Category Archives: Noteworthy

Charts of the day: The global migrant death toll


From the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project:

blog-migrants

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Forensic criminal science based on very few facts


If you watch American television, you know one thing for certain: The wonks and wizards in the nation’s crime labs employ that latest infallible scientific tools to find and incarcerate serial killers, arsonists, and other doers of dastardly deeds.

Reassuring, no?

Especially if you’re sitting on a jury a deciding on the fate of the man or woman in the dock, a decision that could, perhaps, lead to a lethal injection.

But you would be wrong to place unquestioning faith in those crime lab wizards, for unlike the televised version of forensic science, the realty is a shabby simulacrum of the glib screenwriter’s version.

And while wealthy criminals can afford their own forensic guns for hire, poor defendants relying on cash-strapped public defenders stand little chance of rebutting the men and women in the white coats, adding yet another element of injustice to American criminal jurisprudence.

We witnessed the process first-hand in our years of reporting on the courts.

We offer two dissections of forensic science from two leading legal scholars.

First up, a Young Turks interview with the the dean of the UCLA Law school:

Is Some Forensic Science “Junk” Science? Jennifer Mnookin Interview With Malcolm Fleschner

Program notes:

Malcolm Fleschner of The Young Turks interviews Jennifer Mnookin, Dean of the UCLA School of Law. Malcolm and Dean Mnookin discuss why hopelessly faulty forensic science is going unchallenged in courtrooms across the country and being used to put countless innocent defendants in prison.

Bite marks are bunk, even fingerprints questionable

Another detailed debunking comes from Jessica Gabel Cino, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Law, Georgia State University, writing in the open source academic journal, The Conversation:

Forensic science has become a mainstay of many a TV drama, and it’s just as important in real-life criminal trials. Drawing on biology, chemistry, genetics, medicine and psychology, forensic evidence helps answer questions in the legal system. Often, forensics provides the “smoking gun” that links a perpetrator to the crime and ultimately puts the bad guy in jail.

Shows like “CSI,” “Forensic Files” and “NCIS” cause viewers to be more accepting of forensic evidence. As it’s risen to ubiquitous celebrity status, forensic science has become shrouded in a cloak of infallibility and certainty in the public’s imagination. It seems to provide definitive answers. Forensics feels scientific and impartial as a courtroom weighs a defendant’s possible guilt – looking for proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

But the faith the public and the criminal justice system place in forensic science far outpaces the amount of trust it deserves.

For decades, there have been concerns about how the legal system uses forensic science. A groundbreaking 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences finally drew the curtain back to reveal that the wizardry of forensics was more art than science. The report assessed forensic science’s methods and developed recommendations to increase validity and reliability among many of its disciplines.

These became the catalyst that finally forced the federal government to devote serious resources and dollars to an effort to more firmly ground forensic disciplines in science. After that, governmental agencies, forensic science committees and even the Department of Defense responded to the call. Research to this end now receives approximately US$13.4 million per year, but the money may not be enough to prevent bad science from finding its way into courtrooms.

This fall, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its own report on forensic science. It’s a more pronounced acknowledgment that the discipline has serious problems that require urgent attention. Some scientific and legal groups are outraged by or doubtful of its conclusions; others have praised them.

As someone who has taught forensic evidence for a decade and dedicated my legal career to working on cases involving forensic science (both good and bad), I read the report as a call to address foundational issues within forensic disciplines and add oversight to the way forensic science is ultimately employed by the end user: the criminal justice system.

Is any forensic science valid?

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recognized ongoing efforts to improve forensic science in the wake of the 2009 NAS report. Those efforts focused on policy, best practices and research around forensic science, but, as with any huge undertaking, there were gaps. As PCAST noted, forensic science has a validity problem that is in desperate need of attention.

PCAST focused on what’s colloquially termed “pattern identification evidence” – it requires an examiner to visually compare a crime scene sample to a known sample. PCAST’s big question: Are DNA analysis, bite marks, latent fingerprints, firearms identification and footwear analysis supported by reproducible research, and thus, reliable evidence?

