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Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Forensic Science Hall of Shame: Courtroom Experts From Hell

     The inaugural inductees into my Forensic Science Hall of Shame represent the worst of the worst. They are, in no particular order:

Albert H. Hamilton
     In the 1920s and 30s, this druggist from Auburn, New York, professing expertise in toxicology, fingerprint identification, fireams analysis, and questioned document work, testified falsely in dozens of criminal trials. A pure charlatan, Hamilton was caught switching gun barrels in the Sacco and Vanzetti murder case. He also injected himself as a forensic document examiner into the Lindbergh kidnapping case. By then his reputation was so shot neither side wanted to put him on the stand.

Dr. Ralph Erdmann
     Beginning in 1981, Dr. Ralph Erdmann began serving several west Texas counties as a private contract forensic pathologist. During the next fifteen years he performed thousands of autopsies and testified in dozens of homicide trials. Prosecutors loved Dr. Erdmann because he always gave them exactly what they needed. Stupendously incompetent and dishonest, Dr. Erdmann's testimony and bogus cause and manner of death findings sent scores of defendants to prison. While several were later exonerated, there is no way to know how many more of these defendants were innocent.

Joyce Gilchrist
     The damage a single phony forensic scientist can do to the criminal justice system is enormous. Such is the case of Joyce Gilchrist, a DNA analyst and hair follicle identification practitioner who worked in the Oklahoma City Crime Laboratory in the 1980s and 90s. Gilchrist, through a series of unscientific identifications, was accused of sending dozens of innocent defendants to prison. Like the other inductees into the Forensics Hall of Shame, prosecutors found this expert witness extremely helpful in weak cases.

Fred Salem Zain
     A West Virginia state trooper who flunked chemistry in college, Zain began working in the state police crime laboratory in 1977 as a forensic serologist. He later became a DNA analyst, and in that capacity, through his recklessly bogus testimony, falsely linked dozens of innocent defendants to crimes they had not committed. Because Zain was so flamboyant and prolific in his willingness to tailor his testimony to the needs of prosecutors, he was in demand all over the country as a prosecution witness. This was particularly true in Texas. His dreadful career as a phony expert came to an end with his early death in 2002.

Dr. Louise Robbins
     In the 1980s and 90s, Dr. Louise Robbins, an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, testified for the prosecution in scores of homicide trials involving footwear impression evidence. Prosecutors liked Dr. Robbins, who looked and sounded like the "Church Lady," because she always linked the defendant to the crime scene shoe or boot print through a whacky method all her own that had absolutely no basis in science. If Dr. Robbins hadn't died early from a brain tumor, there is no telling how many more defendants would have been falsely connected to crime scenes. Prosecutors would bring Dr. Robbins out of the bullpen when no other forensic expert saw a physical connection between the defendant and the murder scene. I've often wondered what motivated Dr. Robbins. Was she simply stupid and full of it, or did she like the money and the attention? For the innocent defendants sent to prison on her bogus testimony, it really didn't matter what motivated this forensic science charlatan.

Dr. Michael West
     In the 1990s, this forensic dentist from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, through his patented "blue light technique," helped convict innocent homicide defendants by testifying to the presence of human bite marks qualified odontologists could not see. Dr. West later expanded his forensic repertoire into blood spatter interpretation, forensic photography, video enhancement, and gunshot-powder analysis. As a forensic scientist, Dr. West attacked the criminal justice system like an out of control wrecking ball. Several of the defendants sent to prison on the strength of his testimony were later exonerated through DNA analysis. It will take years to sort out the mess he made of so many homicide trials.  

2 comments:

  1. How about Anne Dookin, who wanted to be employee of the year? http://www.cbsnews.com/news/annie-dookhan-chemist-at-mass-crime-lab-arrested-for-allegedly-mishandling-over-60000-samples/

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  2. Then there is Vasquez and Fogg. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/09/07/trial-by-fire

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