1. COVID-19

The Nova Scotia government announced that 13 new cases of COVID-19 were discovered over the four-day gap in reporting through the holiday weekend:

On Dec. 25 and 26 (collectively), nine new cases were reported — six in Nova Scotia Health’s Central Zone, two in the Northern Zone, and one in the Eastern Zone.

On Dec. 27, three new cases were reported, all in the Central Zone.

On Dec. 28 (Monday), one new case is reported; it too is in the Central Zone.

All 13 cases are either close contacts with previously announced cases or related to travel outside Atlantic Canada.

Last night, Nova Scotia Health issued an advisory for potential COVID exposure on WestJet Flight 248 travelling on Dec. 26 from Toronto (9am) to Halifax (12:30pm). Anyone on the flight should go here to book a test.

I’ve updated the potential exposure advisory map:

Premier Stephen McNeil and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang have scheduled a COVID update for 3pm this afternoon.

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2. Dartmouth fires

189, 191 and 193 Portland St. are seen in a Google Streetview image from July 2019. — Google Maps Credit: Google Maps

“There was a series of fires in the early 2000s at the Dartmouth addresses that eventually became the Nova Scotia mass shooter’s denture office parking lot, and no one suspected the man next door,” reports Zane Woodford:

As part of the rampage that became the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history, the shooter, who the Halifax Examiner calls GW, lit several fires. GW had stockpiled hundreds of dollars worth of gasoline in the lead-up to his killings, and on April 18 and 19, he burned down his own home in Portapique along with those of many of his victims, and multiple cars left in his wake.

With those fires in mind, the Examiner looked back at a series of blazes in Dartmouth in the early 2000s.

Through news reports, fire investigation reports, property records and interviews, the Halifax Examiner has pieced together a timeline of fires next to GW’s Portland Street dental clinic:

• May 1998: GW buys 193 Portland St.
• October 2000: fire at 191 Portland St.
• September 2001: fire at 189 Portland St.
• Early October 2001: another fire at 189 Portland St.
• Late October 2001: GW buys 189 and 191 Portland St.
• December 2003: fire at 191 Portland St.
• April 2004: GW ordered to demolish 191 Portland St.

Click here to read “After the Nova Scotia mass murderer bought property on Portland Street, the houses next door burned down.”

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I have an interest in wrongful convictions, and lately I’ve been looking at one recurring theme in such cases: junk science.

It’s understandable how judges and jurors are swayed by flimsy evidence posing as science: an “expert” takes the stand and a long biography is read out listing the expert’s many years in the field and the courses and training they’ve taken. The court even certifies the person as an “expert,” and then the person goes on to talk definitively about the evidence in the case at hand. Often, the expert will say they’re “100% certain” their analysis is correct, or there’s “no chance of error”: the scientific evidence says that person right there is guilty of the crime. What’s a juror or judge to think? They’re not trained as scientists. They haven’t taken courses. It’s unlikely that even a judge has seen this sort of evidence before. So they trust the expert.

But too often the science is complete bunk, and especially when it comes to forensic evidence. To begin, the so-called expert often has no scientific training at all. In many cases, the expert is just a cop who has maybe taken a 40-hour course taught by someone who also isn’t a scientist.

Even when the expert has more training, the supposed “science” is nothing of the sort. There’s no scientific method behind many of these evidentiary claims. The methods and procedures haven’t been rigorously developed, with independent verification or blind studies. Too often, forensic science is based on little more than tradition and folk science.

The foundational problems with much forensic science were detailed in a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report titled Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.

While some of the problems outlined in the report are specific to the US — particularly the “fragmentation” of regulatory oversight between local, state, and federal governments — the broader scientific critiques hold in the rest of the world, including here in Canada:

Often in criminal prosecutions and civil litigation, forensic evidence is offered to support conclusions about “individualization” (sometimes referred to as “matching” a specimen to a particular individual or other source) or about classification of the source of the specimen into one of several categories. With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, however, no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source. In terms of scientific basis, the analytically based disciplines generally hold a notable edge over disciplines based on expert interpretation. But there are important variations among the disciplines relying on expert interpretation. For example, there are more established protocols and available research for fingerprint analysis than for the analysis of bite marks. There also are significant variations within each discipline. For example, not all fingerprint evidence is equally good, because the true value of the evidence is determined by the quality of the latent fingerprint image. These disparities between and within the forensic science disciplines highlight a major problem in the forensic science community: The simple reality is that the interpretation of forensic evidence is not always based on scientific studies to determine its validity. This is a serious problem. Although research has been done in some disciplines, there is a notable dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and validity of many forensic methods.

