Thursday, February 19, 2009

The hits keep on coming for the nation's forensic scientists

I wrote just yesterday that those of you interested in issues relating to wrongful convictions and the integrity of the criminal justice system should read Radley Balko at Reason. Start with this. (Don't watch the video if you don't want to see a dead child.) This particular article is the story of Jimmie Duncan, a young man who has been on death row since 1998 for an accidental bathtub drowning. Two "forensic scientists", Steven Hayne and Michael West, who have both been totally discredited (West has been kicked out of the American Academy of Forensic Scientists while Hayne has finally been kicked out as the unofficial medical examiner of Mississippi) manufactured evidence not just to create a murder case, but to make it a capital murder case.

There's actually video of the discredited "bite mark" expert, West, creating a big, nasty bite mark on this little girl's cheek. The video and hospital photos clearly show that her cheek is pristine before the autopsy. Then the "expert" repeatedly presses a dental mold of the defendant's mouth onto the girl's cheek. Presto! Big, bad bite mark to support the experts' claim that Duncan intentionally killed the girl.

Every forensic expert who has reviewed the video is appalled by what is shown. It seems clear to all credible scientists that Jimmie Duncan did not do anything to this girl's face. If the experts made this up, who knows what else they made up in their quest to make this death a murder rather than the tragic accidental drowning it was. The medical examiner, Hayne, also claimed the little girl was raped. From earlier stories by Balko, I have gleaned that no reputable forensic scientists agree with that assessment, either.

Inexplicably, Duncan's trial attorneys had this video and the photos before Duncan's trial, but the jury never saw it. Nor did Duncan's forensic expert, who would undoubtedly have provided scathing testimony had he seen the before pictures or the video. Equally inexplicable, the trial judge ruled that there was nothing exculpatory on the video.

There is so much to this case that I can't understand. I can't understand why two men who claim to be scientists would want to manufacture a murder where none occurred. I can't understand how a prosecutor could watch that video and not question the correctness of his experts' actions. I can't understand how a judge could find that video does not contain exculpatory information. More than anything, I can't understand how Duncan's defense attorneys didn't plaster that before picture of the dead girl all over the courtroom. How were they zealously advocating for their client by not letting the jury see evidence that the state's experts had manufactured the main evidence against the defendant? Are none of these people the least bit concerned about sending a man to death row for a rape and murder that DID NOT HAPPEN?

While I can't fathom how on earth poor Jimmie Duncan got to the place he is right now, I can without hesitation express some strong opinions about what the rest of us need to do to fix this travesty. First, obviously, Duncan's conviction and sentenced need to be overturned. No procedural bar should be raised to prevent a court granting Duncan relief. I don't care if his attorneys did claim a "strategic" reason for declining to use the video and photos in court. Substance should absolutely control over procedure in this case. We have video tape of a forensic hack manufacturing the state's main evidence against Duncan. Would anyone seriously argue that a rule of procedural default should be invoked to keep Duncan's execution on schedule?

The prosecutors and defense attorneys involved in Duncan's trial should all be disbarred. We just can't have this level of incompetence in courtrooms. There is no reason for any of them to conclude that the video and photos weren't critical evidence that a jury had to see before rendering a verdict. The judge, too.

And Hayne and West should be prosecuted. Evidence tampering. Obstruction of justice. Or my personal choice: attempted murder. You know that's what Jack McCoy would charge them with. They made this crap up and put a man on death row in the process. Tell me how they didn't intend to kill Jimmie Duncan. I wonder how many other men are languishing in prison for life or on death row based on the lies of these two hacks.

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