Prosecutor Who Used Bite Mark Analysis Even The Analyst Called 'Junk Science' Can Be Sued For Wrongful Jailing Of Innocent Woman
from the mouthful-of-garbage dept
A lot of stuff that looks like science but hasn’t actually been subjected to the rigors of the scientific process has been used by the government to wrongly deprive people of their freedom. As time moves forward, more and more of the forensic science used by law enforcement has been exposed as junk — complicated-looking mumbo-jumbo that should have been laughed out of the crime lab years ago.
Tire marks, bite marks, hair analysis… even the DNA “gold standard” has come under fire. If it’s not the questionable lab processes, it’s the testimony of government expert witnesses who routinely overstated the certainty of their findings.
Bite mark analysis has long been considered junk science. But for a far longer period, it was considered good science — a tool to be used to solve crimes and lock up perps. This case, handled by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, contains an anomaly: the bite mark expert who helped wrongly convict a woman of murder — taking away eleven years of her life — actually stated on record that bite mark analysis is junk science.
This case starts with some DNA testing. Supposedly, this is as scientific as it gets. But the prosecutor appeared to have wanted to pin this crime on Crystal Dawn Weimer. So investigators chose to ignore what the DNA evidence told them. Investigating the murder of Curtis Haith, who had been beaten and shot in the face, investigators started talking to party guests who had been at Haith’s apartment the night before. They zeroed in on Weimer even when available evidence seemed to point elsewhere.
From the decision [PDF]:
When officers arrived at her house, Weimer was still dressed in the clothes she had been wearing the night before. She had minor injuries to her face and foot, and officers observed what looked like mud and blood on her clothes. Weimer told officers that she, Haith, and others had attended a party the night before and that she had given Haith a ride from that party and dropped him off at another party. She then spent the rest of the night at the housing community where her mother and sisters lived. Her cousin, sisters, and then-boyfriend Michael Gibson confirmed her story. Weimer and Gibson also told officers that Weimer injured her foot when they were “horseplaying” a few days earlier. App. 87 ¶ 31. And Weimer said that the blood on her shirt and the injury to her eye were caused by a fight with Gibson. DNA testing later confirmed that the blood on Weimer’s clothes belonged to Gibson, and none of the DNA samples collected from the crime scene matched Weimer—in fact, the samples suggested a male DNA profile.
Almost two years later, an ex-boyfriend of Weimer’s (Thomas Beal) told investigators that she had shot Haith and told him that the blood on her clothes came from the victim. Of course, DNA evidence had already ruled this out, which should have made this witness’ statement a bit more suspect. But investigators went back over the photographs taken at the scene and found something they could possibly use to tie Weimer to a crime DNA evidence heavily suggested she hadn’t committed. The first attempt to implicate Weimer failed.
When reviewing Haith’s autopsy photos, a state investigator saw what she believed to be a bite mark on Haith’s hand. A Fayette County dentist analyzed the injury. The dentist first concluded that Gibson bit Haith, but after examining teeth impressions for Weimer, she reported she could not identify which set of teeth caused the mark.
The investigator sought a second opinion and got the one she wanted.
A bite-mark expert then reviewed Beal’s statement, photos of the injury to Haith’s hand, and teeth impressions from Gibson and Weimer. He concluded the bite mark matched Weimer.
The investigation continued. This ended up raising questions about the origin of this bite mark. Some evidence suggested the bite could have taken place hours or days before the murder. The prosecutor went back to the “expert” and, conveniently, secured a revision that turned Weimer back into the prime suspect.
Without reviewing additional evidence, he determined the bite occurred seven to ten minutes before Haith’s death.
The prosecutor went back to the state’s key witness — the ex-boyfriend who was already wrong about the blood on Weimer’s clothes. His story changed. The witness claimed “a black man named Lonnie” had helped Weimer with the murder. But this “Lonnie” had been in jail at the time the murder took place, further distancing the state’s key witness from anything resembling the truth. Somehow this failed to dissuade the state from relying on this very sketchy testimony. Adding this questionable testimony to other questionable testimony from a jailhouse informant — one who claimed the state’s favorite witness was involved in the murder — prosecutors went after Weimer.
The case fell apart immediately. Weimer’s ex-boyfriend recanted his story on the stand, claiming a police officer “kind of like coaxed me along” when preparing his statement. The state remained immune from dissuasion and took another swing at Weimer after the first trial had ended in a dismissal of all charges. The second time around it worked. Weimer was convicted of third-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
Nine years later, Weimer had her charges vacated by a judge who found enough evidence to suggest she had been wrongly incarcerated and imprisoned. A whole bunch more evidence came to light during her retrial. That’s where the state’s bite mark “expert” performed his own Perry Mason move.
The bite-mark expert also disavowed his trial testimony, stating that his opinion that the bite mark was Weimer’s was based on “junk science.”
Also uncovered were letters from jailhouse informants that showed investigators and prosecutors handing out unspecified deals in exchange for testimony against Weimer. In June 2016, the charges were dropped with prejudice, ending eleven years of wrongful imprisonment.
Unfortunately, the ending for Weimer is far from happy. Too many layers of immunity stand in the way of prosecutors, experts, and investigators being held personally accountable for destroying an innocent woman’s life. The prosecutor who led this witch hunt-esque “investigation” — DA Nancy Vernon — will escape some of the claims brought by Weimer. Most significantly — at least in terms of what this post is highlighting — she’ll dodge any responsibility for using junk science to help press a very shaky case against Weimer. According to the court, everyone was still in the bite mark Dark Ages and can’t be held responsible for the collective ignorance of law enforcement forensic techniques.
During the relevant time period—from late 2002 to early 2006—the unreliability of bite-mark evidence was not widely recognized such that “any reasonable official in [Vernon’s] shoes would have understood that [s]he was violating” Weimer’s rights by directing officers to investigate the timing of the bite mark on Haith’s hand. Despite allegations that the bite-mark expert later referred to such evidence as “junk science” during Weimer’s post-conviction proceedings, such evidence was widely used in criminal proceedings during and after Weimer’s trial, see Erica Beecher-Monas, Reality Bites: The Illusion of Science in Bite-Mark Evidence, 30 Cardozo L. Rev. 1369, 1375–87, 1408 (2009) (outlining the scientific unreliability of bite-mark evidence and arguing that judges “circumvent their gate-keeping responsibilities” by “continu[ing] to admit bite-mark testimony into evidence”); see also Brewer v. Hayne, 860 F.3d 819, 824–25 (5th Cir. 2017) (holding forensic odontologists were entitled to qualified immunity when the plaintiffs showed only that the evidence the experts presented at trial in the 1990s was no longer considered trustworthy by later standards and that the experts may have been negligent in their analysis). Thus, based on the law as it existed at the time, Vernon was not on notice that her alleged conduct of directing further investigation into the bitemark evidence would violate Weimer’s rights.
But almost every other claim survives. The prosecutor who ignored the evidence she didn’t like (DNA evidence suggesting a male committed a crime/the lack of victim’s DNA on Weimer) in favor of the stuff she did (bite mark “analysis,” a bunch of jailhouse informants being offered deals) will have to face Weimer’s malicious prosecution and civil rights conspiracy claim without the shields of qualified or absolute immunity.