Criminal Justice

This Week in Innocence

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Last March, USA Today reported that Marquette University dentist Dr. L. Thomas Johnson and a colleague are developing computer software they hope will "legitimize" bite mark analysis. The problem, as outlined in the article, is that…

…critics say human skin changes and distorts imprints until they are nearly unrecognizable. As a result, courtroom experts end up offering competing opinions.

"If the discipline lends itself to opposing experts, it's not science," said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, which works to free wrongfully convicted inmates.

Since 2000, at least seven people in five states who were convicted largely on bite-mark identification have been exonerated, according to the Innocence Project.

Johnson's effort to bring acceptance to his beloved art may have just hit another roadblock—a man his analysis helped convict was released last week.

Robert Lee Stinson walked out of a Wisconsin prison today after serving 23 years behind bars for a murder DNA shows he didn't commit. Lawyers at the Wisconsin Innocence Project joined with the Milwaukee District Attorney's office in asking a judge to throw out Stinson's 1985 conviction today, based on new DNA evidence of his innocence and a new analysis showing that bite mark evidence used to convict Stinson was wrong…

Stinson was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide in 1985 based almost exclusively on evidence purporting to match bite marks found in the victim's skin to his teeth. Since the time of Stinson's trial, new evidence has come to light that strongly supports his claim of innocence. First, four nationally recognized forensic odontologists — David Senn, Gregory Golden, Denise Murmann, and Norman Sperber, who all volunteered their time — evaluated the dental evidence and conclusively excluded Stinson as the source of any of the bite marks found on the victim. Furthermore, DNA evidence corroborated these conclusions — male DNA found on the victim's sweater also excluded Stinson.

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  1. If the discipline lends itself to opposing experts, it’s not science,

    For a minute there I thought this was a global warming post.

    Lawyers at the Wisconsin Innocence Project joined with the Milwaukee District Attorney’s office

    Mad props to the WIP and the Milwaukee DA.

  2. Robert Lee Stinson walked out of a Wisconsin prison today after serving 23 years behind bars for a murder DNA shows he didn’t commit.

    Slightly OT: As an atheist with no hope for an afterlife, no amount of money could buy my forgiveness at having a quarter of my life stolen from me.

    I hope Stinson believes he’s going to play a harp on a cloud when he dies. Otherwise this is too heartbreaking to bear. You’re really on a roll today Balko.

  3. no amount of money could buy my forgiveness

    Not that I’d be against the state giving it a try…

  4. “If the discipline lends itself to opposing experts, it’s not science,” said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, which works to free wrongfully convicted inmates.

    Somebody needs to tell the economists…

  5. JoeX:

    I think what Innocence Project is saying is that you are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. Unlike economics where ( I hope someone’s life is not on the line), the science of guilt must be provable beyond a shadow of a doubt, or thrown out. When you have dueling experts this is not happening.

  6. “If the discipline lends itself to opposing experts, it’s not science,” said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, which works to free wrongfully convicted inmates.

    I have a problem with this statement by itself.

    Global Warming, anyone?

  7. There are opposing opinions in all aspects of our advesarial legal system. Both sides bring in their own experts to argue their point of view.Why is this any different?

  8. ‘Both sides bring in their own experts to argue their point of view.Why is this any different?’

    Experts have privileges not vouchafed to other witnesses. They can give hearsay testimony, opinion testimony, and other stuff which your average witness doesn’t get to say.

    Because of this, there are supposed to be rules in place to make sure the court doesn’t just certify any random hack as an ‘expert.’ The person has to have some actual indicia of expertise. A framed certificate from the Madame Blavatsky Phrenological Institute shouldn’t cut it.

  9. And, oh yeah, those fake experts can all bite me. Even if they don’t, I’ll say they did – it’s a scientific certainty!

  10. What’s the likelihood they try to find the real perp? I mean, if this guy is exonerated, someone else is guilty. It’s not like the OJ case where the prosecution “knows” who did it so has no reason to go after anyone else. Wisconsin now “knows” the guy they nabbed didn’t do it.

  11. Here’s something I don’t get: If a whole bunch of people were convicted based on bite marks that only 1 guy can see, what the fuck is wrong with these people? Does every murderer bite his victim these days?

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