"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

Friday, September 11, 2015

Seventh Circuit grants immunity to bite mark 'experts' who put innocent man in prison for 23 years

Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit granted qualified immunity to Lowell Thomas Johnson and Raymond Rawson, the 2 bite mark specialists whose testimony helped convict Robert Lee Stinson of raping and murdering an elderly Wisconsin woman in 1984. Stinson spent 23 years in prison before DNA testing exonerated him in 2009. Further testing implicated a man named Moses Price, who then confessed to the crime.

The only real evidence against Stinson was the testimony of Johnson and Rawson, who claimed they could match bite marks on the victim's body to Stinson, to the exclusion of everyone else. Johnson claimed that the marks on the woman "had to have been made by teeth identical in all of these characteristics" to Stinson's. Rawson claimed the marks matched Stinson's teeth "to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty."

Stinson claims to have been severely beaten when he was arrested. Before trial, Stinson's attorneys consulted with their own bite mark analyst. That analyst too claimed that the marks were a match to Stinson. So Stinson's attorneys never called a witness to contradict Johnson and Rawson. They did attempt to draw attention to a line in a forensics journal about how some experts disagreed with the conclusions of bite mark analysts. The trial judge refused to let them. Stinson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

I wrote a bit about Stinson's case in my series on bite mark evidence that ran in February. The particularly remarkable thing about Stinson's case is that in his appeal, he challenged the validity of bite mark analysis, claiming that there's no scientific research to support its claims. In 1986, the Wisconsin Supreme Court conceded in a footnote that without the bite mark evidence, the state's case against Stinson "may not have been sufficient to convict him." But the court not only rejected Stinson's appeal; the justices also spent a dozen paragraphs meticulously explaining why bite mark evidence is sound.

In one footnote, the justices pointed out that at the time of the decision, "bite mark comparison has received evidentiary acceptance in 19 jurisdictions. No jurisdiction has rejected the admission of such evidence."

This is true. But as I pointed out in my series this year, this is almost entirely due what you might call a judicial echo chamber that began with the 1975 case Marx v. California. In that case, a California appeals court admitted testimony from bite mark analysts who had done their analysis six weeks after the murder victim had been autopsied, embalmed and buried. Even so, the court did not perform an analysis of the scientific validity of the evidence. Indeed, it conceded that there was no scientific evidence to analyze. Instead, the California court simply stated that the trial judge had eyeballed the evidence and found it persuasive. To overrule the trial judge, the court concluded, "would be to abandon common sense." As one critic of forensic analysis put it, Marx became a "global warrant" for bite mark evidence across the country.

In the end, the Wisconsin Supreme Court concluded "that the evidence presented was sufficient to convince the jury, to a moral certainty, that there was no reasonable hypothesis of Stinson's innocence." The opinion was unanimous.

The Stinson case itself then became a case that prosecutors would cite in seeking to have bite mark evidence admitted and that appeals courts would cite in upholding its validity.

Source: Washington Post, Radley Balko, Sept. 8, 2015

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