By Tundun Oladipo

 

 

Various methods of interpreting evidence have been prominent over the last century in criminal court cases.[1] Bite mark evidence, DNA testing, and fingerprint analysis are some of the more prominent methods used by law enforcement in criminal cases to secure convictions or implicate a suspect.[2] These methods are labeled forensic science and claim to use the latest technology to analyse evidence and match them to suspects of a crime.[3] As more wrongful convictions are overturned based on forensic science errors, [4] more researchers and scientists are taking a closer look at the reliability of these analysis methods. [5] Most studies have found forensic science methods, except DNA testing, unreliable.[6]

One method of forensic analysis that has gained popularity in the last decade is Photo Analysis. In this practice, technicians analyse pictures down to their pixels, trying to determine if suspects’ faces, hands, clothes, or cars match images collected by investigators from cameras at crime scenes. [7] The practice in photo analysis is derived from Dr. Vorder Breugge’s article on denim jeans identification. [8] The article asserts the ability to identify denim trousers from bank surveillance film through side-by-side comparison. Denim jeans are believed to have individual identifying characteristics, such as folds and creases, that are generated in the manufacturing process and during normal wear-and-tear. These characteristics may then be recognized on denim trousers and in photographs. [9]

Today’s advanced technology, high-quality imaging, and ability to enhance photos or videos have made this practice of photo analysis compelling.[10] However, these methods, although more recent, are similar to the types of comparisons done in other unreliable forensic sciences and are just as unreliable.[11] The matching of ridges or arcs in denim jeans or the curvature of a person’s body, height, or size of feet from side to side comparison of images is similar to methods used to match curvature or size of teeth in bite mark analysis.[12] The experts that testify before courts make subjective statements and guesses, just like those who testified about bite mark evidence in the past. [13] Dr. Vorder Bruegge, in one case, claimed the button-down plaid shirt found in the defendant’s house was the exact shirt on the robber in black-and-white surveillance pictures. Bruegge said he matched lines in the shirt patterns at eight points along the seams and that the fabric pattern in a plaid shirt worn by a suspect in a surveillance photo generated a “1 in 650 billion match … give or take a few billion.”[14] Similar findings have been found in other “pattern matching” forensic sciences like bullet marks analysis. The National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine found that statements by the FBI lab asserting the ability to match bullets to a gun or match bullets via chemical compounds cannot be accurate.[15] Its report suggested that similar chemical compositions could exist in anywhere from 12,000 and 35 million other matching bullets. [16]

Although newer and compelling, photo analysis shows a remarkable resemblance to past methods of forensic science that are unreliable and have led to a significant number of wrongful convictions. It has drawn less scrutiny because of its relative novelty but is just as dangerous.

 

 

 

 

[1] Office of Legal Policy U.S. Department of Justice, Forensic Science, https://www.justice.gov/olp/forensic-science.

[2] Id.

[3] Kimmy Gustafson, 9 Modern Forensic Technologies Used Today – Forensics Colleges (last visited Nov. 30, 2022), https://www.forensicscolleges.com/blog/resources/10-modern-forensic-science-technologies

[4] DNA Exonerations in the U.S., Innocence Project, http://www.innocenceproject.org/dna-exonerations-in-the-united-states/ (last visited Nov 27, 2022); see Rebecca P. Arrington, STUDY OF FORENSIC TESTIMONY AND WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS BACKS NEED FOR SCIENTIFIC REFORM, UVAToday (Mar. 16, 2009), https://news.virginia.edu/content/study-forensic-testimony-and-wrongful-convictions-backs-need-scientific-reform.

[5] Supra Arrington, note 5.

[6] National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (2009); FBI Testimony on Microscopic Hair Analysis Contained Errors in at Least 90 Percent of Cases in Ongoing Review, FBI (April 20, 2015), https://www.fbi.gov/news/press-releases/press-releases/fbi-testimony-on-microscopic-hair-analysis-contained-errors-in-at-least-90-percent-of-cases-in-ongoing-review.

[7] Ryan Gabrielson, A Key FBI Photo Analysis Method Has Serious Flaws, Study Says (Feb. 25, 2020), https://www.forensicmag.com/561164-A-Key-FBI-Photo-Analysis-Method-Has-Serious-Flaws-Study-Says/

[8] Id.; Richard W. Vorder Bruegge, Photographic Identification of Denim Trousers from Bank Surveillance Film, 44 J. of Forensic Scis. 613 (1999).

[9] Supra Bruegge, note 8.

[10] Shawn, The Rapid Evolution Of Video Resolution – Past, Present And Future, Digital Connect Mag (May 11, 2018), https://www.digitalconnectmag.com/the-rapid-evolution-of-video-resolution-past-present-and-future

[11] Michael Fortino, Latest Forensic Technology, Pattern Analysis, May Be ‘Pseudoscience’, Criminal Legal News (MAY 15, 2020) https://www.criminallegalnews.org/news/2020/may/15/latest-forensic-technology-pattern-analysis-may-be-pseudoscience/.

[12] Id.

[13] Nicole A. Spaun and Richard W. Vorder Bruegge, Forensic Identification of People from Images and Video, IEEE, 29 Sept. 2008, (stating examiners perform their assessments without automation – “the examinations are performed without the assistance of any type of automated biometric technology”).

[14] Ryan Gabrielson, The FBI Says Its Photo Analysis Is Scientific Evidence. Scientists Disagree, ProPublica (Jan. 17, 2019, 05:00 a.m. EST), https://www.propublica.org/article/with-photo-analysis-fbi-lab-continues-shaky-forensic-science-practices; Supra note 11.

[15] Supra note 11.

[16] Id.

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