July 20, 2008

Ripple effects of psychologist's porn addiction

Sex offenders to get new trials

A state psychologist's own sexual deviancy will lead to new trials for two Iowa sex offenders whom he opined should be locked up as sexually violent predators, the Des Moines Register reported today.

The evaluator is Joseph Belanger of North Dakota, whom I blogged about last December after he acknowledged an adiction to online child pornography.

Belanger's deviancy is causing ripple effects including a review of more than 100 cases and an upcoming appeal before the North Dakota Supreme Court.

Belanger resigned from North Dakota State Hospital but his license is still active during a continuing investigation, the Register reported.

Although many state evaluators testify that it is difficult for sexual deviants to benefit from treatment, Belanger "stressed that he has worked with a Zen teacher and that 'I believe recovery is possible,' " according to the Register report.

The Des Moines Register story is here. My Dec. 9, 2007 post is here.

July 18, 2008

Canada: Restorative justice touted for hate crimes

Citizens of peaceful and tolerant New Brunswick, Canada, have been shocked by a recent outbreak of racist and anti-Semitic vandalism of churches and synagogues.

The answer?

Restorative justice, says criminology professor Elizabeth Elliott of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Elliottt is a leading Canadian expert on restorative justice and author of the book, New Directions In Restorative Justice: Issues, Practice, Evaluation.

If religious leaders and other victims are willing to meet with the offenders and if the offenders agree to participate, "there is an excellent learning opportunity here," said Elliott.

New Brunswick already has restorative justice programs in place both for juvenile and adult offenders, as do other Canadian metropolises such as Nova Scotia and British Columbia.

Of course, the offenders have to get caught first, no small problem in a vandalism case.

New Brunswick's Telegraph Journal has the story.

Hat tip: Understanding Crime

July 14, 2008

Who Killed Chandra Levy?

A new DNA technique has exonerated the father, but the passage of time makes the mystery of who killed JonBenet Ramsey in 1996 unlikely to be solved. Likewise for the 2001 murder of Chandra Levy, Washington's most famous unsolved crime. In both cases, premature certainty about one suspect (in the latter case a congressman) led police to ignore critical leads and commit a chain of errors that spiraled out of control.

The Levy case became overshadowed by September 11. But now, six years later, Washington Post reporters Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham have conducted an in-depth exploration of the case. The 12-part reconstruction illustrates how far off track a police investigation can go when it is overwhelmed by "white-hot media coverage," in this case fueled by the possible involvement of California congressman Gary Condit. (As part of their extensive interviews, the reporters got Condit to talk for the first time about the case.)
The Post series provides a rare look at an unsolved homicide case from the inside, following the twists and turns of an investigation that was filled with false hopes, false leads and false suspects. It would tarnish a police department and wreck a reputation. It would move with tremendous energy and purpose in one direction and end up in another. It would be marked by an enormous effort by police - and a chain of mistakes that got longer and longer.
The 12-part series starts here.

July 10, 2008

"Misfeasance not malfeasance"

Detective won't face charges in Tim Masters case

A special prosecutor has decided not to file criminal charges for perjury or illegal eavesdropping against the Colorado detective who spearheaded the investigation of 15-year-old Timothy Masters for the murder of Peggy Hettrick, a case about which I have blogged extensively (click here for my past posts).

You will recall that Lt. James Broderick was convinced of the boy's guilt despite the absence of any physical evidence linking young Masters to the crime. He continued to pursue him for years, finally hiring prominent forensic psychologist Reid Meloy to render an opinion based on Masters' personal sketches. That opinion helped garner a conviction; after a decade in prison, Masters was recently freed based on DNA evidence.

Prosecutor Ken Buck said that although he uncovered "several flaws" during his "limited investigation," he did not believe that Broderick engaged in deliberate criminal conduct, nor was there a "reasonable likelihood" that a jury would convict the detective at trial.

A separate investigation into whether prosecutors in the case violated professional standards is due to conclude soon. That investigation is by the Colorado Supreme Court's Office of Attorney Regulation. The former prosecutors, Terry Gilmore and Jolene Blair, are both now judges.

The Colorodoan quotes one former police investigator in the case, Linda Wheeler-Holloway, as saying that the prosecutor's decision is no surprise.

