Tag: criminal defense

Criminal LawExpert WitnessForensic PsychiatryFraudUncategorized

Elizabeth Holmes Fraud Trial: Mental Disease & Defect Defense

Before Nikola and the Trevor Milton scandal, there was a prominent blood-testing startup called Theranos. Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, currently faces a criminal fraud trial.

If you’ve been tuning into business news recently, the latest scandal with Nikola, a electric-powered truck manufacturer, and its founder, Trevor Milton, is no surprise to you.

For those who have not been following along, a quick summary is as follows: Nikola (NKLA) recently became a publicly traded company alleging they had hydrogen fuel cell (battery) technology that would revolutionize the trucking business. The stock did well after IPO. Nikola then did a multi-billion dollar deal with General Motors. The stock went higher. A few days after the GM deal, a short-seller released a report that accused them of a being an intricately constructed fraud. The founder, Trevor Milton, contested the accusations on social media and asked for time so he could rebut all of the allegations. Within a couple of days he went silent, was removed as executive chairman, and deactivated his social media accounts. It has been widely reported that both the SEC and DOJ are conducting investigations related to his actions and claims as founder and executive chairman.

I share that story because some news agencies have suggested Trevor Milton’s story is similar to that of Theranos founder and CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. Ms. Holmes is now facing a criminal fraud trial and she is the focus of our our post today. Stay tuned next week for some further discussion on the issues surrounding Nikola.

Background:

Elizabeth Holmes founded a privately held biotechnology company called Theranos. The company intended to revolutionize blood tests, with just a drop of blood. No more needles and vials, just a small drop of blood, and the tests results would be available rapidly. Ultimately, they failed to deliver tangible results and led consumers to believe false promises. After receiving more than $700 million in private investment, the company began falling apart.

In Spring 2018, Holmes was charged with fraud by the SEC, as reported by Bloomberg. This being a civil action, Holmes settled it without admitting any of the allegations. The settlement required her to relinquish her shares to the company and abstain from being an officer or director of a public company for a period of 10 years. There was also a fine, according to Barron’s. To the best of my recollection, Ms. Holme’s settled with the SEC on the same day she was charged.

In the Summer of 2018, the US Attorney’s office filed charges against Holmes’ for conspiracy and wire fraud, as reported by CNN. This criminal indictment is the inspiration for this blog post.

For more than 2 years, we’ve followed the developments in the criminal prosecution of Elizabeth Holmes, wondering if it would lead us to an interesting analysis from an expert witness perspective. In September of 2020, I found this article from the New York Daily News. It seems Ms. Holmes is preparing for the use of a “mental disease or defect” defense.

More specifically, the article from the New York Daily News, indicated the judge had assigned a neuropsychologist and psychiatrist to conduct a two-day, 14 hour evaluation of Ms. Holmes. Additionally, this evaluation is to be recorded. Now, I had never heard of psychological evaluation being this long and I worked in the mental health field for years before joining Experts.com.

To the best of my knowledge, I had not heard about the “mental disease or defect” defense since law school. I remembered it as a mitigating factor to a crime. Something we learned about when we learned about defenses and factors related to defenses.

So, I did what I usually do with these blog posts, and reached out to the experts. This time, I thought it would be good to get insights from a federal public defender and a psychiatrist.

First, let’s see get a view of the legal opinion…

Analysis from Federal Defense Attorney, Diego Alcalá-Laboy:

Diego Alcalá-Laboy is a criminal defense attorney with his own practice Defensoria Legal, LLC, in Puerto Rico, where he represents federal criminal defendants and advises startups. He is also an adjunct professor at the Inter-American University, School of Law and teaches the Federal Evidence and Federal Criminal Procedure courses at the University of Puerto Rico Law School’s Federal Bar Review.

Nick Rishwain: Why would one use a defense of “mental disease” and what impact might it have on the case?

Diego Alcala: A prosecutor must prove that a defendant intended to commit an act (mens rea), and that he committed the act (actus rea). And most crimes require that the defendant acted intelligently, knowingly, or willfully, and on some occasions recklessly or negligently. The type of “mens rea” a crime requires is defined by Congress and the interpretations given by the courts. On some occasions, an offense may not even require a mens rea, such as with strict liability offenses.

Crimes may have different elements, and a prosecutor may have to prove that the defendant had the required mens rea to commit each element of the offense. If the prosecutor cannot prove this, the defendant may be found not guilty.

Congress also recognized that a defendant may show that because of a medical defect he was unable to appreciate the nature and quality of his or her acts because of a severe mental disease or defect. After the John Hinkley trial, Congress amended its statutes and eliminated the affirmative defense of diminished capacity but allowed a defendant the possibility to attack an element of an offense because of a mental condition.

This is a lot harder than it sounds. The Courts are the gatekeepers of the any scientific testimony intended to be presented at trial. Therefore, whenever a defense of mental defect is offered by a defendant, the Court must ensure that the evidence offered is grounded in sufficient scientific support. This scientific evidence then must be scientifically sound and must also show that the medical condition negates mens rea of an element of the offense. So, a defense of mental defect, if grounded on scientific basis, and shows that it negates an element of the charged crime, will clear the defendant from a particular case.

