The CSI effect on juries is powerful. The ability of a law enforcement agent to present testimony without any scientific reliability and wrongly convince a jury of citizens guilt is amazing. DNA and other “hard” of scientific reliable (ie repeateable and verifiable) evidence is valuable in the search for truth. But handwriting analysis, hair analysis, bite mark, metal comparison from bullet analysis, etc, etc, etc. are without scientific validation but have been used to convict tens of thousands of citizens, many of them innocent of the crime for which they are convicted.
The human cost of the use of bogus and/or falsified forensic evidence in our criminal justice system is hard to measure considering the tens of thousands of convictions obtained through its use. In instances, such as the one Dahlia Lithwick reported on last fall in Massachusetts, where the malfeasance of one state crime lab employee has thrown into question as many as forty thousand convictions, the human disaster is hard to even fathom.
Much has been written before about the use of “bite mark” evidence and the corruption surrounding it. One of the other widely used forms of bogus forensic evidence has been “hair analysis” in which “scientific experts” have for decades claimed the ability to identify a human hair as belonging definitively to a single accused individual, thus placing them at the scene of a crime with “scientific” accuracy. Though now discredited by no less an interested party than the FBI, no court has explicitly overturned a conviction based on that conviction’s dependence on hair analysis. Until now.
The Case of George Perrot
As Yvonne Abraham writes in this week’s Boston Globe in a must read article, the rape conviction of George Perrot, a man who has been in prison for thirty years based largely on hair analysis evidence, has had his conviction reversed in a thorough opinion by Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Robert J. Kane.
Perrot was charged with raping an elderly Springfield woman in 1985, when he was 17, even though the victim, a neighbor, insisted he was not her attacker. No matter, prosecutors argued: There was other evidence against Perrot — most notably, a single strand of hair found at the scene. On the stand, an expert witness from the FBI testified that the hair, found on the victim’s bed, was a match for Perrot, and that only someone “with a lesser amount of training” would conclude otherwise. In closing arguments, prosecutor Francis Bloom told jurors the hair evidence was so strong that Perrot could be innocent only if police had planted that strand in the victim’s house. The jury convicted him.
‘It is not a close call,’ Judge Kane wrote. ‘Without that [hair analysis], the Commonwealth’s claims of Perrot’s violence were open to several lines of attack conducive to the creation of reasonable doubt.’
The Prosecutors Who Abuse CSI
As was the case with the use of “bite mark” evidence, behind bad science stand aggressive and often corrupt prosecutors. While discredited bite mark “experts” like Michael West, who has contributed to hundred of suspect convictions in the last two decades, many of them in cases prosecuted by the recently defeated and notorious Forrest Allgood, behind the use of “hair analysis” in this case stands another highly aggressive, and repeatedly overturned prosecutor, Francis Bloom.
Kane took the remarkable step of singling out Bloom for criticism. The prosecutor ‘despised Perrot,’ Kane wrote. ‘He referred to Perrot as ‘inherently evil’ and ‘a sociopath’ and scoffed at Perrot’s redemption.’
The judge said ‘such feelings enable a person possessing public authority to shed the restraints and scruples that limit the exercise of power. The feelings allow the official to see the individual as apart from the community of citizens whose rights must be regarded.’
The most shocking indication of Bloom’s over zealousness and apparently personalized vindictiveness toward Perrot is the fact that the victim in the rape in question, who was Perrot’s own neighbor, told prosecutors that Perrot was not her attacker. The victim herself positively denied that the defendant was the perpetrator. Nonetheless, Bloom proceeded with the prosecution, based almost entirely on the hair analysis.
And this was not the only sign of his apparently warped sense of the proper conduct of a prosecutor. According to the Globe, in preparation for Perrot’s first trial, Bloom fabricated a confession by Perrot, forged his signature on it, as well as a detective’s signature, all in an attempt to intimidate alleged accomplices into testifying against Perrot.
A judge called his actions ‘outrageous’ and ‘reprehensible,’ and Bloom was publicly censured. In 2013, another murder conviction was overturned, and the defendant released from prison after 27 years, because witnesses recanted their identifications of him. They claimed Bloom had offered them leniency for false testimony. Bloom, now a personal injury lawyer, did not return a call.
If Massachusetts appeals Judge Kane’s decision, and if it is upheld, the Perrot case may be the first of hundreds that will be called into question based on yet another brand of bogus “CSI” science, “science” often used by the most aggressive prosecutors to patch up weak or even plainly illogical prosecutions. But precisely because of this–that bad “CSI” science and bad prosecutors often go together–it will require all the more journalistic and legal resources to vindicate the rights of those given unfair trials because it is these prosecutors who are most likely to resist the evidence of their misconduct and sharp practices.
The first step, for anyone interested in prosecutorial accountability, is to document the evidence and highlight those instances where the illegitimacy of the evidence and the accompanying malfeasance of the prosecution has been brought into the light of day. Cases such as this one bring the abstract of wrongful convictions of the innocent into focus of the individual subjected to the brutal denial of their liberty by government agents unconcerned with the truth or justice.