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News & Innocence Issues

Bite Mark Evidence

What is Bite Mark Evidence?

If a victim of a crime is bitten, the impressions of a suspect’s teeth can be taken and compared to the injuries sustained by the victim. Forensic dentists examine the victim’s bite mark for characteristics and arrangement of the teeth.

 Criticisms of Bite Mark Evidence

Forensic dentistry has been heavily criticized for having some of the highest error rates amongst the forensic identification specialties. Upon review from the committee from the National Academy of Sciences, experts concluded that bite mark similarities are insufficient evidence to incriminate an individual to the exclusion of other suspects. 

 The suspicion over the accuracy of this evidence comes from the nature of our skin. The skin changes over time: it is elastic, responds to injury with swelling as it repairs, changes as it is moved, and is uneven. Additionally, there is no consensus that teeth are individual to a person. Furthermore, there is a limited sample size when forensic scientists make models of the teeth. All 32 teeth are not likely to leave a clear impression on a victim’s skin; it may be 4-8 biting teeth that leave an impression. From that limited sample size, 2 people are increasingly likely to have similar biting teeth. A bite mark made by one person, therefore, may be matched to another innocent individual due to the nature of skin and the similarities between individuals’ teeth.

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DNA Evidence

What Is DNA?

DNA is deoxyribonucleic acid is a compound consisting of a sugar-phosphate backbone and a nitrogenous base, together this is called a nucleotide. There are 4 nitrogenous bases that make up all human DNA: Thymine, Adenine, Guanine, and Cytosine, but their arrangement and order on DNA is specific to the individual. Nucleotides with Adenine and thymine nitrogenous bases pair together while nucleotides with Guanine and Cytosine bond. What is produced by these pairings is 2 strands of nucleotides bound together by bonds between the nitrogenous bases. Properties of DNA cause it to supercoil into tightly wound chromosomes. Humans usually have 46, and one of those pairs is called a sex chromosome. 

Based on these characteristics, scientists can develop a DNA profile that is unique to a person. 

All of our chromosomes have a unique combination of nucleotides (with a unique order of nitrogenous bases). These nucleotides, when grouped together can code for traits. Everyone’s DNA is made from a combination of DNA given from their mother and father. Therefore DNA profiles are extremely specific to the person, they can tell us about the traits that that person possesses, and they can be compared to the paternal and maternal DNA. By comparing the similarities between an individual’s DNA to the DNA found in a crime scene, forensic scientists can help the investigators place a suspect at a crime scene.

 

Innovation in Forensic Science

 The field of forensic sciences has experienced substantial change over recent years, rendering old these methods of biological analysis obsolete: 

  1. Bite Mark Evidence: The skin itself is very elastic and dynamic. For this reason, it is highly unreliable as evidence to convict someone. In contrast, a person’s DNA profile remains largely the same throughout their lifetime.
  2. Fire Evidence: Many people have been convicted for arson based on faulty evidence gathered by expert ‘witnesses’. However, until 1992 there were no regulations and procedures for fire investigation. Many people suffered wrongful convictions due to the underdevelopment of this method of forensic investigation. The National Fire Protection Association was formed in 1992 that began to regulate to ensure that fires were investigated with a scientific approach. Though significant improvements have been made, fire analysis error rates are still unclear.
  3. ABO analysis: ABO testing is a way of testing blood and comparing the blood groups of individuals. In the forensic sciences, it can be used to place a suspect at the scene of the crime if their blood group is the same as that found. However, this method is error-prone since many people share the same blood groups.

CODIS

The new DNA testing technology has produced large databases of DNA codes from thousands of individuals, the National DNA Index System (NDIS). The NDIS contains DNA profiles contributed to the database by federal, state, and local forensic laboratories. The DNA profiles of individuals in the database can be compared to the DNA discovered at the crime scene using software CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, in collaboration with the FBI. 

Forensic Genealogy 

Since family members share DNA, databases can be used to identify a criminal through their family members. CODIS can be one way to match individuals based on DNA profiles, however it is limited; CODIS profiles are only accessible with cooperation from law enforcement. Another method that investigators can use is using companies such as 23andMe, Ancestry DNA, and MyHeritage DNA. When users send their DNA for testing, a DNA profile is created. From there, users can upload their DNA profiles to GEDmatch to discover familial relations. Law enforcement can use this by taking a sample of DNA from a crime scene, obtaining a DNA profile, uploading that profile to GEDmatch and then locating a possible suspect through their familial relations. 

