FBI Forensic Experts Claim Mass-Produced Jeans And Shirts Are As Distinct As Fingerprints And DNA

from the evidentiary-clown-show dept

The evidence the feds use to lock people up continues to be laughable. Well, laughable under any other circumstances. Freedom is a high price to pay for bad science, but the FBI seems to believe the tradeoff between lost freedom and junk science is a net gain for society. Judges seem to agree. It’s difficult to challenge the sufficiency of evidence against you, nevermind the underlying “science” backing dubious forensic evidence like hair or bite mark matching.

The gold standards in forensic evidence aren’t even gold. DNA is a hitchhiker which can put people never involved with a crime at the scene just by hitching a ride on first responders. Fingerprints have been considered individual markers for years, but even that assessment appears to have been overstated.

But dig deep enough into the FBI’s forensic toolkit and you’ll find some truly surprising forms of “evidence.” ProPublica has done exactly that, uncovering so-called science that far more resembles faith. Convictions have been obtained thanks to FBI forensic experts claiming mass produced products like shirts and jeans are just as distinct as fingerprints and DNA.

A bank robbery trial 16 years ago was a watershed for such testimony. Prosecutors charged an ex-convict with robbing a string of banks across South Florida over two years. Richard Vorder Bruegge, an FBI image examiner, told jurors that the button-down plaid shirt found in the defendant’s house was the exact shirt on the robber in black-and-white surveillance pictures. The examiner said he matched lines in the shirt patterns at eight points along the seams.

The prosecutor asked Vorder Bruegge what were “the odds in which two shirts would be randomly manufactured by the company, having all those eight points of identification lining up exactly the same?”

Only 1 in 650 billion shirts would randomly match so precisely, Vorder Bruegge said, “give or take a few billion.”

The following image — used in court to send Wilbur McKreith to prison for 92 years — was part of the FBI’s collection of circumstantial evidence, which included seeing McKreith’s vehicle near some banks that were robbed and McKreith spending around $10,000 in cash around the time of the robberies.

Where Vorder Bruegge got his “1-in-650-billion” estimate, no one knows. There’s is no body of work — at least, not outside of the FBI — on clothing pattern matching. There’s no data available detailing the number of identical shirts created during manufacturing runs or how many variations an examiner should expect to find in a lot of manufactured clothes. Nor is there any specific training required to turn an FBI examiner into an expert on clothing features. From what’s been obtained by ProPublica, the only requirement appears to be a functioning pair of eyes.

After Congress passed a law in 1968 requiring banks to have security equipment, most banks installed surveillance cameras. Meanwhile, Eastman Kodak sold the public millions of pocket-size cameras and amateur photographers took billions of exposures of life and, occasionally, of crimes.

Pictures flooded the bureau as evidence. The lab formed a team called the Special Photographic Unit to find information in images and manage the bureau’s inventory of 35 mm cameras. No scientific background or advanced degrees were required.

Unlike other areas where examiners focused on one thing (fingerprints, bullet casings, hair), “image examiners” looked at everything: facial features, clothing, and anything else that might help them make a match. But how much of a match? The FBI was trying something new, using low-quality photos and some unscientific hunch that clothing, ears, freckles, etc. were unique. As of 2005, the FBI still wasn’t offering any formal courses to train its “image examiners,” despite claiming in court shirts and jeans were as unique as fingerprints.

Like anything else, this “science” is prone to confirmation bias. But in these cases, it’s much worse. FBI image examiners aren’t given control images or items to guard against this. They’re only given images and the items investigators believe are evidence, so it guides examiners to inevitable conclusions. The “research” tends to be little more than finding ways images and items match, working backwards from the assumption the item being examined is evidence of a criminal act.

Since the FBI is considered to be staffed with the smartest and most technically-astute investigators and examiners, courts generally have granted deference to their testimony in court, even when they make claims of scientific certainty that can’t possibly be true. The examiner/expert claiming mass produced shirts were unique also claimed mass produced denim jeans were unique, in direct opposition of what’s known about mass production.

[Vonder Bruegge] wrote that manufacturing defects like dropped stitches, where a stitch is missing, are identifying features — the equivalent of a facial scar.

Not at all, said Alicia Carriquiry, director of the Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence and an Iowa State University professor. Sewing machines can drop stitches in a consistent manner, embedding the same set of stitches in garment after garment.

