News 06.09.08

NYC book signing: wrongful arrest and forensic error in a post-Sept. 11 world

Steven Wax’s new book “Kafka Comes to America: Fighting for Justice in the War on Terror,” describes the cases of innocent people wrongfully charged by the U.S. government with committing terrorist acts. Wax, a federal public defender in Portland, Oregon, writes about his representation of Brandon Mayfield, a Portland-based lawyer who was wrongfully arrested as a suspected perpetrator of the 2004 Madrid train bombing after the FBI incorrectly matched a fingerprint from the crime scene to Mayfield.

Mayfield was arrested in connection with the Madrid bombing and spent 18 days in government custody before officials announced that the arrest was a mistake and released him. Wax’s book focuses on the loss of civil liberties in post-Sept. 11 America, but the Mayfield case also reveals the threat of faulty forensics in such a high-profile prosecution.

Wax will be reading from his book and signing copies in New York City tomorrow, June 10, at 7 p.m at

Book Culture

. He will be in Boston on June 11 and Philadelphia and Washington DC on the following days.

View his full schedule – and more about the book

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In another interesting examination of forensic error in the Mayfield case, a 2006 study by social scientists at the University of Southampton illustrated contextual bias in fingerprint examination. They asked five fingerprint examiners to compare the crime scene print with Mayfield’s print, to determine whether the “match” was an error. But they didn’t actually send the Mayfield samples to these examiners, however. They sent a pair of prints that each of the fingerprint examiners had determined to be matches in previous criminal cases. So the analysts were examining their own sworn matches but thinking they were looking at someone else’s debunked error. Of the five examiners studied – three said that on retrospect the prints were not matches. One held fast that they were matches – effectively ignoring the context. Another said there was not enough information. This result, the study authors say, shows that in a subjective forensic examination, the context in which the evidence is presented can influence the result.



Read more about the study here

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