The tone of voice to use when talking about forensic mistakes

Remember my post that discussed the tone of voice that a company chooses to use when talking about the benefits of the company and its offerings?

Or perhaps you saw the repurposed version of the post, a page section entitled “Don’t use that tone of voice with me!”

The tone of voice that a firm uses does not only extend to benefit statements, but to all communications from a company. Sometimes the tone of voice attracts potential clients. Sometimes it repels them.

For example, a book was published a couple of months ago. Check the tone of voice in these excerpts from the book advertisement.

“That’s not my fingerprint, your honor,” said the defendant, after FBI experts reported a “100-percent identification.” They were wrong. It is shocking how often they are. Autopsy of a Crime Lab is the first book to catalog the sources of error and the faulty science behind a range of well-known forensic evidence, from fingerprints and firearms to forensic algorithms. In this devastating forensic takedown, noted legal expert Brandon L. Garrett poses the questions that should be asked in courtrooms every day: Where are the studies that validate the basic premises of widely accepted techniques such as fingerprinting? How can experts testify with 100 percent certainty about a fingerprint, when there is no such thing as a 100 percent match? Where is the quality control in the laboratories and at the crime scenes? Should we so readily adopt powerful new technologies like facial recognition software and rapid DNA machines? And why have judges been so reluctant to consider the weaknesses of so many long-accepted methods?

Note that author Brandon Garrett is NOT making this stuff up. People in the identity industry are well aware of the Brandon Mayfield case and others that started a series of reforms beginning in 2009, including changes in courtroom testimony and increased testing of forensic techniques by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and others.

It’s obvious that I, with my biases resulting from over 25 years in the identity industry, am not going to enjoy phrases such as “devastating forensic takedown,” especially when I know that some sectors of the forensics profession have been working on correcting these mistakes for 12 years now, and have cooperated with the Innocence Project to rectify some of these mistakes.

So from my perspective, here are my two concerns about language that could be considered inflammatory:

  • Inflammatory language focusing on anecdotal incidents leads to improper conclusions. Yes, there are anecdotal instances in which fingerprint examiners made incorrect decisions. Yes, there are anecdotal instances in which police agencies did not use facial recognition computer results solely as investigative leads, resulting in false arrests. But anecdotal incidents are not in my view substantive enough to ban fingerprint recognition or facial recognition entirely, as some (not all) who read Garrett’s book are going to want to do (and have done, in certain jurisdictions).
  • Inflammatory language prompts inflammatory language from “the other side.” Some forensic practitioners and criminal justice stakeholders may not be pleased to learn that they’ve been targeted by a “devastating forensic takedown.” And sometimes the responses can get nasty: “enemies” of forensic techniques “love criminals.”

Of course, it may be near to impossible to have a reasoned discussion of forensic and police techniques these days. And I’ll confess that it’s hard to sell books by taking a nuanced tone in the book blurb. But if would be nice if we could all just get along.

P.S. Garrett was interviewed on TV in connection to the Derek Chauvin trial, and did not (IMHO) come off as a wild-eyed “defund the police” hack. His major point was that Chauvin’s actions were not made in a split second, but in a course of several minutes.

Quantifying the costs of wrongful incarcerations

As many of you already know, the Innocence Project is dedicated to freeing people who have been wrongfully incarcerated. At times, the people are freed after examining or re-examining biometric evidence, such as fingerprint evidence or DNA evidence.

The latter evidence was relevant in the case of Uriah Courtney, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping and rape based upon eyewitness testimony. At the time of Courtney’s arrest, DNA testing did not return any meaningful results. Eight years later, however, DNA technology had advanced to the point where the perpetrator could be identified—and, as the California Innocence Project noted, the perpetrator wasn’t Uriah Courtney.

I’ve read Innocence Project stories before, and the one that sticks most in my mind was the case of Archie Williams, who was released (based upon fingerprint evidence) after being imprisoned for a quarter century. At the time that Williams’ wrongful conviction was vacated, Vanessa Potkin, director of post-conviction litigation at the Innocence Project, stated, “There is no way to quantify the loss and pain he has endured.”

But that doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried to (somewhat) quantify the loss.

In the Uriah Courtney case, while it’s impossible to quantify the loss to Courtney himself, it is possible to quantify the loss to the state of California. Using data from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office 2018-19 annual costs per California inmate, the California Innocence Project calculated a “cost of wrongful incarceration” of $649,624.

One can quibble with the methodology—after all, the 2018-19 costs presumably overestimate the costs of incarcerating someone who was released from custody on May 9, 2013—but at least it illustrates that a cost of wrongful incarceration CAN be calculated. Add to that the costs of prosecuting the wrong person (including jury duty daily fees), and the costs can be quantified.

To a certain extent.