"People didn't play fair. By not telling the whole story, leaving things incomplete, that kind of skewed things in their favor…. There was a lot of faults committed in a lot of arenas that led to the wrongful conviction of Tim Masters."

Writer Pat Hartman, who has an extensive blog on the case entitled "Free Tim Masters Because," has a scathing denunciation of the prosecutor’s decision.

"This wrapup of Broderick's involvement is inadequate and unsatisfactory. It's like watching an elephant be pregnant for months and then give birth to a mouse. Now there's supposed to be an internal [police] investigation…. With this tepid whitewash as precedent, it’s not difficult to foresee the results of that investigation.”

The prosecutor's 11-page report is here. The Coloradoan and the Denver Post have news coverage.

July 9, 2008

New Scientist reports low sex offender recidivism

Peter Aldhous over at New Scientist is reporting on the declining rates of sex offending in California, which I blogged about on June 23 (click here), as well as similar reported declines in Minnesota. The article, "Sex offenders unlikely to commit second crime," begins like this:
Sex crime statistics tend to make depressing reading, but now there is some good news from the most populous state in the US. Just 3.2 per cent of more than 4,000 sex offenders released on parole in 2002 were re-imprisoned for another sex offence in the subsequent 5 years, according to new figures from California.

While experts know that sex offenders are less likely to reoffend than most other criminals (New Scientist, 24 February 2007, p 3), the very low rate of re-imprisonment in the new study will challenge public perceptions about the risks these criminals pose.

The figures are broadly consistent with a 2007 Minnesotan study, which found that 3.2 per cent of sex offenders released from 1990 to 2002 had been re-imprisoned for a further sex crime within 3 years of their release.

What's more, sex offenders in Minnesota are even less likely to reoffend....
Unfortunately, you have to subscribe to read the remainder of the article, as well as prior coverage of this topic by Mr. Aldhous. However, my June 23 blog post on the new California data is here, and the Minnesota recidivism study is online here. A comprehensive, 225-page report by researchers on behalf of the California Sex Offender Management Board is online here. The data on 5- and 10-year recidivism are a bit hidden at the CSOMB website, but you can get them HERE and HERE, respectively.

July 6, 2008

In the mood for some light reading?

Seduced by Madness chronicles Susan Polk case

I just finished a true crime account by journalist Carol Pogash of the Susan Polk murder trial in Contra Costa County, California. Working in that county, I followed the case closely and knew many of those involved. So I was interested to see Pogash's take. I found Seduced by Madness to be a fair and accurate account of a bizarre and mesmerizing case.

Especially riveting is Pogash's rendition of the four-month trial. As many of you may recall, Susan Polk fired attorney after attorney and ended up representing herself. On center stage, the intelligent but delusional defendant demonstrated a stunning ability to "take any set of facts and mold a story where she was both victim and hero." It is painful to read about her brutal cross-examination of two of her three sons.

It is intriguing to think about how last month's U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Illinois v. Edwards (see my posts here) might have changed the outcome of her trial. Would she have been allowed to represent herself? I doubt it. Perhaps that will be grounds for appeal of her second-degree murder conviction?

From the point of view of forensic psychology, the depictions of the expert testimony are especially interesting. First, there was the cagey forensic pathologist who disappeared in the middle of the trial when the judge insisted he produce his files. Then, there was the seasoned forensic psychologist that the defendant was a battered woman who suffered from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. She based her testimony mainly on statements made by the prevarication-prone defendant, and did not conduct any formal psychological testing.

My lengthier Amazon review of Seduced by Madness is here.

July 3, 2008

MnSOST-R actuarial instrument critiqued

More questions about validity of controversial SVP tool

WARNING: This post is technical, and meant as a heads-up to professionals working in the SVP field, especially those who are still encountering (or using) the MnSOST-R. I would advise readers and subscribers who do not work in this area to skip this post – and have a nice 4th of July Holiday.

The current issue of the preeminent forensic psychology journal Law & Human Behavior has a scathing critique of the Minnesota Sex Offender Screening Tool – Revised (MnSOST-R) by University of Minnesota Professor William Grove and graduate student Scott Vrieze. Through a series of statistical analyses, the authors argue that this instrument does not result in more accurate prediction of sex offender recidivism than simply knowing the base rate for such recidivism. The instrument fails to meet basic evidentiary standards and should be excluded from SVP civil commitment trials, they argue.