They were looking for two types of validity. According to PCAST, foundational validity means the forensic discipline is based on research and studies that are “repeatable, reproducible, and accurate,” and therefore reliable. The next step is applied validity, meaning the method is “reliably applied in practice.” In other words, for a forensic discipline to produce valid evidence for use in court, there must be (1) reproducible studies on its accuracy and (2) a method used by examiners that is reproducible and accurate.

Among the forensic science they assessed, PCAST found single-sourced DNA analysis to be the only discipline that was valid, both foundationally and as applied. They found DNA mixture evidence – when DNA from more than one person is in a sample, for instance from the victim and the perpetrator, multiple perpetrators or due to contamination – to be only foundationally valid. Same with fingerprint analysis.

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Predicting Trump’s rise in the Weimar America


The late Richard Rorty’s title was Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, but he was so much more.

He was one of the most brilliant philosophers America has produced, a prodigy who won admittance into the University of Chicago at the ripe old age of 14, when he received by bachelor’s and master’s degrees, then won his Ph.D. at Yale. He was also awarded the MacArthur Foundation “genus award,” and taught at Princeton for two decades before migrating West.

Rorty was also a theorist of consciousness, and his writings on the subject have been cited by numerous psychologists and evolutionary theorists, and provided our own introduction to this seminal 20th Century thinker.

All-in-all, impressive credentials.

But it is a quotation from Rorty’s final book, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, which has captured the attention of many in the days since we were presented with the reality of a President Donald Trump.

From page 89 comes a prescient prediction, a perfecting synopsis both of Trump’s victory and Clinton’s loss, coupled with a stark warning:

Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

Sadly, Rorty died nine years before his prediction came to pass. We’d’ve loved to hear his comments on the ascendancy of President Pussygrabber.

Another group cheered by Trump’s election: ISIS


Yep, they see him as their best recruiting tool in years.

From Reuters:

A top Islamic State commander has warned how the election of Donald Trump will make it easier to recruit thousands of jihadists to their cause.

Abu Omar Khorasani, a top IS commander in Afghanistan, told Reuters, Mr Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail against Muslims could be used as a propaganda tool to bring new fighters to their battlefields.

Taliban commanders and Islamic State supporters claim Mr Trump’s call for a total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States will aid their recruitment efforts, especially for disaffected youth in the West.

“This guy is a complete maniac,” Khorasani said.

“His utter hate towards Muslims will make our job much easier because we can recruit thousands.”

When ISIS calls a guy a maniac, you know he’s really out there.

A socialist analysis of the roots of Campaign 2016


If history teaches us anything, it’s that the best analyses of political conditions within a nation usually come from outsiders, with Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America the shining example.

Consider this excerpt from Volume II of the French nobleman and diplomat’s magnum opus, written in 1840 and foreshadowing not only the Civil War but the divisions surfacing in Campaign 2016:

The weak rarely have confidence in the justice and reason of the strong. So the states that are growing less quickly than the others cast a look of distrust and envy on those that fortune favors. From that comes this profound malaise and this vague uneasiness that you notice in one part of the Union, and that contrast with the well-being and confidence that reign in the other. I think that the hostile attitude taken by the South has no other causes.

The men of the South are of all Americans those who should most hold on to the Union, for they are the ones who above all would suffer from being abandoned to themselves; but they are the only ones who threaten to break the bond of the confederation. What causes that? It is easy to say: the South, which provided four Presidents to the confederation; which knows today that federal power is escaping from it; which each year sees the number of its representatives to Congress decrease and those of the North and of the West increase; the South, populated by ardent and irascible men, is getting angry and is becoming uneasy. It looks at itself with distress; examining the past, it wonders each day if it is not oppressed. If it comes to find that a law of the Union is not clearly favorable to it, it cries out that it is being abused by force; it complains ardently, and if its voice is not heard, it becomes indignant and threatens to withdraw from a society whose costs it bears, without getting any profits.

The socialist analysis

One group of outsiders, Americans with socialist sympathies, cam surprising close to capturing the Democratic presidential nomination.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders were, by and large, young and alienated from a system which has seen wealth concentrate to unprecedented levels, with millionaires and billionaires controlling national and state legislatures and the White House itself.

