The Great Myths of Prosecution
Unfortunately, the misuse of firearms and ammunition technology is rampant. I believe that this misuse is deliberate and is a routine part of the average prosecutor’s tactics to gain a conviction.
This misuse used to fall into 5 major subject areas. The current score is one down, four to go (I confess that I was the main guy in that one down). Allow me to review the areas of technology in question.
1. Ballistic Fingerprinting: This “science” comes in two parts, one is comparing marks on a crime bullet, to sample bullets fired from a suspected crime gun. This may have had some validity in the period 1897 to 1906 when it was pioneered. However, changes in technology and manufacturing have now rendered it highly unlikely that barrels are detectably unique, that bullets will pick up any unique marks, that any marks present will survive impact, and that any real comparison, or elimination, or identification, can be made.
Further, the standardization done by SAAMI (Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturer’s Institute) and by CIP (Commissione Internationale Permanente); and further documented by ANSI (American National Standards Institute) destroys the basic assumptions of this “science”. In cases where I have participated, the prosecution witnesses quickly fall back on what they call “class characteristics”. But this combination of two words is not even recognized in the vocabulary of the aforementioned standard setting bodies.
The second part of this “science” tries to compare the marks left on primers of cartridge cases, found at a crime scene, to marks on primers of sample cartridge cases fired from a suspected crime gun. This is likewise fatally flawed due to variations in primer cup hardness and thickness, variations in breech pressures, and more. Plus, most firearm manufacturers specify the same abrasive for cleaning up the cartridge head seat (the surface upon which the base of the cartridge rests). Consequently one would expect to see similarity in the size, depth, and spacing of abrasive “scratches” from one firearm to another.
I have had criminal case successes but have found that Judges are reluctant to issue a written order that would “upset the apple cart”. The latest success was in the Holmes case.
2. Gun Shot Residue: There may be some basis to the idea of detecting the products of combustion from a firearm. However, this “science” is based upon the detection of particles of lead, antimony, and barium; which are present in some primers for some small arms ammunition. Among the problems with this are that some primers have potassium chlorate or strontium as the main active elements. Further, the elements lead, antimony and barium are common and can be deposited on the hands or clothing from contact with electronics equipment, automotive parts (wheel weights, battery posts and clamps), medical compounds and equipment, and a wide variety of other sources. Lastly, these elements are a very small portion of the total ejecta flung from a firearm upon discharge (tests for other ejecta rarely being done). Under a vigorous and scientifically well-grounded crossexamination, most GSR testimony does not survive.
3. Dowel Rod Test: This investigative method uses a dowel aligned with two points to show the path of a projectile. It is used by investigators in what is properly called “exterior ballistics” and by medical examiners in what is properly called “terminal ballistics”. This “science” is based on the assumption that bullets travel in a straight line. Unfortunately, that assumption simply isn’t so. Without going into technical detail, when Rodgers, or Brady, or any other quarterback throws a tight spiral, and it is touched or tipped by a lineman; the ball goes haywire and flops all over the place. Bullets do exactly the same.
I have personally examined each and every autopsy report from the 58 dead at the 1 October, 2017, Las Vegas massacre. Bullets changing direction and orientation within bodies was common. Further, instability of some of the bullets in free flight, led to differences in entry wounds. These were incorrectly identified and recorded by surgeons and ME’s; thereby giving rise to a rumor that there had been two shooters. The dowel rod test is hogwash !! See essay “Spin Stabilization”, and the Dean and Wilhelm cases.
4. Blood Stain Pattern Analysis: This “science” is disputed, even within its own body of practitioners. I took the qualification course taught by Mr. “Humble Herb” McDonnell, the founder of this “science”. But I am also a terminal ballistician. I have worked extensively in the game industry in Africa where I participated on elephant and gemsbok culls, with tens of thousands of live and carcass shots and recovered bullets. Between that and combat, I have done the most comprehensive terminal ballisitcs testing, and post-mortems, since Col. Dr. Martin L. Fackler and a couple others during the Cold War. Consequently, I can categorically state that the use of this “science” in firearms cases is unmitigated hogwash. (See the Thomas Mays case.)
5. Comparative Lead Bullet Alloy Analysis: This, now dead, “science” claimed to compare the alloy of a crime projectile to unfired projectiles found in the possession of a crime suspect. On the surface, this “science” seems to make sense. The common perception is that the firearms industry is small. Consequently, FBI technicians got away with making statements that bullets are made from recovered car batteries. These statements are not connected to the reality of the size of the industry; nor with the method, tooling, and practice of ammunition manufacture. For instance, over 1.1 Trillion shotgun shells are produced every year in the USA alone. This represents the consumption of something over 78 Million Pounds of lead. An even larger amount is consumed in the manufacture of centerfire rifle and pistol ammunition. In .22 Rimfire ammunition, just the Remington plant in Lonoke, AR, alone consumes 28,500 pounds of lead, per day. Such huge quantities can only be supported by lead smelters and “white metal” suppliers wherein supply is done by batches exceeding 100,000 pounds per batch. However, these batches are routinely mixed in shipping (an over the road 18 wheeler can only carry about 44,000 pounds) and are mixed again in the bulk production of projectiles and then mixed again in the bulk assembly of ammunition and then mixed again in the random filling of the boxes with the new cartridges.
I used my knowledge and skills in this area in the Ragland case. In a post-conviction hearing, we pummeled an FBI Lab Technician so severely that she pled to misdemeanor perjury. Shortly after, the NIJ panned the validity of the Analysis, and the FBI officially stopped doing the analysis in their Lab.
I weep for the untold thousands who sit in prison, improperly convicted by the use of all these assorted “VooDoo” sciences.