NR: Have you ever seen a “mental disease” defense used in a criminal fraud matter?

DA: I have never seen a mental disease defense presented before. But I did find some cases where the defense tried to introduce this type of evidence but was ruled inadmissible because it did not satisfy the Court that the proffered evidence: a) was based on sound scientific principles, or b) even if it was based on sound principles, it failed to negate mens rea for the element(s) of the offense. In fraud cases, a defendant is accused of committing some type of false representation. It follows that the evidence of mental disease must show that if his/her medical condition can be logically connected to a subjective belief that his/her assertions were not false, baseless, or reckless vis-a-vis the truth.[1] I have not found a fraud case in which the defense has been able to overcome this burden.

NR: If it is established that Elizabeth Holmes is suffering from “mental disease,” can she still be held criminally liable for her actions?

DA: If a defendant presents a successful mental disease defense, the federal law states that she will be found not guilty. But a finding of not guilty does not necessarily mean that she is free to leave. A determination of not guilty by reason of mental defect will then place a defendant in a “suitable facility” and may be release only after showing that she is no longer a threat.

NR: Does a “mental disease” defense have much success in federal criminal trials?

DA: As mentioned, I have not found a successful case, and primarily the difficulty lies in the very narrow type of cases that may meet the discussed admissibility standard. Even if she can get this evidence into trial, it is still up to the jury to accept this defense.


Now that we have some idea of the application of the law for fraud in federal criminal cases, we need to review the science as outlined by Mr. Alcalá.

Analysis from Forensic Psychiatrist and Expert Witness Dr. Sanjay Adhia:

Dr. Sanjay Adhia is triple-Board-Certified in Forensic Psychiatry, Brain Injury Medicine, and Psychiatry. Dr. Adhia serves as a Psychiatrist and Brain Injury Medicine specialist at TIRR Hermann Memorial, a Rehabilitation and Research hospital treating those with brain and spinal cord injuries and psychiatric elements of their injury and recovery. In private forensic practice he conducts Independent Medical Examinations (IMEs), and renders his opinions by report and testimony. Dr. Adhia serves on the faculty of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. You can visit his website at: forensicpsychiatrynow.com.

Nick Rishwain: According to the psychiatric community, what constitutes “mental disease” and “mental defect?”

Sanjay Adhia, MD: These are more legal terms rather than actual formal psychiatric definitions.

According to Merriam-Webster, the legal definition of “mental disease” is “an abnormal mental condition that interferes with mental or emotional processes and internal behavioral control and that is not manifest only in repeated criminal or antisocial conduct”.

Examples would include Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective Disorder and Bipolar Disorder which are considered Severe Mental Illness (SMI). These conditions may lead to psychiatric hospitalization. The conditions maybe associated with and loss of touch with reality and a lack of volitional control.

“Mental defect,” on the other hand, is defined by Merriam-Webster as a “an abnormal mental condition (as mental retardation) that may be of a more fixed nature than a mental disease”.   “Fixed” disorders would include Intellectual Developmental Disorder (IDD; formerly known as mental retardation), Autism and Brain Injury. According to this definition, Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) would be excluded. ASPD is marked by a tendency to lie, break laws, and act impulsively. It shares some features with psychopathy or sociopathy. A number of states do not permit the use of ASPD in the insanity defense.[2] Allowing ASPD would have unintended repercussions. For example, it could potentially permit a defendant like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer to avoid prison.

NR: In the court order, it limits the evaluation of Ms. Holmes to a 14 hour, 2-day, psychiatric examination. Is this out of the ordinary in a criminal matter?

SA: There is a wide range of exam times in criminal cases. It would depend on a variety of factors including the type of case, the jurisdiction, the funding available and the severity of the charge. Assessment time in a misdemeanor will not be identical to a capital case. Ms. Holmes’ case is not a capital case, but it helps to understand differences in how long the examination might take. The exam time in a Competency to Stand Trial for a misdemeanor trespassing case would likely be under two hours. I have seen some examiners spend 30 minutes for the interview in such cases. The other extreme would be Capital cases which could go over 8 hours or several days; this is especially true if neurocognitive testing is required, which can take an entire day.

Again, in a capital case the threshold and the stakes are very high—especially in death penalty cases that often go to the appeals court.

In misdemeanor cases, you may have a single mental health expert and the findings may be accepted without the need for an opposing expert. In Capital cases, the defense itself may retain several mental health and other medical experts (i.e. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome experts). In the Holmes case, the 14 hours is to be shared between a forensic neuropsychologist and a forensic psychiatrist.

As it is a high-profile case, it is possible that the court may allow additional funds or there maybe a willingness of the expert to work within a budget.

It is my experience that the examination in insanity cases take more time than other types of cases as you have to elicit a detailed account of the crime from the defendant and then determine the mental state at a time in the past and consider malingering (lying for secondary gain—like a lesser sentence). I suspect in the Holmes case, it is likely the charges are not limited to one circumscribed incident so it could take additional time. It is worth noting that time spent reviewing records and preparing a report could exceed twenty hours or more.