“This could be that the same sewing machine in China is producing a drop stitch in the same position in every last pair of jeans until they change that needle,” Carriquiry said. Thousands of pairs of jeans would have the same feature.

The barcode pattern is unique because the stitching varies between pairs, Vorder Bruegge wrote.

But jean manufacturing has been standardized across the industry for a long time, said Charles Jebara, chief executive of Alpha Garment, which sells jeans under Nicole Miller and other labels. The number of stitches per inch along a seam is much the same from one factory floor to another. “They’re using the same kinds of machines, the same general processes to get that operation done,” Jebara said.

The supply chain for denim jeans is so standardized the FBI no longer does fiber comparisons for denim fibers recovered from crime scenes. And yet, the FBI’s champion of image examining claims [PDF] wear marks and creasing in jeans is unique enough to act as supporting evidence in criminal trials.

This isn’t science. This is jargon-laden hunchery masquerading as evidence. And despite the DOJ’s vows to dial back statements of certainty from its experts, people are still going to jail because someone with no specialized training said a pair of jeans is more distinct than a DNA strand.

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Comments on “FBI Forensic Experts Claim Mass-Produced Jeans And Shirts Are As Distinct As Fingerprints And DNA”

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39 Comments
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Why do they even bother with these fake experts & ‘science’ anymore?

They get good faith exceptions, don’t have to know the law, need the law to be hyper clear that a taser shouldn’t be applied to the cuffed prisoners anus…

They just want some more ‘hi-tech’ proof to get the CSI effect to sway juries to think its real. Its not enough a Grand Jury can watch them shoot someone in the back and plant a gun after the fact on video & still call the shooting justified… we need more faith given to us that we would never ever do this to good people.

Mike A Klepto says:

Okay, now I read this re-write, looks solid as PART of the case.

"matched lines in the shirt patterns at eight points along the seams"

If ignore that, then you’re simply ignoring that the basic pattern matches, which narrows it down to highly likely.

Also, vehicle and large cash spend at same time.

Circumstantial can certainly be accurate.

The pattern I match up here is that Techdirt always finds some criminal to defend. Whether it’s claiming that "Playpen" downloaders of child porn should be let off because no one knew the jurisdiction before the FBI tracking tool informed, or wanting illegal immigrants in without any limit, or defending pirates and pirates sites, Techdirt is ALWAYS for criminals and against the law-abiding.

OA (profile) says:

Re: Okay, now I read this re-write, looks solid as PART of the c

If ignore that, then you’re simply ignoring that the basic pattern matches, which narrows it down to highly likely.

So you backed up their arbitrary "science" with your own guesswork.

Also, vehicle and large cash spend at same time.

Circumstantial can certainly be accurate.

A bunch of separate circumstantial evidence can come together and be collectively compelling. But, if that was the case here than why did they need the made up science?

The pattern I match up here is that Techdirt always finds some criminal to defend.

The pattern I find is that so called "law and order" advocates define criminality in arbitrary, self-serving, overly zealous, and incompetent ways. As a result, they decide that they are justified in using any thoughtless mechanism to fight said "criminality". From what I can tell, THAT is what Techdirt objects to.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Okay, now I read this re-write, looks solid as PART of the c

“Circumstantial can certainly be accurate”

afaik, as ianal …. circumstantial evidence is allowed only in civil court – not criminal court.

In addition, definition of circumstantial does not include any indication of measurement or accuracy. It talks of dependencies, incidental items, and implies lots of reviewed data.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Okay, now I read this re-write, looks solid as PART

Circumstantial evidence is crucial to blue’s arguments because that’s what an IP address is.

He’s heartbroken because judges now demand more information before he’s allowed to extract the life savings of whichever hapless grandparent he feels like looting from.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Remember what was the real justification behind the war on drugs? It was to hit hard on the anti-war crowd and black people.

That idea comes from a single interview with a disaffected former official who had had a falling-out with the administration. It’s never been corroborated by any objective source. Not that that’s ever stopped the conspiracy nuts from spreading it around…

Baron von Robber says:

Re: Re: Re:

Incorrect.

