junk Science

Christopher Hill,
Capital Punishment Project
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March 11, 2009

(Originally posted on

If a scientist were to testify that he saw a person commit a crime because he went to the scene in the Way Back Machine with Peabody and his pet boy Sherman, everyone would know it was untrue. Unfortunately, innocent people have been convicted of crimes based on science just as unbelievable as the Way Back Machine. Junk science and incompetent forensic technicians are at least two reasons that people are charged and convicted of crimes they did not commit.

That is why the study released recently by National Academy of Science describing the problems in forensic laboratories across the country is so important. The NAS found that many labs have poorly trained technicians. The lack of standardized methods and training create an environment where sloppy work is presented and accepted in court. The study recommends the creation of a federal agency to provide oversight of the country’s forensic labs. The suggestion is for the agency to develop best practices for training, research and uniformity in analyzing information.

An article in the current issue of Reason magazine demonstrates the dangers of junk science convicting innocent people. Dr. Michael West is a forensic odontologist (or bite mark expert). He has testified in many capital cases. Kennedy Brewer, who has since been exonerated from Mississippi’s death row, was convicted when the jury believed Dr. West’s testimony. Dr. West claimed that he saw Brewer’s bite marks on the victim, and Brewer was convicted of raping and murdering a little girl. The marks were later found to be insect bites and not those of Brewer or any other human being. Another man has since been convicted of the crime. The Innocence Project was able to help free Mr. Brewer.

Dr. West once claimed to have developed a new technique for analyzing wound patterns and dubbed it “the West Phenomenon.” The “West Phenomenon” consists of the doctor putting on a pair of goggles, using ultraviolet light and observing a body. Dr. West has been sanctioned by forensic organizations, and yet some prosecutors continue to use him as an “expert.” In the film “Traces of Guilt: The Verdict,” John Holdridge, Director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, discusses the serious flaws in Dr. West’s techniques and testimony.

Dr. West is just one forensic “scientist” who has put people on death row by testifying to junk science. In Oklahoma, forensic scientist Joyce Gilchrist helped send 23 people to death row. At least one judge stated that she had withheld exculpatory evidence and provided “untrue” false testimony.

Curtis McCarty was exonerated from death row because Gilchrist’s transgressions with the evidence in his case. Junk scientists and junk science have sent many innocent people to death row. Ernest Willis of Texas was exonerated because the science used to convict him of arson and murder has been rejected by fire experts. The same science used to prove Willis’s innocence may exonerate Cameron Willingham who was executed for an arson murder in 2004. Texas has hired a fire expert to investigate Willingham’s case. An Innocence Project review with arson experts has shown that the fire was probably accidental.

The NAS study provides needed solutions to an epidemic problem. Unfortunately, we do not have a Way Back Machine to go back in time to correct all of the errors produced by junk science. However, the recommendations of the new NAS study, if implemented, should help to keep some (but by no means all) innocent people out of prison and off of death row.

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