Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Guilt of Scott Peterson: When You’re 50% Sure You Were 100% Right

For the past couple months, I’ve had a feeling of guilt over presuming someone else’s guilt.

This started 15 years ago back when I was the new morning guy at KHOP in Modesto, California. You probably don’t know much about Modesto. If the small city’s name does ring a bell, there’s a 99% chance it’s because you remember the story of the horrendous murder of Laci Peterson. The only thing you could possibly otherwise know it for is it was the setting for the movie American Graffiti. But you’re probably not old enough to remember that movie. I’m not. And I’m old.

My time in Modesto was too long. The people were nice. Really nice. Generous, kind, down to earth hard working people. But the city itself was brutally dull. I have two prominent memories of life in Modesto. A nearly constant breathtaking sour odor of cow manure on the…

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Ross Harris and Criminal Negligence

It’s my current belief that the State has so far failed to prove that Justin Ross Harris intended for his son to suffer or die, indeed the evidence suggests the opposite.

But what about the claim that he is guilty of criminal negligence?

The State alleges that Harris was criminally negligent, that criminal negligence caused the child to suffer ( a felony ) and in the course of that felony, the child died. Felony murder.

Standard examples of criminal negligence involve activities that are inherently dangerous, for example texting while driving a car.

The State may argue that trying to look after a child while sexting women ( a distraction ) is criminally negligent, but I think that is problematic. It’s not at all clear that Harris or any reasonable person would think it’s wrong to be texting while looking after a child. It’s a common thing to do, and there is no law against it ( the fact that some of the women were under-age doesn’t I think make any difference here, as this doesn’t make the act any more dangerous to Cooper ).

The logical consequence would be that perfectly normal activities such as listening to the radio, making a telephone call, thinking about what you are going to have for dinner, all normal activities that could distract you, while caring for a child, could be criminal negligence, punishable with a lengthy prison sentence.

I think that would be absurd. We may want to punish Harris for his failure to look after his child, but if he had not criminal intention, if he was not in the least bit aware that his actions that day were a danger to anyone, least of all his son, a guilty mind, I do not believe he should be found criminally negligent.

See also “What is “Child Cruelty” under Georgia Law?” Pate & Johnson law blog, June 2014,

and “Lawyers’ smart move in hot car death” CNN, July 2014.

Update: 15 Nov, 2016. Harris found guilty of all charges.
See here or here.




On Punishment

Two wrongs don’t make a right – you cannot compensate for a terrible loss by causing equal suffering to the person held responsible, even though revenge is a natural human emotion.
We don’t punish children severely when they make mistakes, even if the mistakes are terrible ( well not any more, look up the case of George Stinney ).
Now I am not saying that adults are children, they should be punished more than children for equivalent acts, plus there is a need to protect the public from offenders who may re-offend. But adults who commit crimes tend to be those who had bad childhoods, who suffer from mental illness, who have some kind of disadvantage.
A day is a long time in prison. A week is a long time. A month even longer, A year longer still. Ten years a very long time in prison. Twenty years an extraordinarily long time. These are harsh punishments, and provided authorities deem that someone has been rehabilitated, and is safe to release, this length of punishment should be enough even for the worst crimes.
This is how Norway approaches imprisonment. I would say it is humane and in the best interest of society.
It also gives some relief to the many people who are wrongly convicted. In my opinion the USA has fallen into a system of “ultimate vindictiveness” where large numbers of people are subject to unduly harsh punishments, often being sentenced to die in prison, being given no hope or reason to rehabilitate themselves. That is cruel.
[ Written in response to a comment here ]

Early thoughts on the Justin Ross Harris case

I believe the police have overstated the evidence in this case, for example saying Harris searched for “hot car death” when that wasn’t the case.

Kilgore also said that there was no evidence that Ross was searching on the internet for things like how long does it take for a child to die a hot car. Kilgore contends that police lied in their sworn statements when they accused Harris of these questionable searches.


That makes me suspect they don’t have anything solid. And it’s a strange and implausible way to murder your son, plus by all accounts he loved his son dearly.

I watched opening statements, and found the defense case to be convincing provided the evidence supports what was said, the State’s case unconvincing ( see discussion here ).

One thing to take into account is that these days some people will view a vast amount of material online on a huge number of topics over a long period of time. To be frank I think that if you did a similar analysis on any number of people’s devices, you would come up with a few “suspicious” things relating to almost any accusation. Unless the prosecution can show not only that various random topics (such as “child free”, a hot car info video) were accessed over a long period of time, but there was some pattern of planning, or incriminating things Harris actually said (typed, rather than reading ), there is no probative value.

It’s cherry picking evidence at it’s finest, and a new development over the last few years as disk storage capacity has increased massively. I think it should be ruled as irrelevant and inadmissible.

Still a long way to go in the trial, my opinion could change, but I am unconvinced so far by the State’s case, and there is at least reasonable doubt so far.