NR: What information might you need to establish or rebut an insanity defense?

SA: In addition to interviewing the defendant, it would be helpful to review medical records, legal records along with police records and videos. I often will interview collateral informants as well. In Ms. Holmes’s case there maybe, media accounts, if admissible, as well as financial records and corporate documents. Of course, an expert would review the other expert witness reports. Records in a violent crime could include an autopsy, or blood splatter expert reports, for example. In the Holmes case, there may be a forensic accounting or fraud expert report.  Other sources of data could include polygraph testing, school records and employment records.

NR: In the Holmes case, the defense has retained a trauma expert. Is it common to successfully assert an insanity defense in cases of PTSD?

SA: Insanity defenses are more commonly associated with other diagnoses that are considered to be more severe forms of mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and IDD because they have a different impact on decision-making and regulating behavior. Although many individuals with PTSD do suffer with severe symptoms, they are generally able to maintain awareness of the nature of their acts and appreciate the wrongfulness of such acts. In jurisdictions that allow for the volitional prong, individuals with PTSD are generally considered to be able to behave lawfully. Of course, there are cases where PTSD is successfully asserted as an insanity defense.[3] In cases where the defense attorney realizes the PTSD does not lend itself for an insanity defense, they may successfully utilize it for sentence mitigation.


[1] United States v. Bennett, 29 F. Supp. 2d 236 (E.D.Pa. 1997), aff’d 161 F.3d 171, 183 (3d Cir.1998), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 819, 120 S. Ct. 61, 145 L. Ed. 2d 53 (1999)

[2]Does A Psychopath Who Kills Get to Use the Insanity Defense? NPR, 8/3/16, by NATALIE JACEWICZ

[3]PTSD as a Criminal Defense: A Review of Case Law by Omri Berger, Dale E. McNiel and Renée L. Binder; Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online December 2012, 40 (4) 509-521;

Criminal JusticeCriminal LawExpert Witness

The Staircase on Netflix: Lawyer and Expert Witness Costs of a Homicide Trial

Netflix’s hottest new true crime show gives us an excellent view of the financial costs of criminal justice.

A little over half-way through the second episode, the defendant Michael Peterson, is having a conversation with his brother, Bill Peterson. They had just been pitched a $35-40,000 idea for conducting a survey instead of a mock trial. Thereafter, the brothers have an open and frank discussion about the costs of defending Michael Peterson for killing his wife.

They have a conversation in which they realize they’ll be over-budget by about $300,000. Initially, they thought the defense and trial might cost somewhere between $500-550,000. No small sum. Now, after speaking with the lead attorney and some trial consultants, they realize they’re looking at a $750-800,000 of legal spend. With that money spent, there’s no guarantee he’s staying out of prison.

  • SPOILER ALERT: He doesn’t stay out of prison, but he does get out of prison after many years.

Michael Peterson asks his brother, “Then again, what do people do, who don’t have any money?” It is an excellent question! Michael Peterson follows that up with “the rich get off because they can afford to defend themselves. The poor go to jail because they can’t afford to defend themselves… not in every case.” This appears to be a reasonable assumption. Michael goes on to state, “American justice is, very, very expensive.”

Regardless of what you think about Michael Peterson, or The Staircase, he has brought up some really prescient issues. In reality, cost is a major access to justice issue. I discussed this with my access to justice panel members, at the ABA GPSolo / GLSA conference in Louisiana, earlier this year. Cost often prevents people from seeking legal assistance. What if you seek legal assistance, but you don’t have $50,000, $100,000, $800,000 or more, to throw at a defense? That may put your freedom in a perilous position.

Considering the financial strain a criminal trial might cause, I thought now was a good time to provide an assessment of the costs. Remember, the costs discussed in episode two of The Staircase, were based on costs from the early 2000’s. It would be fair to assume those costs have increased. If you are innocent of a crime, you’d still have to spend the money to defend yourself.

I’m going use a hypothetical homicide case to assess attorney, trial consultant, and expert witness costs, for the purposes of this blog. For the fact pattern, assume similar facts to those in The Staircase (i.e. a victim is found at the base of a staircase. The police think the defendant killed the victim. The defendant argues the victim fell down the stairs). Our hypothetical criminal trial is going to include an appeal.

Legal Costs for a Homicide Trial:

To get some insights on the legal costs for defending a homicide prosecution, I’ve reached out to our friend Walter M. Reaves, Esq. Walter is a friend and colleague I’ve met through the LegalMinds Mastermind Group. He is a criminal defense attorney located in Waco, Texas. To find more about his practice, visit waco-criminal-attorney.com. The following text is the full analysis provided by Walter Reaves:

There are several lessons you can learn from the “Staircase”, one of which concerns the cost of a vigorous defense. In one of the episodes, while they are totaling how much they have spent so far, Michael Peterson wonders how someone who doesn’t have the financial resources he has can defend themselves. It’s a fair question, and one that is asked regularly.