A Brief History of the Drug War
http://www.drugpolicy.org/issues/brief-history-drug-war

Just Say No – HISTORY
https://www.history.com/topics/1980s/just-say-no

Race, Drugs, and Law Enforcement in the United States
https://www.hrw.org/news/2009/06/19/race-drugs-and-law-enforcement-united-states

The War on Drugs is a War on Minorities and the Poor
https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/06/28/the-war-on-drugs-is-a-war-on-minorities-and-the-poor/

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

So… that’s your "proof"? A citation of the dubious Ehrlichman statement and a handful of statistics showing that a disproportionate number of black people get arrested for drug crimes, which proves nothing other than that a disproportionate number of black people commit drug crimes?

Have you ever lost a loved one to drugs? If not, then please go away and let the adults talk. If you have, then still please go away and let the adults talk, because claiming that systemic racism is still a thing in modern-day America disqualifies you from that category.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“Have you ever lost a loved one to drugs? If not, then please go away and let the adults talk.”

Did you just combine an appeal to emotion and a no true Scotsman? Bravo for that. Now kindly fuck off while the real adults in the room get about the business of cleaning up the pile of sick you’ve just made all over this forum.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

No, statistics are most definitely not "proof." What they are is a point of evidence, which may or may not be valid depending on the integrity of the methods by which the data was gathered and analyzed, and may or may not actually support the point which the person citing them is attempting to support.

You can find statistics to "prove" virtually any proposition, no matter how absurd, which is why the term "lying with statistics" is a thing.

(Pedantic note, to head off the inevitable misrepresentation from the usual suspects: I did not in any way say here that statistics are useless or invalid; only that they can’t automatically be relied upon as authoritative, but rather that they provide a piece of evidence to be considered as one of many.)

steell (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Where do you purchase your blinders? I need some like yours that will create an entire new reality.

[quote]A top Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, later admitted: “You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. [/quote]

John Ehrlichman, the man that created the White House Plumbers that broke into the Watergate (perhaps you remember the name) hotel, and led to Nixon’s resignation.

[quote] disaffected former official who had had a falling-out with the administration [/quote]

Really serious fact twisting going on.

[quote] Following Nixon’s victory, Ehrlichman became the White House Counsel. (John Dean would succeed him.) Ehrlichman was Counsel for about a year before becoming Chief Domestic Advisor for Nixon. It was then that he became a member of Nixon’s inner circle. He and close friend H. R. Haldeman, whom he had met at UCLA, were referred to jointly as “The Berlin Wall” by White House staffers because of their German-sounding family names and their penchant for isolating Nixon from other advisors and anyone seeking an audience with him.[/quote].

You ought to work with Trump.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Yes, it was Ehrlichman, and he said it after he had been to prison for his role in Watergate, lost his license to practice law, and got denied a pardon from Nixon. If that doesn’t provide a good incentive to smear someone, I don’t know what does.

But it gets better. According to the fact-checkers at Skeptics.SE, there’s reason to doubt whether Ehrlichman even actually said that in the first place, but either way it’s quite inconsistent with all other known facts on the subject.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

When fiction becomes real, for someone else

Given that the FBI is well known for making up conspiracies to commit terrorist acts, why wouldn’t someone believe they could make up ‘scientific’ evidences? It must be they sound so convincing on the witness stand.

1 in 650 billion shirts sounds so…emphatic. Has there even been 650 billion shirts made, in the history of earth?

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Only eight?

“The examiner said he matched lines in the shirt patterns at eight points along the seams.”

Eight points isn’t enough on a *fingerprint* match – 12 is the minimum to be considered Evidence.

As to Experts in the courtroom… they can be anyone who can sound like they know what they’re talking about to the judge – who may have no clue what they’re on about.

There’s no “standard” to be met for “Expert”.

Altaree says:

They seem to have mixed up types of evidence.

Evidence can prove you weren’t there, prove you might have been there, or prove you were there. The “Experts” seem the think the this type of evidence is binary.

A difference in the stitching or the wear patterns should be enough to definitively that this garment wasn’t involved. A match only means that the garment MIGHT have been involved. It should be considered circumstantial at best.

Bruce C. says:

Playing devil's advocate..

It might be worth actually researching mass-produced clothing for such identifying patterns and how unique they actually are. Are the wrinkle patterns on jeans seams unique or distinctive? Do the fabric patterns on plaid and other shirts line up differently at the seams, depending on which pieces of fabric are selected?

It would be useful for both prosecution and defense if the science behind these assertions could be proven or disproven.

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