Dialogue about Science Peer Review in the Courts : Scientific American : Faigman

I very much agree with this idea. Just the possibility of peer review should curtail some of the bogus pseudo-science that can contribute to wrongful convictions.

FORENSICS and LAW in FOCUS @ CSIDDS | News and Trends

This is a “how to do it” from Law Professor David L. Faigman at Hastings of UCBerkeley. He shows an extensive review on where the US courts are on this subject and why they are not always reliable. He has some interesting proposals on “gatekeepers” and experts’ testimony.


“Properly done, peer review nearly always involves some level of anonymous evaluation by scientists actively engaged in similar research. If the law could access a similar system of independent evaluation to assess the methods and principles underlying expert testimony, it would produce a host of benefits.”

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Neuberger: A Scientific rationale lends depth to legal reasoning but vice versa? #Forensics

On the other hand, a legal dispute appears to proceed on an almost reverse basis; a legal case starts with already established laws, which each party applies to a series of facts with a view to creating a hypothesis, which then becomes that party’s case, and the judge then decides which of the two cases she prefers. And the validity of published scientific discoveries can be confirmed or falsified by repeating the published experiments, whereas the best the law can do about judicial decisions is a sort of peer review, namely by way of an appeal to a higher court; and as a recent study in the journal Nature showed, peer review is not always a guarantee of accuracy.

FORENSICS and LAW in FOCUS @ CSIDDS | News and Trends

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This is a striking personal account recently given by an English legal gentleman before the Royal Society in London. His career spans formal scientific education, initial research experience, and a professional transition to the law. As of this writing he is President of the UK Supreme Court. He is Lord Neuberger.

These lecture notes are his verbatim account of the conceptual/philosophical voyage through the years and gives all of us a valuable view regarding scientific “binary thinking” contrasted with legal “logic” suppositions and moral proclamations.

Here is a quote of modest reflection:

” I believe that my scientific training has been valuable in my career in the law.”

And then he drops the bombshell:

“The explanation, I said, was plain: it is far easier to switch from a more rigorous subject to a less rigorous subject than the reverse.”

The “takeaways” will produce some insight.

Lord Neuberger (Long read)

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President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Seeks Forensic Info

FORENSICS and LAW in FOCUS @ CSIDDS | News and Trends

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PCAST Forensic Science Questions

PCAST consists of 20 of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers, appointed by the President to provide direct advice to him and the White House on important matters of science and technology.

PCAST has recently begun to explore how best to ensure the quality of forensic science, based on reliable scientific principles and methods, within the criminal justice system.

PCAST members are interested in hearing from the broad stakeholder community on each of the questions listed below in an effort to better understand the landscape of this topic.

Please note that any comments are subject to public release under the Freedom of Information Act, and may be archived consistent with the Federal Records Act and Presidential Records Act, as applicable.

This form will accept submissions until Wednesday, December 23, 2015.

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UK : Police forced to reopen 350 cases botched by forensics officer who lied about credentials

FORENSICS and LAW in FOCUS @ CSIDDS | News and Trends

Stephen Beattie, a senior forensics officer, was suspended and then quit in 2011 after it emerged that he exaggerated his expertise

[This ethical transgression was first reported almost 5 years ago. Seems that this forensic review process described below was not a top priority.]

More than 350 police probes spanning 15 years were reopened after it emerged they had been botched by a senior forensics officer who lied about his qualifications.

Stephen Beattie worked for Staffordshire then Cleveland Police and told both he was a level two fire investigator.

But watchdog the IPCC found he had no academic qualifications in the field and exaggerated his expertise.

The cases reopened included 141 suspicious deaths and 214 arsons .

Beattie, 51, who was suspended and quit in 2011, inappropriately recorded his own opinion on how crimes occurred and did not handle items correctly.

Read more : Chief constable guilty of misconduct resigns amid political…

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When The Shoe Shifts To The Other Foot

I think US prosecutors are far too keen to retry cases.

If a jury cannot reach agreement, then unless significant new evidence comes to light, proof that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt seems unlikely.

I don’t know the evidence in this case.

Lawyers on Strike

So the very high profile prosecution of Pittsford’s Charlie Tan comes to an end in Justice Piampiano’s courtroom, not by a jury’s decision but by the judge’s.

The prosecutors are upset:

“This is appalling. In my 24 years, I’ve never in my life experienced anything like that. This whole trial presented a unique set of facts, but this is definitely unprecedented,” said District Attorney Sandra Doorley, R-Monroe County.

Prosecutor Bill Gargan interrupted the judge at one point. Piampiano told him to stop talking or he would have him handcuffed and thrown in jail. The two yelled back and forth several times as Gargan accused Piampiano of having amnesia – of forgetting some of the evidence that had been presented. Piampiano told Gargan he was offensive.

We at LoS were most impressed, however, by this comment:

“The judge’s decision did not comply with the law based upon the evidence presented,

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