He’s not alone in believing the criminal justice system favors the wealthy. You can’t argue with the fact that they can afford the best lawyers, and the best experts.  Some people also believe they can buy their way out of trouble.  While there are rare instances where that has happened, it’s the exception. The benefit of money is in the “extras” that most defendants are not able to take advantage of.

You probably wonder how expensive a murder case is to try. Cases like the Peterson one are the exception. Most cases are not nearly as complex or complicated. Where the facts are fairly well established, there may not be a lot you can do. Even in cases that are fairly complex, there may not be a lot of experts involved.

For those dying to know, here’s an estimate on the potential costs you could incur in defending a murder case:

Defense attorneys – this is probably the biggest range you will find, because criminal defense lawyers generally don’t work on an hourly basis; instead, they charge flat fees. That is based on a number of factors, including the lawyer’s experience, as well as the amount of time the lawyer anticipates the case will take. It also depends on the location.  For the defense of a major murder case, you would expect a good lawyer to charge at least $100,000, and maybe a lot more. In a case like the Peterson case, the lawyer is probably going to be working only on that case, and will utilize most of his office in doing so. That means they aren’t going to have any other money coming in, so the fee they charge needs to account for that.

Investigators – most investigators charge by the hour. In Texas, it can range from $50.00 an hour, to $100.00 plus. The amount of investigation that is necessary can vary widely, but for a complicated case like this one, an estimate would be 200-500 hours.

Fortunately, most other experts do not have to do the same amount of work. A pathologist is a must in a murder case. You can expect a retainer of $5,000 – $10,000 to review the case, provide an initial opinion. If they have to testify, most experts charge a fee based on the amount of time they are required to be in court, which can be $1,500- $3,500 a day, plus their expenses.

A biomechanical expert is a specialized expert, that might be involved in a murder case. Their fees would generally be in line with the pathologist, although they are more likely to be paid by the hour, with rates ranging from $150 – $500.00.

Blood spatter experts can be expensive, because they are looking at all the evidence. While a pathologist may only be looking at the autopsy, the blood spatter expert is reviewing all the autopsy, as well as all the photographs. They also may want to visit the scene, and take more detailed measurements than the police did. They also will review all of the reports and statements, to determine whether they are consistent with the physical evidence. Normal fees would be in the range of $10,000 – $15,000. They will also charge an additional fee for testifying, based on the number of days they are required to spend away from the office.

In addition to the above experts, you might also have a crime scene expert, or an expert in crime scene re-construction. Like the blood spatter experts, they will review all the evidence, and the photographs, and will probably visit the scene and take their own measurements.  Their fees would be consistent with blood spatter experts. They may also provide additional services, such as producing re-enactments of the crime scene.

If you don’t that kind of money, what are you supposed to do? Fortunately, you aren’t completely out of luck. The Supreme Court has held that a defendant must be provided with the tools necessary to mount a proper defense. What those tools are is open to debate. However, courts have generally held experts such as a pathologist should be provided. These experts can be paid for through the court, even if the defendant is paying for his own lawyer. Just because someone can afford to hire a lawyer, doesn’t mean they can afford to pay for a full defense. Of course, you aren’t going to get everything you might want, but at least you can have someone in your corner.

Legal Costs for a Homicide Appeal:

My experience with appeals is limited to academic. I interned at the California 3rd District Court of Appeals, while in law school. For this blog post, we really needed someone who could provide more detailed information about the practice of criminal appeals. As such, I reached out to friend and colleague, Ryan C. Locke, Esq.

Ryan Locke, founder of the Locke Law Firm, practices personal injury and criminal appeals in Atlanta, Georgia. He is an Adjunct Professor at Emory University School of Law in their trial techniques program. Previously, he worked in the Atlanta Public Defender’s office. To find out more about his practice visit: thelockefirm.com.

The following are some questions I posed to Ryan followed by the answers he provided regarding the costs of criminal appeal.

Nick: Can you tell our readers a little about post-conviction appeals (i.e. general information on what items may be appealed; how many appeals might a defendant have in the State of Georgia; anything else you think is relevant to summarize the appeal process)?

Ryan Locke: The strategy in an appeal case is to find errors that are serious and made a difference in the trial. Our two biggest obstacles in an appeal is the harmless error doctrine and appealing issues that are not preserved.

If we find an error but it doesn’t make a difference in the trial, then it is harmless error and we will lose. For example, if the defendant had a credible alibi defense and his lawyer never investigated it—serious and would have made a difference, and we’ll probably get a reversal of the conviction. But if the court let a witness testify to some pretty harmless hearsay—not serious and would not have made a difference, even if it was error.

Issues that are preserved—the defense objected to them at trial and the judge made a ruling—can be appealed directly. But often issues are not preserved because the trial lawyer didn’t object. In order to appeal those issues, we must ask for a hearing in front of the trial judge and bring the trial lawyer in to testify about his mistake. We do this by filing a motion for a new trial.

