Skeptics in the Pub December 2015

Prison lawyer Emma McClure joins us to talk about The Phantom of Heilbronn and Other Forensic Faux Pas. 

In 2007, in the German city of Heilbronn, two police officers were shot at point blank range. One died and the other spent time in a coma with no memory of the events. DNA found on the police car pointed to it being the work of a female serial killer who had previously stabbed one victim and strangled another. The same DNA was also found on a pistol in France, a needle used for heroin and at the scene of a theft in The Netherlands. In all, the same DNA was linked to 40 crimes over a 15 year period.

Then, in France, the burned body of an asylum seeker was tested and the DNA matched. The so called phantom of Heilbronn had been found. Well, not exactly. It turns out that the DNA actually belonged to a lab technician. Proper protocols hadn’t been followed and swabs were contaminated before they left the laboratory. Michèle Kiesewetter, the police officer that had been murdered was actually killed by neo-nazis. DNA is a powerful tool but the human element needs to be strong.

There are a number of things that forensics teams look at these days, including but not limited to:

– Fingerprints
– Firearms
– Tool marks
– Bite marks
– Hair & fibre comparisons
– Bloodstain analysis
– Handwriting
– Digital records
– Chemicals & fluids
– Human fluids
– Fire & explosives

Claude Jones was convicted of murder through comparison of hair found at the scene. Ray Krone was convicted through bite marks. More on them later. In 1988, Colin Pitchfork was the first person convicted using DNA evidence. In 1989, Gary Dotson became the first person to be exonerated through its use. Since then, there have been 333 exonerations in the US. Only 140 of these people were actually freed, after serving an average of 14 years in jail.

Clearly we need some kind of scientific checklist for all this forensic testing:

– Method/Up to date protocol
– Competent practitioners
– Need to know the error rates
– Need to know the limitations
– Need to know how sensitive the test is (its dynamic range)
– Must have known/control variables
– Needs standard terminology

When the FBI looked at their forensic testing methods, none of them passed this checklist. Yet, there are thousands of people in prison based on this evidence.

When Ray Krone was convicted, he had an alibi and they took the sample of his bite mark by asking him to bite down on a polystyrene plate. He was convicted purely on the evidence of the bite mark. His defence lawyer took a mold of his own teeth and they also matched to the bite marks on the victim. Eventually Ray was released and years later he went on the reality TV show Extreme Makeover.

As for Claude Jones, it turned out the hair sample that was found at the scene and used to convict him, actually belonged to the victim. Claude was executed in 2000 – his appeal for clemency was the last one to be rejected by George W Bush prior to him becoming president.

Author’s Notes

Talk from 01/12/2015 at The Canalhouse

Previously unpublished


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s