Despite the fact that the MnSOST-R is used in at least 13 of the 17 states that have SVP civil commitment laws, there is little published information on its reliability or validity. The authors review the available information, which in and of itself makes the article imperative for those using the instrument.

Another contribution is the authors' critique of the recently popularized technique of using AUC's (the Area Under the Curve, from signal detection theory) as a measure of test accuracy. Recidivism rates of sex offenders would have to be about seven times higher than they are in order for AUC estimates to be reliable, the authors argue:
"An AUC statistic … can lull the clinician into thinking that, if the AUC is suitably high, the test will perform satisfactorily…. This is far from necessarily so…."
In the same issue of the journal, Douglas Mossman offers a rebuttal: "Contrary to what Vrieze and Grove suggest, ARAIs (actuarial risk assessment instruments) of modest accuracy yield probabilistic information that is more relevant to legal decision-making than just ‘betting the base rate.' "

The Vrieze and Grove critique follows a series of similar, statistically based critiques of the MnSOST-R and similar actuarials by Richard Wollert. These include:
  • Wollert, R. (2002). The importance of cross-validation in actuarial test construction: Shrinkage in the risk estimates for the Minnesota Sex Offender Screening Tool- Revised. Journal of Threat Assessment. 2(1), 89-104.
  • Wollert, R. (2002b). Additional flaws in the Minnesota Sex Offender Screening Tool- Revised. Journal of Threat Assessment. 2(4), 65-78
  • Wollert, R. (2006) Low Base Rates Limit Expert Certainty When Current Actuarials Are Used to Identify Sexually Violent Predators: An Application of Bayes's Theorem. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Feb Vol 12(1) 56-85
These articles are not light reading; they amount to complicated battles among statisticians. But forensic psychologists are expected to be aware of these debates when they testify about the use of actuarial instruments in SVP proceedings.

The Vrieze and Grove abstract is here; the Mossman rebuttal abstract is here. For the full articles you either have to pay or have access to a university database. A handy medical primer on ROC/AUC statistics, complete with slidable graphics, is here.

July 2, 2008

Video voyeurism: Wisconsin appellate case

"Does agreeing to get naked with someone mean it is lawful for them to film you in the buff without your consent? That's the issue before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in a case brought by a man convicted of secretly taping his girlfriend in the nude at her home.
The Madison Wisconsin Capital Times has the full story.

Arson: New frontier for exonerations?

Arson Screening Project launches this week

Shortly before Cameron Todd Willingham’s execution four years ago in Texas for a house fire that killed his three young daughters, four arson experts called into question the scientific evidence underlying his conviction.

"There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire," wrote expert Gerald Hurst in his report. "It was just a fire."

Texas' governor ignored the report, and Willingham was executed on Feb. 17, 2004.

Although it was too late for Willingham, two years later fellow Texan Ernest Ray Willis was exonerated after a panel of fire experts working pro bono for the Innocence Project concluded that both fires were accidental. (Their full report is here.)

"Bad science" exposed

In their peer review, the fire scientists noted that many of the "indicators" of arson that were taught in fire investigation courses up into the 1990s have since been "scientifically proven to be invalid." Yet many so-called experts remain woefully uninformed on the current state of the science. Worse, others deliberately distort science, behaving "as if constant repetition would make [their false] assertion true."

The report echoes a 2004 Chicago Tribune investigation of the Willingham case that found that "many of the pillars of arson investigation that were commonly believed for many years have been disproved by rigorous scientific scrutiny."

Based on my former experience as a criminal investigator, I have no doubt that these problems are real, and are likely the tip of the iceberg. I saw many a case in which fire investigators quickly jumped to the conclusion that a fire had been deliberately set based upon the bad character of their prime suspect rather than reliable evidence.

With DNA exonerations starting to max out due to the small fraction of cases in which DNA evidence is collected, the Innocence Project is expanding into other causes of wrongful convictions, including what they call "inexact sciences" and pseudoscientific methods. Old arson convictions are likely to be at the forefront of this new area of scrutiny.

