More than 4,975,000 pageviews from 160 countries


Thursday, May 28, 2020

Dr. Louise Robbins: The Shoe Print Expert From Hell

     Comparing a crime scene shoe print on a hard surface, or an impression in dirt, mud, or snow, to the bottom of a specific shoe, is not unlike the process of latent fingerprint identification. In many crime laboratories, the latent fingerprint people also handle footwear and tire-track evidence and occasionally deal with the identification of tool marks. Compared to DNA analysis, toxicology, and various aspects of forensic pathology, the identification of shoe marks, latent fingerprints, crime scene bullets, tool marks, and handwriting, involves less science than it does informed observation.

     A crime scene shoe print or impression can be identified as part of a footwear group according to size, brand, and model. In some cases, an impression can be identified as coming from one shoe to the exclusion of all other footwear. Every year 1.5 billion pairs of shoes are sold in the United States. At any given time, there could be as many as 100,000 pairs of size 10 Nike sneakers of a certain model and tread design. There could be, say, 5,000 pairs of these shoes in circulation in the Chicago area alone. The criminalistic or incriminating value of a group identification depends upon the size of the group. These group, or class identifications occur when the crime scene print or impression is not detailed enough for a match to a specific shoe, or when the shoe that made the mark is not available for comparison.

     The most famous group identification of shoe prints came at O. J. Simpson's double murder trial in 1995 when FBI expert William Bodziak identified several crime scene prints in blood as having been made by a pair of size 12 Bruno Magli Lorenzo shoes, luxury footwear made in Italy. Bodziak's testimony tended to incriminate Simpson in two ways: the identification involved a relatively small footwear group, and Simpson, after denying that he owned Bruno Magli shoes, was seen on television wearing a pair. The actual shoes that made the bloody prints were never located.

     An individual shoe, boot, or sandal can be linked to a crime scene print or impression the way a latent fingerprint can be matched to its inked, rolled-on counterpart. Instead of comparing ridge configurations, the footwear examiner looks at a shoe's sole and heel for unique signs of wear that show up in the print or impression. Every shoe that has been worn for awhile is as unique as a fingerprint. The more wear, the more potential for identification.

     Footwear identification, unlike fingerprint matching, does not require a minimum number of similarity points to be admissible in court. The credibility of a shoe identification depends upon the training, experience, and objectivity of the examiner, as well as the quality, clarity, and uniqueness of the characteristics being compared. New methods and techniques are constantly being developed, for example, to lift footwear impressions from dust, and even preserve shoe prints made in snow.

     Shoe prints left in dust, blood, or soot are photographed (next to a reference ruler), then peeled off the surface the way a latent fingerprint is lifted. Footwear impressions are often preserved with plaster-of-paris casts of the depressions. Shoes and their crime scene prints and impressions can be compared side-by-side, or through the use of transparent overlays. To connect a suspect to a crime scene through footwear evidence, detectives need three things: a good print or impression; the shoe that made it; and a way to link the suspect to the footwear. In the O. J. Simpson case, the detectives had shoe prints in blood, but none of the footwear in Simpson's possession matched the murder scene evidence. The prosecution had to settle for a group identification.

Dr. Louise Robbins and her "Cinderella Analysis"

     Fortunately for O. J. Simpson, the world's only footwear identification expert who might have identified the crime scene prints as having been made by shoes worn by him without having access to the actual footwear, had died eight years before his trial. Dr. Louise Robbins, an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, wasn't interested in matching the bottoms of shoes to corresponding crime scene latents. She would have claimed she could identify the crime scene prints in the Simpson case by examining other shoes in Simpson's possession. Robbin's method of identification, a process she called "wear pattern analysis," was based on her theory that no two people have the same shaped feet, or walk in exactly the same way. According to her, this unique feature reveals itself inside the shoes people wear, and in the prints or impressions they leave behind.

     Dr. Robbins claimed she could look at a crime scene shoe print and determine that it had been made by the wearer of shoes other than the one shoe that had actually left the crime scene mark. Her critics, and there were many, called this her "Cinderella Analysis." If a defense attorney had a client in a case in which Dr. Robbins was testifying for the prosecution, that defendant's foot always seemed to end up fitting the shoe that had made the crime scene print or impression. The jury, without access to the actual source of the crime scene mark, simply had to take her word for it. It's not surprising that prosecutors with insufficient footwear evidence, and weak cases, loved this woman. Defense attorneys called her the prosecution expert from hell.