The report goes on to review particular branches of forensic science involving the analysis of roadside drug testing, shoe prints and tire tracks, bite marks, hair and fibre, paint, fire scenes, and fingerprinting, among others.

My understanding from this report and other reading is that bite mark evidence in particular is completely bogus — there’s no scientific foundation for it whatsoever — none.

Execution of Reverend George Burroughs, 1901 drawing.

This is somewhat of an aside, but the first known case where bite mark evidence was presented, and found convincing by the jury, was in … the Salem Witch Trials. As Radley Balko wrote in the Washington Post in 2015:

On May 4, 1692, the Rev. George Burroughs was arrested in Salem, Massachusetts on suspicion of witchcraft. The only physical evidence against Burroughs were bite marks found on some of the girls he was accused of recruiting to join him. Summarizing the research of historians on the ordeal in an article for the February 2014 newsletter of the New York State Dental Association, William James Maloney writes that at trial, “the defendant’s mouth was pried open and the prosecution compared his teeth with the teeth marks left on the bodies of several injured girls present in the courtroom.”

At the urging of notorious witch hunter Cotton Mather, Burroughs was convicted, sentenced to death and hanged. Two months later, the governor of Massachusetts called for an end to the witchcraft trials. He also prohibited the use of “spectral and intangible evidence” in criminal trials. Two decades later, Burroughs was declared innocent, and the colony of Massachusetts compensated his children for their father’s wrongful execution.

With that inauspicious beginning, bite mark evidence went on to become an accepted form of forensic evidence, replete with supposed experts in the science of odontology who could match bite marks left on skin with castings taken of a suspect’s teeth. It made sense to juries and judges — after all, examining dental records to identify corpses is a legitimate and useful use of tooth comparison.

But over the past decade, it’s been well established that there’s no way to definitively compare marks left on pliable skin with one particular set of teeth, and now courts routinely disallow such evidence. Still, that doesn’t mean there still aren’t people sitting in prisons who were convicted by bite mark evidence.

Cameron Todd Willingham in his cell on death row, in 1994. He insisted upon his innocence in the deaths of his children and refused an offer to plead guilty in return for a life sentence.Photo: Ken Light

Fire analysis has its own long and sordid history, which I won’t go into here, except to note that it’s quite likely that the state of Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham, a completely innocent man, based solely on such evidence.

Other sorts of problematic forensic evidence — including blood splatter analysis, gunshot residue, shaken baby evidence, and more — are explored in a new podcast series called Wrongful Conviction: Junk Science, hosted by defence lawyer Josh Dubin.

One episode of Dubin’s podcast series takes on the sacred cow of forensic science: fingerprint evidence. We all “know” that fingerprint evidence is solid, right? I at least did, until recently. But Dubin interviews a public defender in Minneapolis named Mary Moriarty who is trying to highlight the problems with such evidence:

Contrary to what pop culture has ingrained in the American conscience, matching known fingerprints of a suspect to prints left at the scene of a crime is not an exact science. It’s entirely subjective.

Moriarty explains that, unlike with DNA evidence, there are no population studies backing fingerprint evidence. A geneticist can tell you that a particular genetic pattern will show up on average in one in, say, 100 million people, but a fingerprint expert has no idea how many people might share the same five or 10 nodes of a fingerprint examined.

We’ve all seen how on TV shows like CSI and Law & Order, a fingerprint lifted from a crime scene is “run through the computer database,” and out pops the match! Presto, the computer did it. But that’s not how it works at all. Computer databases might select potential matches, but the actual act of determining whether one print is a match to another is done by a human, who uses something called the ACE-V method (Analysis, Comparison, Evaluation, and Verification). As the 2009 NAS report explains:

Although some Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems (AFIS) permit fully automated identification of fingerprint records related to criminal history (e.g., for screening job applicants), the assessment of latent prints from crime scenes is based largely on human interpretation. Note that the ACE-V method does not specify particular measurements or a standard test protocol, and examiners must make subjective assessments throughout. In the United States, the threshold for making a source identification is deliberately kept subjective, so that the examiner can take into account both the quantity and quality of comparable details. As a result, the outcome of a friction ridge analysis is not necessarily repeatable from examiner to examiner. In fact, recent research by Dror has shown that experienced examiners do not necessarily agree with even their own past conclusions when the examination is presented in a different context some time later.