This hearing is our last chance to enter evidence into the record. For example, in The Staircase the government introduced evidence of Peterson’s neighbor in Germany dying under similar suspicious circumstances in order to prove that he knew how to fake his wife’s accident. If the trial attorney doesn’t object to this evidence then the issue is waived—unless we assert that the trial attorney was constitutionally ineffective for that failure by calling the lawyer as a witness and asking him or her about it.

If the trial judge denies the motion for new trial, we then appeal that denial. Most cases go to the Court of Appeals, while some go directly to the Supreme Court. In either court, the process is straightforward: each side files briefs, we go to the court and have oral argument if they grant our request, and then we wait for the opinion.

If we lose the direct appeal, then the defendant can file a civil case asking for a writ of habeas corpus. You have the right to a lawyer for the direct appeal, but not in the habeas case, and there are some additional hurdles for raising issues in a habeas, so the direct appeal is usually your best shot at getting a conviction reversed.

Nick: In your experience, what is a common cost of post-conviction appeals in Georgia?

Ryan Locke: The cost of an appeal can really vary based on the length of the trial, the complexity of the evidence, whether any experts testified, and the complexity of the issues raised on appeal. The cheapest appeal may be a trial that only lasted a few days, no scientific evidence was presented, and no experts testified. On the other end, I worked on appealing a federal trial that lasted three weeks and involved a complicated conspiracy—it took me 60 hours just to review the trial transcripts.

The cost also depends on if the work requires experts. In our Staircase example, one issue may involve hiring experts to review all the scientific and forensic evidence. If there was a way to attach the government’s scientific evidence that the defense didn’t raise at trial, then we’ve got to bring our own expert to court and have him testify, just like he would have testified at trial. This can add considerable expense to an appeal.

I would ballpark most appeals between $15,000 and $25,000, unless there’s a complicating factor. Price can also vary depending on who you hire. The best lawyers in Georgia handling high-profile cases will start at $75,000 to $100,000.

Nick: If there are multiple appeals, how much might a defendant expect to spend on multiple appeals?

Ryan Locke: The reality is that most defendants rely on the public defender for their direct appeal and will then be pro se for their habeas case. Because habeas cases have more procedural hurdles to jump through before the court will decide a case on the merits, I will usually charge one fee to review the case first to see what the strategy should be and then a second fee to execute on the strategy. For me, habeas cases end up being a bit more expensive because of this.

Nick: For an entire appeals process, can you provide us with a low to high range of costs?

Ryan Locke: From free to as much money as you have. Where money makes the biggest difference is in experts. If the prosecution relied on scientific evidence and expert testimony to secure the conviction, you need to have everything reviewed by independent experts—even if the defense had experts testify at trial. My most recent appellate win relied on having a psychologist review almost a thousand pages of medical records and evaluate my client in prison. The report we got was persuasive both to the prosecutor and the court and provided the evidence we needed to win.

You also need quality experts to give you bad news. I had a case where we hired an out-of-state medical examiner to review the autopsy. He told us that the government’s conclusions were sound and most experts would agree with them. This allowed us to focus on other aspects of the appeal and not waste time or money on a losing issue.

Conclusions:

A huge thank you to Walter Reaves and Ryan Locke for participating in this effort. We wanted to give readers a modest idea of the costs associated with mounting a significant criminal defense.

To wrap up, I’m going to take the lowest costs provided by my co-authors to give our readers a basic understanding of the expense involved in criminal defense.

Defense attorney – $100,000.

Investigator – $50/hour times 200 hours = $10,000.

Pathologist – $5,000 retainer; $1,500 1 day of trial testimony = $6,500.

Biomechanics expert – per Walter Reaves these costs would be in line with Pathologist, so = $6,500.

Blood spatter expert – $10,000. Plus a fee for testifying. I had to search some of our data to see what they charge for testifying and we’re going to ballpark one day at $2,400 for a total =  $12,400.

Crime scene expert – per Walter Reaves, these costs would be in line with the blood spatter experts so we ballpark it as = $12,400.

Criminal appeal – per Ryan Locke, the low end cost = $15,000.

Again, these numbers are based on the lowest costs provided by my co-authors. We also factored in one day of testimony for most of the experts. We come up with a low cost for a criminal trial and appeal of $162,800.

We did not use mounds of empirical data in this analysis. Many things could change the costs of a trial. One, for example, is if your lawyer decided to hire an expert through an expert witness broker, you could add another 40% onto the cost of each expert. I know, that’s a self-serving comment, but it is entirely accurate. You should be getting your experts through Experts.com.

Other items impacting the costs were our use of the same experts we saw used in The Staircase. Not every case is going to require all the experts mentioned in this hypothetical. However, you are already at $115,000 if you factor in your defense counsel and appeals counsel.

My best advice, stay out of trouble. It can be very expensive, even with available assistance described by Mr. Reaves and Mr. Locke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Criminal JusticeEvidenceExpert Witness

Golden State Killer, Part 3: Defense Concerns about Tainted Memories

“Few rights are more important than a right to a fair trial.” According to this article, in The Mercury News, these words were spoken in court last week by attorney David Lynch, defense counsel for James Joseph DeAngelo, the alleged Golden State Killer. Mr Lynch is right. His words are of the utmost importance. So important, in fact, we spend significant time in law school learning criminal justice and rights of the accused. As I recall, there were at least two courses dedicated to the subject entirely: Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure. Other courses are substantially related to the topic, i.e., Evidence and Constitutional Law.