     In her work as an anthropologist, Dr. Robbins had frequently exhibited the ability to see things that her colleagues could not. When working in Africa, she garnered worldwide publicity after identifying a 3.5 million-year-old fossilized footprint as made by a woman who was five and a half months pregnant. Dr. Timothy White, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, who had worked with Dr. Robbins in Africa, characterized her conclusions as pure nonsense.

     If Dr. Robbins had confined her ideas to the classroom, she would have been harmless, and no one would have been greatly bothered by her patently ridiculous theories. But in 1976, when she took her nonsense into the courtroom as a forensic footwear identification expert, people not only started to worry, defendants started going to prison. Between 1976 and 1986, Dr. Robbins testified, for fees up to $9,000 a case, in ten states and Canada. During this period at least 12 defendants went to prison on the strength of her expert testimony. Her career as an expert witness came to an end in 1987 when she died of brain cancer at the age of 58.

     In the year of Dr. Robbin's death, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences sponsored a panel of 135 anthropologists, forensic scientists, lawyers, and legal scholars to review her cases and work. The panel concluded that her identification methodology had no basis in science. Marvin Lewis, a law professor at John Marshall University, called her work "complete hogwash." Lewis, who operated an expert witness referral service, was dismayed that so many judges had qualified Robbins as an expert witness. Russell Tuttle, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Chicago, in referring to Dr. Robbins, said, "Why do we allow this kind of rot, this pseudoscience, into our courts?" FBI expert William Bodziak, who had testified against Dr. Robbins in several murder trials, agreed: "Nobody else has ever dreamed of saying the kinds of things she said."

     Dr. Robbins not only wormed her way into courtrooms, and the hearts of desperate prosecutors, she had impressed juries. She had a Ph.D, taught at a major university, and had been written up in Time Magazine. In 1985, she published a book, Footprints: Collection, Analysis, and Interpretation. As a self-validating expert who used scientific terminology to advance an absurd theory, she came off as extremely confident, and sure of her conclusions. Moreover, some prosecutors portrayed her as a pioneer in a new field of scientific identification. One prosecutor, in defending Dr. Robbins against her critics, reminded the jury that it had taken 400 years for Galileo's theories to gain acceptance in the scientific community. 

Rapists Who Murder

     Although the murder of a rape victim certainly may indicate hostile motivation, at least some such murders may be due to the simple fact that killing the victim greatly increases the rapist's chances of escaping punishment by removing the only witness to the rape. Rape-murders, however, are a very small percentage of all murders.

     Young women, highly overrepresented as rape victims, are also at the greatest risk of being killed by their assailants. Young women appear to resist rape more than females in other age groups. The strong sexual motivation of the rapist to rape a young victim, in combination with her greater resistance, may account for young women's overrepresentation in homicides with sexual assault.

Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, Rape, 2000

America's Invisible Crime

Pedophilia is our nation's most prevalent and ignored crime. It's kept hidden because it's so difficult for an advanced society to accept the fact that so many among us are serial sexual predators who prey on helpless, voiceless children. In denying the scope of this massive and longtime social cancer, detectives and prosecutors allow themselves to believe credibly accused pedophile suspects and disbelieve the victims of this horrific crime. As a result, law abiding citizens who suspect pedophilia within their own families, their churches, their neighborhoods and their places of employment, are afraid to come forward. This is also true of victims who remain silent out of fear of the pedophile, and of not being believed. (Many pedophiles are prominent members of society.) The way it functions, our criminal justice system benefits these insidious serial offenders at the expense of victims who have no voice, victims who suffer in silence the rest of their lives as their abusers continue to offend without consequence. This is beyond outrageous. This is a national disgrace.

A Good Life Is Not Necessarily A Good Story

How to begin? I had always shuddered at biographies that began, "It was a clear, cold morning in mid-December 1830, when the cry of a newborn baby broke the winter stillness." And once you begin, how to tell the story of a life that had no story?

Richard B. Sewall in Extra Ordinary Lives, edited by William Zinsser, 1986

The Stranded on an Alien Planet Theme

Daniel Defoe's immortal Robinson Crusoe is a metaphor for a man stranded on an alien planet. Crusoe is an exile, and exile has proved a perennial theme within the genre of science fiction.

Brian Aldiss, "The Stars of SF Pick the Best Science Fiction," theguardian.com, May 14, 2011 

Sherlock Holmes Has No Real World Counterpart

Sherlock Holmes, in the "Adventure of the Norwood Builder," showed off his powers of deduction with this greeting of a stranger: "You mentioned your name, as if I should recognize it, but I assure you that, beyond the obvious fact that you are a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason, and an asthmatic, I know nothing whatever about you." In the real world of investigative deductive powers, there have been murder cases where the detective in charge inferred suicide from an entrance wound to the back of the victim's head fired from beyond two feet. The performance of most criminal investigators falls between the cartoonish Sherlock Holmes character and the sheer incompetence of the amateur.