And the “verification” part of ACE-V is typically just one fingerprint analyst handing their results to a second analyst for review, and not an entirely independent blind look at the evidence. In other words, confirmation bias is built into the verification process.

A fingerprint found on a bag of detonators (A) was wrongly attributed to Brandon Mayfield’s print (B)

There is one misidentification brought about by fingerprint evidence that has particularly highlighted the problems inherent in the field: the case of Brandon Mayfield, who was named as the suspect in the Madrid subway bombings that killed 193 people.

Mayfield, a lawyer in Oregon, had never been to Spain, and didn’t have a passport, but when his prints came up in the FBI database as a possible match to partial prints left at the crime scene, three FBI fingerprint analysts determined the match was “100% verified” and Mayfield was arrested and jailed for two weeks — even though Spanish officials rejected the same supposed fingerprint match. (Eventually, a group of Moroccan and Algerian terrorists were convicted for the bombings.)

As Hans Sherrer wrote:

A federal judge signed the material witness warrant authorizing Mayfield’s arrest based on a supporting affidavit by FBI agent Richard K. Werder. The affidavit’s lynchpin was the allegation that senior FBI fingerprint examiner Terry Green identified “in excess of 15 points of identification during his comparison” of Mayfield’s prints on file with the Army and the FBI, and a “photograph image” of a print recovered from a plastic bag containing several detonators found in a stolen van near where three of the bombed trains departed. The affidavit further alleges that the fingerprint identification was verified by an FBI fingerprint supervisor, and a retired FBI fingerprint examiner with 30 years of experience on contract with the lab’s Latent Fingerprint Section. In addition the affidavit states: “… the FBI lab stands by their conclusion of a 100 percent positive identification.”

A later review of the FBI agents’ analysis found, in part, that they were biased against Mayfield because he had married an Egyptian woman and converted to Islam, and because he had represented one of the Portland Seven, a terrorist cell based in Portland.

What’s the take-away here? If nothing else, I’d like judges, prosecutors, and potential jurors to familiarize themselves with the NAS report, and to become more skeptical of forensic evidence when it is presented in court.

One of the other hallmarks of wrongful convictions is “tunnel vision” — when police investigators get so focused on a particular suspect that they can’t step back and consider countervailing evidence and other theories of the crime. (Tunnel vision was certainly a contributing factor in the wrongful conviction of Glen Assoun.) So I’m conscious that I too could fall into a sort of reverse tunnel vision — seeing every case is a wrongful conviction. So as I’ve been looking through past convictions in Nova Scotia, I’ve tried to apply the highest skepticism to my own review of the cases.

Still, even then, I’m pretty certain I’ve come across at least one other local wrongful conviction for murder, which is in part the result of junk science; I will find a way for the Examiner to write about that in the coming year. I’m additionally aware of a couple of other cases that merit deeper looks.

If readers know of any other such cases, drop me a line; I can’t make any promises, but I’ll do what I can.

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No meetings.

On campus

No events.

In the harbour

05:00: ALS Apollo, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from New York
06:00: MSC Rochelle, container ship, arrives at Pier 41 from Sines, Portugal
12:00: Nolhanava, ro-ro cargo, arrives at Pier 9 from Saint-Pierre
15:00: Atlantic Sky, ro-ro container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Norfolk
16:00: MSC Lorena, container ship, arrives at Pier 41 from Montreal
16:30: ALS Apollo, container ship, sails for Port Klang, Malaysia
18:00: MSC Rochelle sails for New York
18:00: Algoma Verity, bulker, sails from National Gypsum for sea
19:00: Acadian, oil tanker, sails from Irving Oil for sea

01:30: Atlantic Sky sails for Liverpool, England
05:00: Atlantic Sail, ro-ro container, arrives at Fairview Cove from Liverpool, England


The end of the year is an excellent time to subscribe to the Examiner. Thanks!

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. What a doozy of a morning file. So good.

    You know, this makes a really good argument for prison abolition too. If we wrongfully convict people and as a result they get therapy, housing, and food we might feel a little less bad about it.

  2. What’s happened since the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report titled Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward cited by Tim. According to The Innocence Project news report Feb. 2, 2019:

    Over the past ten years, the National Institute of Justice has spent more than $123 million on grants to address the research needs outlined in the NAS report, including improving accuracy and reliability of methods and quantifying measures of uncertainty. This investment has yielded evidence that advanced some forensic science disciplines from their status as ‘reviewed by the NAS report in 2009’ to ‘improved levels of validity.’ Notably, a 2016 report published by the President’s Council on Advisors on Science and Technology concluded that latent print comparison had achieved foundational validity and that firearm comparisons had taken strong steps toward achieving that status. The report also spurred the foundation of the National Commission of Forensic Science in 2013, which operated until 2017.

