Junk Science Sends Innocent People to Jail

May 2nd, 2018 by Attorney Dan Carman

Junk Science Sends Innocent People to Jail

We’d like to think that if a Kentucky jury convicts a defendant it’s because of the facts of the case (backed by cold, hard science) and the verdict was fairly decided by its members. Though that may be the hope, the reality is that sometimes juries rely on theories, labelled as science but often long debunked, which end up putting someone behind bars. Exhibit A for this problem is shaken baby syndrome (SBS).

SBS became a popular diagnosis in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Forensic pathologists and child advocates claimed that if bleeding at the back of the eye, bleeding in the protective area of the brain and brain swelling were present in a dead child, he or she must have been killed when someone violently shook him or her. Scientists began expressing doubts, and studies showed that the same symptoms can be caused by infections, genetic conditions and short falls.

In a Mississippi case in 2009, a defendant accused of killing his girlfriend’s 15-month-old child asked the court for money to hire his own expert to contest the findings of the one used by the prosecutor, Steven Hayne. The court denied the request and the jury heard only from Hayne, who testified that the child had died from shaking (the defendant stated the child fell from a bed). Hayne cited a textbook that he claimed debunked the criticism of SBS. It actually stated the opposite. Hayne cited a study that didn’t exist. The defendant was found guilty anyway and sentenced to life in prison.

His attorneys filed an appeal questioning the SBS diagnosis, the syndrome itself and pointed out discrepancies in the state’s case. The Mississippi Supreme Court granted the defendant an evidentiary hearing in 2014, but it hasn’t taken place yet.

Judges decide what science is good enough to be used at a trial, but they’re trained to do legal — not scientific — analysis. They look at what other judges have accepted, so if another court has allowed a field of forensic evidence, subsequent courts will too. If someone has been convicted due to expert testimony of questionable validity, defendants need to challenge that evidence. When it comes to refuting expert testimony given in the past, it’s an uphill climb.

To justify a new trial, a defendant needs to establish that new evidence has been discovered that wasn’t discoverable at the time of trial and file his claim within a year of when the new evidence could reasonably have been discovered. If there are ongoing disputes about the validity of something like SBS, when does the clock start ticking on that one-year window to file a petition?

It gets even harder for defendants if the issue is not a field of forensics but an expert who gives scientifically objectionable testimony. For twenty years, defendants have tried to challenge Hayne’s credibility and credentials. They’ve lost nearly every time, even though there have been media reports and defense attorney claims about his work habits, professionalism and objectivity.

Courts want some finality to cases, because if too many convictions are overturned, the public will lose faith in the justice system; but allowing unjust verdicts to stand doesn’t preserve the integrity of our system — only the appearance of it.

If you or a family member is facing criminal charges, you need a criminal defense attorney who knows how to challenge the prosecution’s scientific testimony and use defense experts that can establish that the state’s claims aren’t to be trusted. Contact us today so you can discuss your situation with one of the attorneys at the Lexington, Kentucky-based Carman Law Firm. As criminal defense attorneys with years of experience, we offer thorough, experienced representation.