Reading Crime Fiction

It is never very sensible to act as an evangelist for the detective story: if someone says, "I've never been able to acquire a taste for crime fiction--who do you recommend I try?" The sensible answer probably is: "Don't bother. If you have tried and you haven't responded, then probably the response isn't in you." It is a pity to have become so sophisticated in one's reading as to have lost the elementary response to fiction as a story.

Robert Barnard, A Talent to Deceive, 1990

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Robert H. Richards IV: The Case of the Rich Pedophile

     In 2005, 38-year-old Robert H. Richards IV resided with his wife Tracy and their two children, a 3-year-old girl and a boy aged 19 months. The heir to a pair of family fortunes lived in a 5,800-square-foot mansion in Greenville, Delaware. Richards, a member of the du Pont family, the people who built a worldwide chemical empire, and the son of a prominent Delaware attorney, also owned a luxury home in the exclusive North Shores neighborhood near Rehoboth Beach.

     In October 2007, Richards' daughter, now almost six, told her grandmother, Donna Burg, that her father had sexually assaulted her several times in 2005. According to the girl, her father had penetrated her with his finger at night in her bedroom. He told his daughter to keep what he had done to her a secret. The grandmother passed this information on to the victim's mother, Tracy Richards. The mother took her daughter to a pediatrician who confirmed that she had been sexually assaulted.

     In December 2007, a grand jury sitting in New Castle County indicted Robert Richards on two counts of second-degree rape. If convicted of these felonies, Richards faced a mandatory prison sentence. Following his arrest, Richards retained the services of a high-powered Delaware defense attorney named Eugene J. Maurer, Jr.

     Having denied his daughter's accusations, Richards agreed to take a polygraph test. When advised by the lie detection examiner that he had failed the test, Richards confessed to sexually assaulting his daughter. He said he was mentally ill and in need of psychiatric treatment.

     In June 2008, attorney Maurer and New Castle County prosecutor Renee Hrivnak agreed on a plea arrangement. According to the deal, Richards would plead guilty to one count of fourth-degree rape. This was not an offense that called for an automatic stretch in prison.

     Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden, in January 2009, sentenced Richards to Level 2 probation. Under the terms of his sentence, Richards would visit a case officer once a month. He also paid a $4,395 fine to the Delaware Violent Crimes Compensation Board.

     Judge Jurden, in justifying the probated sentence, wrote that prison life would be especially difficult for Mr. Richards, and that he would not fare well behind bars. In her mind, prison was for drug dealers, robbers, and murderers, not for child molesters in need of psychiatric treatment.

     In March 2014, Robert Richards' ex-wife Tracy filed a lawsuit against him on behalf of their children. The plaintiff was seeking compensatory and punitive damages for assault, negligence, and the intentional infliction of emotional stress on his daughter and her younger brother.

     According to the affidavit in support of the lawsuit, Richards, in anticipation of a second polygraph test in April 2010, expressed concern about something he had done to his son in December 2005. Richards was worried that he had sexually assaulted the then 19-month-old boy. Richards promised that whatever he had done to that child, it would not happen again.

     Richards' incriminating remarks, sparked by the lie detector test in 2010 following his probated sentence for sexually assaulting his daughter, were not make public until Tracy Richards filed her lawsuit. The new information inflamed a public already angry over what seemed to be Richards' preferential treatment by the prosecutor and Judge Jurden.

    On June 28, 2014, Robert Richards' attorney negotiated a settlement agreement with his client's former wife. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed. No charges were filed against Richards in connection with the possible molestation of his son.

     Had Robert Richards not been rich, he would be serving his sentence in prison. 

Courtroom Psychologists

     As trial witnesses, experts are brought into the courtroom to help jurors understand things beyond their knowledge as laypersons. Unlike ordinary witnesses, experts can express their opinions, which because they are experts, carry extra weight. Through exhibits and testimony, these specialists can point out similarities (and dissimilarities) between, say, a defendant's fingerprint, hair follicle, DNA, or handwriting to crime scene latents, hair, blood, or a document. A forensic pathologist in a murder case might be able to tell jurors when, where, and how the victim had been killed. While these courtroom experts work with physical evidence, and apply hard science to their inquiries, even they don't always draw the same conclusions after analyzing the same evidence. For the administration of justice, this is not a good thing.

