Saturday, December 22, 2018

Bloodstain Analysis Wrongly Convinced a Jury She Stabbed Her 10-Year-Old Son.

by Pamela Colloff Dec. 20, 2018


Prosecutors used a forensic discipline called bloodstain-pattern analysis to argue that an intruder never entered her home on the night of the crime and that Rea was, in fact, her son’s killer. She was convicted of first-degree murder in 2002 largely on the strength of the testimony of two bloodstain-pattern analysts.

Four years later, Rea was acquitted at a retrial, after a legal team assembled by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law in Chicago mounted a vigorous defense that challenged the state’s forensic testimony. They also presented new evidence that a serial killer of children — a lifelong drifter who was on Texas death row for a nearly identical crime — had confessed to killing Joel. Rea was formally exonerated in 2010.

Today, she belongs to a growing community of victims: Americans who were wrongly convicted with the help of forensic disciplines allowed into courtrooms despite little to no proof of their reliability. Of the 362 people who have been exonerated based on DNA tests in the United States, faulty forensics contributed to almost half of the underlying convictions.

Like Rea, these exonerees have had years of their lives stolen, and many have struggled to find their place in the world after surviving the crucible of incarceration.


The report criticized a wide range of forensic disciplines, including the analysis of hairs, fibers, bite marks and shoe and tire impressions. Its authors found that many of these disciplines were not grounded in hard data and extensive, peer-reviewed research, but instead relied on practitioners’ personal interpretations. “The law’s greatest dilemma in its heavy reliance on forensic evidence,” it stated, “concerns the question of whether — and to what extent — there is science in any given forensic science discipline.”

The report called for sweeping reform. Yet nearly a decade later, little has changed. In the field of bloodstain-pattern analysis, rigorous research that might determine the accuracy of analysts’ findings is scant. Bite-mark analysis — which, in 2016, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology declared had no scientific validity — is still admitted in criminal prosecutions. So, too, is microscopic hair comparison, an outmoded and dangerously flawed technique that has, to date, led to the convictions of 75 people who were later exonerated by DNA testing.

“Forensic science should be treated like any other consumer product,” said M. Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation at the Innocence Project in New York City. “Before it’s allowed to be used on human beings, it should be scientifically tested and clinically demonstrated to be reliable, just like toothpaste.”


Last year, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions dashed hopes for reform when he disbanded the National Commission on Forensic Science, an Obama-era advisory panel that sought the input of research scientists in improving the standards and soundness of forensic analysis and testimony.


Investigators had little to go on, having failed to do basic police work that might have pinpointed the identity of an intruder. They never dusted Joel’s bedroom, or the butcher block that the knife was pulled from, for fingerprints and did not preserve critical trace evidence on Joel’s bedspread.


From Oregon to Texas, from North Carolina to New York, convictions that hinged on the testimony of a bloodstain-pattern analyst have been overturned and the defendants acquitted, or the charges dropped. As recently as this February, a judge vacated the conviction of a Missouri man named Brad Jennings for the 2006 murder of his wife, Lisa, after evidence emerged that supported his claim that his wife committed suicide. Jennings was released from prison after eight years behind bars.


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