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.