Lawyers get crash course to avoid wrongful convictions

Susan Myster
Forensic anthropologist Susan Myster showed the defense attorneys gathered at the Forensics 411 training a photo of bone fragments gathered from a crime scene. The body had been set on fire. "Many criminals think that you can totally consume a body by fire, but they soon find out you can't," Myster said.
Photo courtesy of Linnea Stephan

A man in a bathtub filled with blood. A dead woman, half-naked, lying face down in her kitchen. A child stabbed with a knife.

The photos, part of a lecture by the Hennepin County medical examiner, horrified the defense attorneys who had gathered in the dimly lit room. But they knew they needed to look. The lives of their clients depended on it.

The attorneys had gathered for a crash course on forensic science, organized by the Innocence Project of Minnesota, to help prevent wrongful convictions. Many in the room had followed media coverage of cases in which innocent people went to prison based on junk science and false testimony from forensic experts. The cases alarmed defense attorneys, who worried they lack the right kind of training to detect problems with science in the courtroom.

"You look at cases, and you wonder, if I got a report like that, would I have caught that problem?" said Mankato criminal defense attorney Allen Eskens, who attended the June 8 training at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul.

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In wrongful conviction cases, defense attorneys often blame the shoddy work of a handful of scientists and doctors, said public defender Christine Funk, one of the training instructors. The real question, she said, is how that shoddy work ended up in the courtroom in the first place.

"We need to be investigating when we get science," Funk told the group.

Funk used the example of a Michigan man, David Gavitt, who was convicted of setting a fire that killed his wife and two daughters. Decades later, students at the University of Michigan's Innocence Clinic reviewed his case and found problems with the arson investigation. Last week, a judge overturned Gavitt's conviction. He was released after serving 26 years in prison.

Sarah Walbridge-Jones
Forensic scientist Sarah Walbridge-Jones explains how the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension conducts DNA analysis of hairs found at crime scenes. Walbridge-Jones, who specializes in trace evidence at the BCA, was one of the presenters at the Forensics 411 training at the BCA in St. Paul, Minn. on Friday, June 8, 2012.
Photo courtesy of Linnea Stephan

Funk went through the details of the arson report. She explained how investigators claimed they found evidence of gasoline in the home, but a recent analysis found they were wrong. The error was clear all along, Funk said, if anyone had looked closely at the original lab report.

She showed the group a chart that looked similar to an EKG. "Note the sharp peaks in the spaces in between," she said.

The chart was an analysis of the chemical that investigators claimed was gasoline.

"Let's play a game," Funk said.

She showed the group a second chart. It was a generic chemical analysis of gasoline, pulled from a textbook.

The two charts didn't match. The sample taken from the fire was not gasoline.

"Why aren't we taking these reports from the crime lab that say it's gasoline and getting this and looking at it?" she said. "We need to be doing better."

ATTORNEYS, NOT SCIENTISTS

Part of the problem with challenging forensic experts is that attorneys often don't make great scientists, at least according to Innocence Project managing director Julie Jonas.

"Many of us went to law school specifically with the thought, 'I don't want to study science. I'm very good at words. I'm very good at reading and understanding and extrapolating, but not with science and numbers," she said.

Public defender Christine Funk
Public defender Christine Funk told defense attorneys gathered at the Forensics 411 training that they need to do a better job of scrutinizing the work of forensic experts. "The truth is, brace yourselves lawyers, I think you can do forensic science, and I think it's time that we started," Funk told the group. Otherwise, she said, innocent people end up in prison.
Photo courtesy of Linnea Stephan

That creates problems in the courtroom. When an attorney gets a lab report linking a defendant to a crime scene, Jonas said, "many of us will assume it's correct."

The Innocence Project represents people it believes were wrongfully convicted, like Michael Hansen, the Alexandria man whose murder conviction was overturned last year because of errors in a medical examiner's testimony.

Jonas said the recent forensic training is part of an effort to detect bad science before it enters the courtroom. The hope, she said, is to prevent wrongful convictions and avoid lengthy and costly legal battles decades later.

A CRASH COURSE IN FORENSIC SCIENCE

The group of about 30 lawyers at the training attended lectures on forensic anthropology, trace evidence, stab wounds, handwriting analysis, and the legal process for challenging bad science.

The day began with a lecture by Susan Myster, a forensic anthropologist at Hamline University, who specializes in the identification of burned bodies.

"Many criminals think that you can totally consume a body by fire, but they soon find out you can't," she said.

Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Andrew Bake
Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Andrew Baker gave a presentation on stab wounds and other sharp force injuries at the Forensics 411 training at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul, Minn. on Friday, June 8, 2012.
Photo courtesy of Linnea Stephan

Myster explained how to detect injuries on burned bones. It's not easy, she said, in part because a fire can cause bones to break.

She showed a photo of a charred bone with a line running through it. A detailed scientific explanation followed, and several attorneys grabbed pens to take notes.

"We know those are heat-related fractures and he wasn't wacked in the knee," she said.

Myster encouraged lawyers to contact her before a trial if they have any questions about her findings. In her experience, she said, most defense attorneys do not understand the science of the case, and many do not understand the job of a forensic anthropologist. That puts them at a disadvantage when she's testifying at trial.

"Sometimes there are things I think attorneys should ask me, and they don't," she said.

WHEN SCIENCE BECOMES A STORY

Sometimes the problem isn't the facts. It's how experts explain them to jurors.

Lawyers should be on alert for medical examiners who turn an autopsy report into a story, said Hennepin County medical examiner Andrew Baker.

He walked the group through a stomach-turning slideshow of sharp force injuries. His lecture emphasized the limits of forensic pathology.

"Just about any knife can cause just about any wound, depending on how it's wielded," he explained.

Contrary to popular television shows like CSI, medical examiners cannot tell if a murderer was left-handed or if the type of wounds indicated that the killer acted out of rage, Baker said.

"You can't tell any of that from the autopsy, but it makes for great television," he said.

Baker, like Myster, encouraged lawyers to contact him with questions.

"As medical examiners, we don't have a dog in the fight," he said. "It's not my job to figure out if the accused is guilty or innocent. It's my job to figure out what happened to the victim."

Public defender Brenda Lightbody, who works in Hastings and Dakota Counties, called the training "an invaluable experience."

She said understanding DNA evidence, autopsy reports, and arson investigations "can be really hard and incredibly daunting."

But if the training helps prevent one wrongful conviction, she said, it's worth it.

The Innocence Project plans to hold another training next year.