Even for the worst criminals accused of the most heinous crimes, we have to offer a fair trial. It should remain a priority for a civil society. I, for one, would rather a guilty person go free than an innocent person be imprisoned. I feel the readers pulling away from me at this point. You may be asking, “How can you say that about the Golden State Killer? Have you read about his crimes?” Yes, I have, and I understand the emotions tied to convicting him. In fact, if Mr. DeAngelo has committed the crimes he’s accused of, I want him convicted. However, I want him to have a fair trial and I expect the prosecution to prove their case. That’s the law and it should be followed. If proper procedures are followed, it also avoids the case being overturned on appeal.

For our purposes, David Lynch provided an even more interesting statement in court last week. Mr. Lynch said, “When you have an old memory, it can be tainted if you get new information.” The Mercury News elaborated on his concern:

“Lynch estimated 16,000 articles were written about the Golden State Killer online, including more than 100 by the local Sacramento newspaper within two weeks of DeAngelo’s arrest. He said releasing information could affect witnesses’ memories and hurt the jury selection process.”

Based on my experience working with expert witnesses, I know there are immense concerns about matters such as eyewitness identification and witness memory. I mention the two together because memory can impact identification.

In the Golden State Killer matter, we have no publicly available information of an eyewitness identification (no reporting about photo identification or line-ups). Nevertheless, we do have many eyewitnesses to the crimes (including over 40 rape victims). As such, Mr. Lynch is probably concerned about other memories associated with the crimes. Such as physical attributes, physical description, verbal interactions, time of day, weather, residential layout, and more. Defense counsel doesn’t want new information released to the potential jury pool, victims, and other witnesses that might create false memories about which they may later testify.

Allyson Kacmarski – Criminal Defense Lawyer – Wilkes Barre, PA

To help our readers understand the concerns of David Lynch, I thought it was important to get some further input on memory concerns from a practicing defense attorney, so I reached out to a friend who practices criminal defense in Pennsylvania.

Allyson L. Kacmarski is a former public defender and former Assistant District Attorney who is now in private practice in Wilkes Barre, PA. Her firm is a full-service criminal defense and family law office serving clients in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, and throughout northeastern Pennsylvania. Allyson does some spectacular work connecting and educating clients via her Instagram account. You can learn more about her practice by visiting attorneyallyson.com.

I posed some questions to Allyson and she provided some very detailed answers regarding her concerns about witness memories.

Nick: From a criminal defense perspective, what concerns would you have about information impacting witness memories?

Ms. Kacmarski: I like to believe that a witness’ memory is best right after the crime occurs. Think about this in your own life. When you tell a friend a story, the story has more details when you share this story within hours or days of the incident occurring, rather than months or years. Allowing an alleged victim or witness to read newspaper articles or portions of police reports can definitely impact the way a person recalls the incident. It’s always a cause for concern when a witness testifies at trial to details that were not contained in the original statement to the police. The question becomes, where did the witness get this “new” information from? Was it the newspaper? Maybe it was during witness prep with the police who are now providing information to the witness by asking questions that this witness did not know the answer to originally. Most people want to help the police and “catch the killer,” so there is definitely an innate pressure to agree with the police when they asked leading questions such as, “isn’t this the gun that the suspect had?” A person may say, “Oh, yes” even if he/she doesn’t remember because he/she doesn’t want to make the police mad or blow the case and let the killer go free. When you hear something enough, anyone can start to believe it is real and true, even if it’s not.

Nick: Does the defense attorney for the Golden State Killer have a valid concern about “tainted” memories?

Ms. Kacmarski: Yes, but this concern applies to any criminal case, not just the Golden State Killer. The pressure is always on in any case for a witness to testify successfully to facts that will show the Defendant is guilty of the crime as charged. For example, in criminal cases involving the testimony of a child, the court may have a taint hearing to determine if the child’s memory has been compromised by outside influences, such as a parent flat-out telling the child what to say or maybe it’s bad questioning or suggestive questioning by an interviewer that affects the child’s memory. The point is, whether it’s reading details in a newspaper article, talking to the police about the case during an interview, or even a witness discussing the incident with family or friends, taint could always occur. Providing a witness with information and details that he/she did not initially disclose to the police, can always lead to a defense attorney questioning how accurate the witness’ memory truly is.

Nick: In your experience, are witness memories reliable?

Ms. Kacmarski: Maybe yes… Maybe no. For me, reliability can be influenced by outside factors. For example, a witness may distinctly remember all the details of an event because it was unique or odd or something stood out that he/she would never forget. Maybe it’s something about the way a person spoke, or looked, or acted or dressed that made the incident not only memorable, but ingrained in the witness’ brain. I also think the length of time a witness interacts with a person can affect the memory. If the interaction is short, say seconds or minutes, how many details will a witness be able to recall when he/she has very little time to observe the other person. Speaking of interaction, things like a gun being present and used during an incident can greatly impact the reliability of a witness’ memory. Often times, the witness is so focused on the gun, he/she may not remember anything else about the incident.