     In terms of disciplines and fields of study, the more courtroom experts there are, and the less stringent the legal standards are for who qualifies as an expert, the worse it is for the trial process. Today there are too many trials featuring dueling expert testimony. Instead of helping jurors determine the facts of particular case, the competing experts render the process more difficult, and unreliable. This is why, especially in the soft-science disciplines of criminology (sociology) and psychology, trial judges should deny these practitioners expert witness status. In other words, when it comes to courtroom testimony, we'd be better off if they kept their opinions to themselves.

Psychologists in Child Abuse Cases

     Pennsylvania is the only state where prosecutors are not permitted to call psychologists to the stand as expert witnesses in child molestation cases to help jurors evaluate the credibility of young accusers. Specifically, in cases where victims of sexual abuse waited months or even years to come forward, prosecutors want psychologists to explain why this doesn't mean these accusers are not believable. These expert witnesses, according to prosecutors, can help jurors understand the psychology of this form of victimhood.

     Defense attorneys, on the other hand, object to this form of expert testimony on the grounds it usurps the role of the jury, and the power of common sense, in deciding if a particular accuser is a credible witness. In performing this duty, jurors do not need the help of a psychologists whose opinions on such matters are no better than anyone else's. Moreover, history has shown that too many prosecution shrinks have lost their objectivity by thinking of themselves as members of law enforcement teams. (For a good example of this phenomena, look up the historic McMartin preschool case.)

     As much as I loath pedophiles, and like to see them put away for life, I agree with the defense attorneys on this issue. In American jurisprudence, there are now expert witnesses testifying on virtually everything under the sun. It has become a racket, and it's screwing up the system. Expert witnesses cost a lot of money, and are corrupting the trial process. Some experts will testify for whoever will pay them. Others specialize in helping one side or the other. Too many of these witnesses claim expertise in fields that are themselves bogus, and many come into court with phony resumes. In selecting between dueling experts, jurors might side with the hired-gun who looks the best, or is the most persuasive speaker. A complete phony can look and sound more credible than his or her more credentialed counterpart.

     Psychologists and criminologists should not be qualified as expert witnesses. The jury process, and the criminal justice system, would be better off without their conflicting opinions.

Reinventing Al Capone

     Except for books about writers and the writing life, the memoir has become my least favorite literary genre. I'm sick of manufactured sob stories; celebrity drivel you can get from People Magazine; fiction passed off as fact; revisionist, self-serving history; autobiographical narcissism; and memoirists trying to create something out of nothing. While there are very few of us worthy of a memoir, everybody seems to be writing one, including people with relatives who were once famous, or better yet, infamous. A memoir published in 2010 by Deirdre Marie Capone, the grandniece of the prohibition gangster Al Capone, represents this form of literary exploitation.

     When Al Capone died on January 25, 1947, the author of Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story From Inside His Family," was 7-years-old. During the first six years of her life, uncle Al was doing time at Alcatraz for the least of his crimes, tax evasion. When they released him in November 1939, Capone's brain was partially destroyed by untreated syphilis. He spent his last months on earth in a bath robe fishing in his swimming pool on Palm Island in Biscayne Bay, Florida.

     It's safe to say that the author of this memoir had no direct contact with her great uncle. And even if she had, she was 7-years-old. This book was obviously not written from her journal entries. Nevertheless, Deirdre Capone wants us to believe that Al Capone was the victim of heavy-handed law enforcers who exaggerated the extent of his criminality. The author is telling us that Capone was nothing more than a successful businessman giving the American public what it wanted--illegal booze. Moreover, the man loved his family and liked to cook. If half of what has been written and said about Al Capone is false, he is still one of the most violent and evil criminals in American history.

       As a "businessman," Capone killed his competitors, and anyone who refused to buy his alcohol. Sure, people wanted their prohibition era booze, but they didn't bargain for the extortion, arson, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and first-degree murder that went with doing business with a man who employed more than 600 thugs and gangsters. Having paid-off most of the cops and federal prohibition agents in Chicago, Capone had a license to kill, and he used it. Calling Al Capone a "businessman" is like calling Adolph Hitler a statesman who loved his dog

     Like most mob leaders, Capone moved up the gangster career ladder by murdering people who stood in his way. He killed several men over petty arguments and barroom insults. Those he didn't murder ended up with broken arms, legs, and skulls. At an organized crime banquet he once hosted, Capone beat an associate to death with a baseball bat as he sat over his pasta. And on February 14, 1929, he masterminded the execution style mass murder of seven members of a rival gang in the so-called St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Some businessman.