FBI's 'Clothing Match' Expert Changed Testimony To Better Serve Prosecutors, Co-Chairs Nat'l Forensic Committee

from the when-scientific-rigor-meets-streamlined-prosecutions dept

A little more than a month ago, we covered the ultra-weird offshoot of FBI forensics spearheaded by Richard Vorder Bruegge. Vorder Bruegge claimed mass-produced clothing like jeans were as unique as fingerprints and DNA. According to his forensic “expertise,” a match could be made using only low-res CCTV screengrabs and whole lot of arrows.

This peculiar strand of FBI forensics is still in use. Vorder Bruegge, rather than being laughed out of the FBI forensic lab, has risen to a position where he can pass on his dubious expertise to others. ProPublica continues to dig into the FBI’s questionable forensic programs and has found that Vorder Bruegge is now sitting near the top of the nation’s forensic organizational chart.

Today, Vorder Bruegge is one of the nation’s most influential crime lab scientists. He serves on the Forensic Science Standards Board, which sets rules for every field, from DNA to fingerprints. He’s a co-chair organizing the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting this week in Baltimore, a gathering of thousands of crime lab professionals, researchers, lawyers and judges.

This has happened due to Vorder Bruegge’s testimonial quantity, not quality. ProPublica quotes a 2013 law review article that refers to him as the “most ubiquitous” expert witness. A quality job it isn’t. But given enough opportunities, Vorder Bruegge has managed to turn unproven claims about the uniqueness of clothing into years in prison for people he’s testified against. His track record shows he’s willing to change his expert opinion if it better serves the prosecution.

In his report, Vorder Bruegge wrote that John Henry Stroman and the robber had similar “overall shape of the face, nose, mouth, chin, and ears.” But Vorder Bruegge stopped short of declaring a match, saying the video and pictures were too low resolution for that.

Nevertheless, prosecutors said in court filings that if Vorder Bruegge took the stand, he would testify that “the photograph is of sufficient resolution to definitively state that the robber is John Henry Stroman.”


It wasn’t the first time, nor the last, Vorder Bruegge’s lab results said one thing and the courts were told something different. Court records and FBI Lab files show statements by prosecutors or Vorder Bruegge veered from his original conclusions in at least three cases.

This is what happens when you care about convictions but not all that much about science. Vorder Bruegge’s background as a geologist certainly didn’t prepare him for a future of staring at grainy photos of shirts worn by suspects. But none of that mattered to the FBI which found him to be a useful champion of pseudoscience who could be used to lock people up.

The entire report is a fascinating, if disheartening, read. Jurors and judges are easily swayed by FBI experts, even after cross examination exposes mathematically-impossible levels of certainty or, in at least one case, Vorder Brugge’s admission he worked backward from the conclusion prosecutors wanted him to reach.

Work like Vorder Bruegge’s is exactly why a prominent federal judge resigned from a forensic committee in 2015. Judge Jed Rakoff recognized the DOJ did not want to fix its forensic problems. It only wanted to give the appearance it cared for as long as it took to sweep the embarrassment under the rug. The DOJ has too much invested in half-baked science and self-made experts to actually clean house and add more actual science to its forensic methods.

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Comments on “FBI's 'Clothing Match' Expert Changed Testimony To Better Serve Prosecutors, Co-Chairs Nat'l Forensic Committee”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Makes perfect, if utterly warped, sense

It is worse than that – convictions of those /not part of the club/ is the priority. If they were just blindly after convictions it would go far better as anyone crooked would get their ticket punched, including the long chain of ‘expert witnesses’ with their outright perjury for hire.

What we have is a "just-us" system where ‘us’ is the police and prosecutors.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Convictions rather than fair adjudications

This is something we’ve long established. The justice system has long been rated by its number of convictions rather than by the number of fair adjudications determined without error. But there are no methods of oversight in place, so as far as most are concerned, a conviction is a criminal contained.

Curiously, we also see acquittals as escaping justice and tough on crime means giving suspects without means little to no chance to adequately make their case.

We do have some nonprofit groups that look to publicize convicts that were exonerated later, but they receive little empathy, as do those in prison when it comes to abuse. Ours is a society in which don’t drop the soap jokes are routine and come up even in children’s programming. Yes, we are teaching our children by implication that prison rape is acceptable.

Our legal system and penal system may be so corrupt from their intentions that we may have to demolish them entirely and create another system anew, because there’s just too many people who benefit from how the system works now and rapturously profit from the mass suffering it perpetuates.

CypherDragon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Convictions rather than fair adjudications

It’s interesting that I should read this now, since some of my friends and I were having a discussion on our current "justice" system.

I’m of the mind that we need a sea change in how we think of prisons and prison sentences. We think too hard about it being punishment, when we should be thinking of it as a means to keep someone from harming society while we learn how to integrate him/her back in to society.

cattress (profile) says:

So without excusing the prosecution’s delight in more junk "science", I can’t help but wonder why no, even with drastically insufficient funding that plagues public defense, credible refute of such nonsense has been presented. I mean, it couldn’t possibly be that expensive to, say, photograph racks of clothing, or have one person model the same clothing items, in the same size at either multiple retail locations or at the manufacturer. Hell, probably could get any number of manufacturing employees to testify accurately about the conformity of their clothes, particularly fabric buyers. This pathetic display of "science", because I cannot call it that, I must use quotation marks, could be disproven by some moderately diligent middle school kids for their science fair project.
I bet if the defendant was a cop claiming mistaken identity the "science" and the "scientist" would be laughed out of the courtroom never to be seen again….

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

The ends justify the means…
Decades of BS ‘science’ getting the result we need to lock the guilty away, refusal to rehear cases even after its proven it is all based on BS because our record needs to be protected.

Now we overlook our taxdollars helping spread and encourage CP being produced.
Our taxdollars pay off women ‘arrested’ & forced to service cops.
Our taxdollars pay off families to avoid trials showing they planted the gun used to justify the shooting.
Our taxdollars pay off families to avoid the public learning they spent 20 minutes consoling the officer who just shot an unarmed man in the head rather than call for medical assistance.

We really need to demand that they start upholding the law & base things on science… I mean we excused the murder of a child because he was ‘demon powering up’ to harm the officer.

When you get carjacked there is less of a chance of the criminal hurting you than a cop just shooting to speed along stealing your stuff.

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