Nick: With no current reports of eyewitness identification, what types of memories might defense counsel be concerned about tainting? (i.e. times, dates, physical attributes of the suspect, weather, physical layouts of a residence).

Ms. Kacmarski: My biggest concern as to taint would be the physical appearance of the suspect. Without someone describing the height/weight, skin color and complexion, even hair color, the identity of the suspect is unknown. In the Golden State Killer, the news has reported it was the DNA that led to the arrest. Once he was arrested, the Golden State Killer has been all over the news. It is very easy for a witness to see this guy in the news and say, “yes, that is him, I remember that face.” If the original statement fails to detail the suspect’s face or some outstanding facial characteristic, the concern is now the news has tainted the identification of this witness.

Nick: With a case of this magnitude (crimes across the state) would you be worried about the heavy press coverage impacting witness memories?

Ms. Kacmarski: Heavy press coverage can always impact a case. First, let me just say this, and no offense to the news community. But what you read in the newspaper is not always what really took place. I can say from my own personal experience because I have read articles “quoting” statements I made during a trial and guess what … I didn’t say it or it was taken completely out of context. The point is, when people read something in the newspaper he/she thinks it is 100% true. Since we can’t stop a witness from reading the newspaper, or should I say searching the internet, we can’t control how reading a statement from the police, containing information from various witnesses all combined, as well as details about evidence collected can cause the memory of a witness to “change.” And let’s just say, seeing the picture of a person in handcuffs, in prison garb, being escorted by the police, can do a lot to a person’s memory as to who he/she believes the “killer” is. Seeing a person’s face and image enough times, when he/she is in police custody, can taint the person’s memory as to physical appearance and details, especially if this takes place prior to the police showing the witness a photo line-up.

Nick: Can you provide any examples from your own practice about faulty witness memories?

Ms. Kacmarski: Examples of faulty witness memories:

  • In an attempted homicide case, a victim, who was shot in the back of the head, testified that he/she remembered what the gun looked like and then he/she described the gun to the jury. I asked the victim, “How do you know what the gun looked like, if you were lying face down on the ground?” The victim said, “Because the police told me about the gun.” I immediately asked “what?” The victim said “he/she couldn’t remember details of the incident, specifically the gun, so he/she asked the police and the police told him/her.”
  • Right after a crime happened, the police arrive and within approximately 2 hours of the crime occurring, the police interview a witness who says, “I saw a man walking down the street with a tan coat and a gun.” Approximately 11 months later, after TV and newspaper articles, the witness tells the police when he/she is served with a subpoena for trial, “Oh yeah, that guy I saw, he is my neighbor and we have talked before this.” Fast-forward to trial, the witness says, his/her next door neighbor told him/her that “the guy lives across the street” and by the way, there was no talking, just a “Hi.”

Nick: Is there any other information you would like to provide about witness memories in regards to criminal defense matters?

Ms. Kacmarski: When looking at a witness’s memory of an incident, I like to look at all the surrounding factors that can impact the memory.  In my opinion, things like the lighting, the time of day, was there a weapon involved, was the person under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol at the time of the incident, all count and can impact how a witness remembers an event.  How about this: Does a person wear contacts or glasses and did he/she have them on during the incident? Looking at these factors, just to name a few, are key and can ultimately allow the defense to pick apart a witness’ statement show whether there has been taint.

Now that we know a little more about the concerns of defense counsel when dealing with witness memories, let’s hear from an expert about the reliability of such memories!

 

What do the experts have to say?

Now that you know the concerns of defense counsel in the Golden State Killer case, you may be wondering about the science behind tainted memories. If so, you’ll have to wait for another post on the subject in the near future. One of our members, a forensic psychology expert witness, is busy answering a litany of questions on the topic. As a primer, you may wish to read these articles on the related topic of faulty eyewitness identification.

 

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Fingerprints Lifted from Social Media Photo: Expert Evidence and Impact on Criminal Defense

Friday morning, I read a really interesting article from the FindLaw Technologist blog (their legal technology blog). The headline grabbed my attention because it was about drug dealers’ fingerprints being lifted from a photo on social media application, WhatsApp. This was news to me. I had no idea law enforcement could obtain digital fingerprints or that they could be used for an arrest. In hindsight, it seems perfectly reasonable that fingerprints could be obtained this way because the cameras in our cell phones are so advanced.

Probably, like many laypeople, I thought law enforcement had to access latent fingerprints left on a physical object (doorknob, weapon, cell phone, etc.). Based on my years of watching police procedural television shows and documentaries, I assumed the fingerprints had to be dusted by an evidence technician, input to a database, and then compared to other prints in the database. Today, however, I discovered that’s not the only way to do it.