    Also since the report’s publication, a distinguished group of statisticians, legal scholars and scientists from other fields have collaborated with the Innocence Project on amicus briefs to help educate the courts on the limitations of the forensic techniques outlined above. Dr. Clifford Spiegelman, a signatory of these amicus briefs and a distinguished professor of statistics at Texas A&M, observed:

    Research scientists who challenged foundational aspects of forensic science before the NAS report was published were often dismissed. The report not only provided a critical scientific consensus that supported our concerns, but it is advancing science to change lives. In my home state of Texas, it has led to the courts to abandon bite mark evidence and exonerate Steven Chaney, who spent 28 years in prison for a crime he did not commit…. Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, who supported the implementation of a court rule in Michigan that allows post-judgment motions for relief based on new scientific evidence, acknowledges the far-reaching impact the report has had within both the legal and scientific fields: Today, forensic science conversations between criminal justice and scientific stakeholders around the world begin with the NAS report. The forensic science field has experienced an evolution that would not have been possible without the report’s publication. Innocent people have been freed from prison, and consequently, the people who actually committed the crimes have been identified. The forensic science community has partnered with researchers to conduct research, improve forensic testing standards and implement new quality management practices….

    Ten Years Later: The Lasting Impact of the 2009 NAS Report

    If you want good science, you gotta pay for it.

  3. Forensic psychology has a long history of questionable findings, including the Satanic Abuse and Recovered Memory cases of decades ago. Those cases continue to fuel conspiracy theories (Pizzagate an obvious example) as well as custody battles where parents pay huge sums to forensic psychologists to prove the other parent is harmful. In civil cases, where the burden of proof is lower and the judges err in favour of child protection, scepticism of forensic psychology evidence is often absent.

  4. “Unlike any other single scientific discovery, advances in DNA technology have improved how we investigate cases and interpret forensic evidence. Because DNA can provide factually irrefutable evidence in some cases, the idea that innocent people can be found guilty has gained more awareness and acceptance over the past two decades. As a result, we have come to learn more about erroneous convictions.

    Nonetheless, the use of forensic science has also been linked with wrongful convictions in past cases and characterized in the media and legal reviews as “faulty,” “misleading,” and “junk science.” Forensic science — when incorrectly perceived as a single discipline — causes observers to conflate matters and acquire their own misperceptions about all forensic science disciplines. Moreover, there can be a variety of methods within a single forensic discipline — and it is often a method, not the entire discipline, that may have been improperly applied or interpreted. Even more pervasive, references to wrongful convictions in the popular media do not cite scholarly articles and often rely on other media articles and unverified sources.”

    Wrongful Convictions and DNA Exonerations: Understanding the Role of Forensic Science

  5. So glad you are looking into this Tim.
    I wonder what percentage prisoners were wrongfully convicted? The courts don’t know of course but that percentage is unlikely to be zero.

    A court of law is generally considered the best investigation into a crime society can offer, and courts must be deemed infallible by a corrections system to which those convicted are consigned. Corrections will further punish those protesting their innocence for “failing to take responsibility” or “lacking remorse” for offenses for which they were convicted. Prisoners can be denied parole over this and I’m sure pressure is applied in some cases to make people who were (unknown to the correctional system) wrongfully convicted to confess to crimes which in fact they did not commit in return for conditional freedom. That’s not justice.

    I especially wonder about psychological evaluations which seem entirely subjective but can have a huge influence on a court outcome. In my university science days it seemed like psychology was so subjective and permeated by well intentioned but effectively un-testable theories that to me it really didn’t rate as a “hard” science like math, physics or chemistry. Yet the courts seem to hold it in the same esteem as any other science.

    At least polygraph conclusions are not admissible in court, yet they are widely used outside for employment purposes and police investigations. If they are not considered reliable for court, why are they good enough for police who might well use them to press charges or to steer investigations?

    Crimes really are committed and somehow those who do should be punished. Verifiably reliable scientific analysis is needed. Look how many Americans on death row were vindicated after DNA evidence became available.

    IMHO Tim a thorough investigation into this issue alone is worth the Examiner subscription cost.