 

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Evidence Preservation

Problems Affecting Evidence Preservation

Many individuals are convicted for crimes they did not commit due to the spoliation of evidence; the alteration of evidence to damage it, suppress it (Brady Material), and contaminate it. Such evidence may be critical for an individual’s potential civil action. However, it can be very difficult to pursue cases of evidence spoliation because whether intentional or negligent, states do not have enough statutes to protect evidence from being destroyed while the individual is incarcerated. In addition, punishing the destruction of evidence associated with prosecutorial misconduct is exceedingly difficult. Utah still is in need of sanctions to prevent and demand compensation for spoliation of evidence.

 

Evidence Re-examination

 With the improving technology available for examining the evidence, it is important to have the resources to re-examine old evidence. Old methods of biological evidence testing had a high rate of error, and are therefore obsolete. ABO blood testing compares the blood types of suspects with that found on biological evidence at the crime scene. Bruce Dallas Goodman had been convicted for a crime he did not commit based on his blood type matching that on the victim. Since the biological evidence was preserved, DNA testing proved Bruce’s innocence and revealed the DNA profiles of 2 other perpetrators. The results of biological testing such as the latter can be combined with other non-biological evidence to appeal an individual’s sentence – but only if the evidence is preserved.

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Parole

What is parole?

Parole is the temporary or permanent release of a prisoner before the completion of their full sentence. Parole is determined by the parole board based on the behavior of the individual seeking parole. It is to be enforced by a parole officer. 

Innocent Individuals on Parole

An important determinant of parole is the convict’s remorse and taking responsibility for the crime. For people who are innocent, and seeking a declaration of factual innocence, this can be a grave dilemma. Individuals such as Bruce Dallas Goodman have declared their culpability in order to leave prison on parole. However, for individuals like Bruce, the statement of culpability can be used against their case for factual innocence in the future. Though innocent convicts are able to leave prison, work and pay their social security while on parole, it still presents many challenges. The kind of parole determined by the parole board can place innocent individuals in half-way houses; an accommodation that aims to help people with mental, physical, emotional disabilities, and criminal backgrounds to be rehabilitated so they can renter society. If the individual on parol is innocent, half-way houses may be a traumatic and dangerous accommodation.

 

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Brady Material Law

What is Brady Material Law?

Brady Material Law is the requirement for the prosecution to disclose any information that could be helpful for the case of the defense and that could help reduce the sentence of the defendant. In many cases, prosecutors will discover Brady Material, evidence that could help the defense to prove the innocence of an individual, but suppress it to increase their chances of winning a trial. This doctrine arose from the Supreme Court case Brady vs. Maryland in 1963. Infringements of this requirement include not disclosing:

 

  1. Evidence implicating someone else as the perpetrator of a crime
  2. Inconsistencies in a witness’s previous statements (Giglio Material)
  3. Evidence that would suggest police or forensic technician misconduct
  4. Motive(s) for a witness to lie

 

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, Brady violations still occur. To correct these violations, an extensive post-conviction investigation is needed. The evidence may be so well suppressed that luck is involved in discovering it. In addition, it is extremely difficult to discipline prosecutors that violate the Brady Material Law through the State Bar Association or civil courts.



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RMIC Attends Criminal Justice Reform Panel Presentation Featuring Van Jones, Mike Farrell, and Kirk Bloodsworth

It is a priority for the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center’s staff and volunteers to engage in community events. On January 7, 2017 we attended a panel presentation titled “Van Jones Talks Criminal Justice Reform: with Mike Farrell and Kirk Bloodsworth.” We were pleasantly surprised when Van Jones asked the audience if they knew who was doing Innocence/Criminal Justice Reform work in Utah. This allowed our staff a perfect opportunity to share our contact information and to talk a bit about our work. Remember, we are the ONLY organization in the region providing innocence investigation and litigation services- and we provide these legal services at no cost to our clients!

Our managing attorney, Jennifer Springer, was recognized by Mr. Jones and received a well-deserved rousing round of applause from the entire audience for her relentless work on innocence projects. Congratulations, Jennifer!

Jennifer and Jensie Anderson (our Legal Director) met with Mr. Jones after the event and we were lucky to snap this picture of the three of them.

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