As the Findlaw article explained, “Law enforcement arrested members of a drug ring using fingerprints on a cell phone photograph. Investigators didn’t even need the suspects’ cell phone because the photo was posted on the messaging application, WhatsApp.” The photo showed a male hand holding a bag of drugs. The agency’s forensics team uploaded the photo to a fingerprint data base and they found a match. The article specifically states the officers “acting on other information” located and arrested the man.

My assumption was the officers needed additional evidence in order to make an arrest.  Authorities can likely use the image as an investigative lead and then they have to go find additional evidence to establish probable cause for an arrest.

Alas, these were only my assumptions. It’s been a long time since I spent any time on criminal procedure. As such, I have asked for some input from Walter M. Reaves, Esq. Walter is a friend and colleague I’ve met through the LegalMinds Mastermind Group. He is a criminal defense attorney located in Waco, Texas. To find more about his practice, visit waco-criminal-attorney.com.

Input from Criminal Defense Attorney Walter Reaves:

Walter jumped on the questions I asked and elaborated on the entire concept of using digital and social media photos. Here is what he said:

“Given the way cell phones have taken control of all our lives, it’s not surprising that they are being used as evidence in criminal cases. For several years, the police have been obtaining cell tower location to place a suspect (or at least their phone) in a certain location. Evidence found on cell phones has also been used – for some reason, dope dealers seem to like taking pictures with their stash. And of course, there’s always text messages.

A new technique may be lifting fingerprints from phones. The process would utilize a picture on the phone of someone’s hand and fingers, and attempt to match that like you would a latent print developed at a crime scene. The process may be no different from what is being done now. Latent prints are placed on a card, and pictures are taken. The digital photos are what are used for comparison.

If a fingerprint on a cell phone is used, you can expect challenges from defense lawyers. The prosecutor will have to convince the court the process for making the comparison is reliable, which may be a problem.

For starters, there could be problems with manipulating the photos in order to get something to use for comparison. The photos will probably need to be enhanced in some way, and you can expect defense lawyers to challenge the way that is done. Some adjustment will have to be made for the photo itself, since no camera produces an exact representation of what it is capturing. Establishing the admissibility of the photo of the fingerprint will therefore have to be the first hurdle the State will have to meet.

Even if the State can establish the identification is reliable, I seriously doubt this is going to be a common practice. I can’t imagine many situations where it would be relevant. Maybe if someone is holding dope, and all you can see is their hand, the fingerprint could be used to establish possession. I can’t think of many other situations though. In most cases, you would think if a picture is being taken, you could identify who was in the picture. You also might have problems with identifying location, and time, if that’s important.

There will be an even bigger problem when you are trying to use the photograph to prove possession of a controlled substance. The problem is proving what the substance is. If you don’t have it, there’s no way to test; it could be baking soda just as easily as it could be cocaine.

So, it’s an interesting concept, but don’t expect it be coming to a courtroom near you anytime soon.”

Based on reading this information from Walter, I stand by my contention this is an investigative tool for law enforcement. However, such images are unlikely to be used as evidence in court. It seems there will be problems with relevance, reliability, and authenticity. These hurdles may in time be overcome as technology advances.

Input from Photographic Evidence Expert Witness Dr. James Ebert:

For a more in-depth understanding of this practice, I reached out to Experts.com member and expert witness Dr. James Ebert. Dr. Ebert is a forensic photogrammetrist who is regularly called to interpret and testify about photographic and mapped evidence in civil and criminal matters. You can learn more about Dr. Ebert’s expertise and practice by visiting his website ebert.com.

Dr. Ebert’s comments left me feeling behind the times when I heard about the use of digital photos as a law enforcement tool. Here is what he had to say:

“It has been widely known and discussed on the web for a decade or more that identifiable fingerprints can be recovered from photographs for good or bad purposes, given that the photos are of sufficient resolution, lighting, focus, and that enough of the fingerprint can be seen to allow a match to be attempted.  Faces published on the internet can, of course, also be identified through photo matching services like TinEye reverse image search, or facial recognition software.  Both fingerprints and faces can, for instance, be run on the FBI’s new Next Generation Identification system by law enforcement agencies around the country.  This does not insure false positive results as are common with all automated fingerprint or facial identifications.  I have never attempted to make identifications of fingerprints in my practice as a forensic photogrammetrist, but are certainly possible and they should be just as reliable as are those done with fingerprint or facial data collected in other ways.  I am often, however, called upon to do facial identifications from photographic evidence. Whether such fingerprints and facial identification are ethical clearly depends on whether they are done for ethical purposes.  Identification of possible criminals from fingerprints by law enforcement is an example of a good use of technologies, and if done for purposes like hacking or harassment it’s not.”

Based on Dr. Ebert’s comments, it appears this practice has been considered and possibly utilized for some time. As Dr. Ebert mentioned, there is potential for abuse in matters of hacking and harassment. I cannot speak for Walter, but I imagine he would think there is potential for abuse by law enforcement as well.

Technology is changing so rapidly that it is difficult to keep up with all the advancements. What we’re doing with this blog is trying to discover how technology impacts the criminal justice system. If you have any suggestions for future  posts on technological advancements in criminal or civil justice, please comment below.