An Arson Screening Project launched just yesterday by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice will lead the charge, scrutinizing the backlog of arson cases compiled by the Innocence Project. Part of the Center for Modern Forensic Practice, the project will collect and evaluate claims of wrongful conviction "based on the use of a faulty, folk-science of fire indicators over the past 20 years."

One of the main dangers of bad science is that jurors tend to trust expert witnesses and to fall for such "science" hook, line, and sinker.

As one of the jurors who sentenced Willingham put it, "Maybe this man was innocent. Now I will have to live with this for the rest of my life."

Among the goals of the new project will be to create a pool of nonpartisan fire experts who can help avoid this outcome by disseminating information about the " 'bad science' arson experience" to other professionals and the public.

Hat tip: Grits for Breakfast

July 1, 2008

Commission recommends major reforms to California death penalty system

California's death penalty system is costly, ineffectual, and on the verge of collapse, according to a just-issued report of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.

California has the longest delays in executions of any state. Of the 813 people sentenced to die since the death penalty was reenacted in 1977, only 13 have been executed. That's fewer than have killed themselves (14) or died of natural causes (38). Despite the fact that death verdicts are decreasing (last year, only 20 people were sentenced to death in the populous state), the number of people awaiting execution is at an all-time high of 670. The logjam is so great that "California would have to execute five prisoners per month for the next 12 years just to carry out the sentences of those currently on death row," the Commission stated.

A major reason for the long delays is a shortage of competent attorneys at every stage of the process. A condemned prisoner sits on death row for 3 to 5 years before getting a lawyer, waits another 2 years before his first, "automatic" appeal is heard by the state Supreme Court, and waits more years before getting state habeas counsel (291 inmates don't have that attorney assigned yet). That's before even reaching the federal level, where more delays ensue at every stage.

To address the attorney shortage, the Commission is recommending big increases in the stable of state Public Defenders and attorneys at the California Habeas Corpus Resource Center. Such massive funding increases are unlikely, in my opinion, given the current budget crisis and the national trend of slashing defense expenditures (see my June 26 blog post.)

The Commission also recommends more funding at the trial level. The report points out that most death penalty verdicts are getting overturned by federal courts, causing expenditures for costly retrials. The leading cause of such reversals is trial attorneys' failure to adequately investigate potential mitigating evidence, as required under Wiggins v. Smith (539 US 510, 2003).

Part of the reason for that abysmal record, according to the Commission, is that many counties are paying private attorneys a flat fee. This discourages them from hiring investigators and expert witnesses, because the money comes out of their own pocket. The Commission urged the state Supreme Court to increase funding for privately appointed lawyers so that they are paid enough to ensure "high quality legal representation" and so that they obtain the necessary expert services.

The Commission's recommendations to pour massive additional funding into a faulty system are sure to be controversial. The Commission mentions less costly alternatives, including getting rid of the death penalty altogether (as some other states have done) or at least reducing its scope so that only the "worst of the worst" are eligible.

One very sound recommendation is to eliminate felony murder as grounds for death. (see the New York Times editorial by Adam Liptak, "American Exception: Serving Life for Providing Car to Killers," for an excellent discussion of the felony murder rule.)

Narrowing the death penalty's scope to five especially heinous grounds would reduce the current death row population to 368, the Commission said.

The comprehensive report also addresses geographic variations in death penalty implementation. Researchers have found that rural counties in California with high proportions of whites impose death at a higher rate, and - perhaps not coincidentally - people who kill African Americans are less likely to receive the ultimate punishment.

The Commission, created in 2004 to recommend reforms to make the state's criminal justice system fairer, heard from 72 witnesses over a six-month period. In addition to the majority recommendations, the downloadable, 145-page report contains dissenting statements from police and prosecutor members as well as a call for death penalty abolition by commission members from the defense bar.

The Commission is composed of law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and citizens. It has already issued a series of unanimous recommendations on other criminal justice issues, including eyewitness identification, false confessions, jailhouse informants, scientific evidence, and wrongful conviction remedies. (See my previous blog post (here) for links to those reports.

San Francisco Chronicle coverage of the report is here. The American Bar Association's study on the death penalty in eight states is here. Critical analysis of the U.S. death penalty by Time and Newsweek magazines are here and here.