Friday, May 11, 2018

What goes around keeps going around

In our digital world, nothing really ever goes away. That off-hand comment you made on Twitter or that snarky remark you made on someone's Facebook page will remain there years after the fact - just waiting for someone to stumble across it at a most inopportune time.

Alfred Swinton knows all about the vapor trails in the ether.

You see, Mr. Swinton was the focus of a 2002 episode of Cold Case Files. In 2001, Mr. Swinton was convicted for the 1991 murder of Carla Terry. Her murder was one of 15 similar murders in the Hartford (CT) area in the late 80's and early 90's. Police worked the case for almost a decade before arrested Mr. Swinton with the help of a pair of forensic bite-mark analysts.

A judge tossed the initial indictment in 1991 because prosecutors presented no evidence that a bite mark said to be found on Ms. Terry's body was made at or near the time she was killed. Seven years later the state hooked up with an outfit called Image Content Technologies who claimed they had a software package that could scan old photographs and find previously unseen details. The state also hired forensic bite-mark voodoo salesman Gus Karazulas who took a plaster mold of Mr. Swinton's teeth and "bit" himself and then timed how long it took for the "bitemark" to change color.

Of course the judge let it in (since about the only time a judge exercises his or her power as gatekeeper of scientific evidence is in civil cases) and the jury lapped it up like a thirsty puppy. Mr. Swinton was convicted and sent to prison. In 2017, after spending 18 years behind bars, his conviction was vacated based on DNA testing of biological material that excluded Mr. Swinton as a suspect.

But even though a judge ruled that Mr. Swinton was wrongly convicted of the murder, reruns of the episode still air occasionally on cable television without any notification to viewers that Mr. Swinton was exonerated or that the forensic bite-mark evidence was garbage.

Today there are internet firms that compile mug shot photos of folks who were recently arrested and post them online. The posts remain available to the public even if the case is dismissed or the accused is found to be innocent. The only way to get the company to take down the posts is to pay them an extortion fee. Some prosecutors' offices tweet or post Facebook messages about arrests made - but there is never a post to indicate when the police (and prosecutors) got it wrong.

Shows like Cold Case Files and Forensic Files showcase fields of forensic science that have since been shown to be junk science but never update their shows with a disclaimer that a particular technique or field of inquiry has been shown to be unreliable or fraudulent or that a person featured on their show was later exonerated of the crime.

Still the digital detritus keeps floating in the ether, like the space junk that orbits our planet.

h/t Radley Balko

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