[In the present campaign, we are seen one candidate worth a nine-figure fortune battling another with a fortune estimated in the ten-figure range. Meanwhile, the college-educated young are facing a lifetime of indentured servitude simply to pay off the costs of their college educations.]

And now for an excerpt from a trenchant analysis of America’s political duopolistic impasse from the World Socialist Web Site:

Both campaigns insult the intelligence of the American people. Trump appeals to raw anger, denouncing his opponent as a criminal who should be put in jail. Clinton and the Democrats alternate between portraying Trump as a sexual predator and smearing him as a tool of Moscow. Neither offers any serious program for improving the living standards and social conditions of the working class, the vast majority of the American people.

The election campaign is one more sign of the profound dysfunction of the US political system, in which two corporate-controlled parties, each defending the interests of the super-rich, enjoy a political monopoly. . .The two-party system leaves working people disenfranchised.

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Abby Martin tackles John Podesta and his emails


In one of her most important efforts yet, Abby Martin digs beneath the rhetoric to show the real importance of the cache of Wikileaked emails from the account of Democratic National Committee chair John Podesta.

What she reveals is the heart of darkness beating beneath the skin of the American political system, the same system that has given us a presidential race pitting the two most unpopular candidates since polling began.

In an attempt to discredit the emails and what they reveal, the mainstream media have presented without questioning claims that the hack was executed at the behest of the Russian government without offering any verification for their assertion.

But no less than James Bamford, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst and attorney who became the most distinguished journalist ever to cover and blow the lid off illegal spying programs by the National Security Agency, Bamford questioned the government’s claims in an incisive essay for Reuters, where he writes:

The problem with attempting to draw a straight line from the Kremlin to the Clinton campaign is the number of variables that get in the way. For one, there is little doubt about Russian cyber fingerprints in various U.S. campaign activities. Moscow, like Washington, has long spied on such matters. The United States, for example, inserted malware in the recent Mexican election campaign. The question isn’t whether Russia spied on the U.S. presidential election, it’s whether it released the election emails.

Then there’s the role of Guccifer 2.0, the person or persons supplying WikiLeaks and other organizations with many of the pilfered emails. Is this a Russian agent? A free agent? A cybercriminal? A combination, or some other entity? No one knows.

There is also the problem of groupthink that led to the war in Iraq. For example, just as the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and the rest of the intelligence establishment are convinced Putin is behind the attacks, they also believed it was a slam-dunk that Saddam Hussein had a trove of weapons of mass destruction.

Consider as well the speed of the political-hacking investigation, followed by a lack of skepticism, culminating in a rush to judgment.

But what is certain, beyond question, is that John Podesta represents everything that’s wrong about American politics, where claims of democratic openness are belief by secret deals in which big banks and powerful corporations, not workers and their families, are the real beneficiaries.

And Abby Martin is on the story.

From teleSUR English:

The Empire Files: Abby Martin Exposes John Podesta

Program notes:

With the Wikileaks release of thousands of emails belonging to John Podesta, very little is known in US society about Podesta himself. While he’s maintained a low profile, John Podesta is actually considered one of Washington’s biggest players, and one of the most powerful corporate lobbyists in the world.

In this episode of The Empire Files, Abby Martin explores John Podesta’s political rise, his vast network of corporate connections and his think tank “Center for American Progress.” Learn why the Podestas and the Clintons are a match made in ruling class heaven.

Headline of the day: A striking intervention


From TheLocal.es:

No more homework! Spanish parents go on strike

  • Children have long complained about homework but parents in Spain are now joining in and have decided to go on strike against their offspring’s school load for the whole month of November.
  • Called by the Spanish Alliance of Parents’ Associations (CEAPA), a network that covers some 12,000 state schools across the country, the strike targets weekend homework for primary and high school students.
  • Jose Luis Pazos, president of the CEAPA, told AFP Wednesday parents had launched the unprecedented initiative due to “the absolute certainty that homework is detrimental” to children, damaging their extra-curricular development.