Saturday, September 18, 2010

CSI vs. OSBI—in our collective memories

CSI vs. OSBI—in our collective memories

By Kevin Stoda, social scientist and educator

I have been watching a lot of CSI reruns this summer. I watch them all currently on AXN-TV. I have seen CSI: Miami,
and the original CSI set in Las Vegas.
I also watch NCSI, which is a Navy spin-off of the other CSI and earlier JAG TV series
I enjoy the various series(es) immensely but we viewere must remember that--like the other CBS-TV series, Numbers,
--are largely fictional in what they portrays as the real world of investigation, law, order, and justice in America.


Some people (not just viewers of CSI) have long forgotten that CSI stands for “Crime Scene Investigation”. The shows were originally created by Anthony E. Zuiker and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.
As we watch the TV programs, we see that mistakes are made but we often see that the investigators typically recover from false leads, false assumptions, and even faulty evidence or diagnostics of the crime scene.


One of the common examples in TV investigations of a crime has been the finding of and usage of hair samples to determine if someone was present at a crime scene.
“Hair evidence is one of the most common types of evidence encountered in criminal investigations. During the course of the normal hair-growth cycle, hairs are readily lost from individuals, and these hairs may be transferred during the course of a criminal activity.”
“The forensic analysis of hair evidence can be extremely valuable in the examination of physical evidence by (1) demonstrating that there may have been an association between a suspect and a crime scene or a suspect and a victim or (2) demonstrating that no evidence exists for an association between a suspect and a crime scene or a suspect and a victim. Although the science of microscopic hair examination can never result in an identification, that is, conclude that a hair came from one individual to the exclusion of all others, the vast amount of both macroscopic and microscopic information available from hair analysis can provide a strong basis for an association and certainly provides strong exculpatory evidence. The final aim of any forensic examination must be to provide statements based on objective scientific observation that will be of value in a court of law or to any interested party involved in an investigation.”
Some critiques of hair researchers in American courtrooms still find that hair sample science in American courtrooms is still operating at a jury-opinion level similar to “snake oil” medication sales of the 19th century. In other words, a hair expert is brought into a courtroom and jargon implying the miracles of modern science and technology are used to bedazzle the audience into accepting the validity of a piece of hair convicting a man of murder.
Besides the dangers of propaganda mad by hair sample experts, the dangers of propaganda by spin doctors in America are to be more carefully and critically observed in America by potential jurors and citizens at all-times, i.e. not just in a regular courtroom.
Both young and older viewers of CSI often forget that in our real world normally,police forces around the USA do not have the resources or event the talent to use the resources that the investigators in the TV series(es) have. This fact that the potential jurors in American courtrooms may overestimate the power of sophisticated crime scene investigators nationwide is one reason for me to take time and write this particular article. (I desire to write you because I am a social science educator by training.)


Americans only have to look at the misguided invasion of Iraq in 2003 to see how easily the courtroom of American opinion can be manipulated by sensationalist media tycoons and through the hands of expert Washington spin-doctors. Because of the average American’s bad comprehension of well-known facts and realities on the ground in Iraq between 1991 and 2003, one of the more important—yet bungled--decisions by the American public and their government sent American soldiers in March of 2003 off to fight, off to be injured, off to be paralyzed for life, and off to die for evidence that was quite faulty logic and fuzzy thinking (and fictitious) from the outset.. (This faulty investigation from America’s best and most manipulative politicians was the so-called smoking gun evidence that Sadam Hussain’s Iraq had nuclear and chemical weapons in 2003.)
Moreover, this particular decision was bullied through the American courtroom of public opinion in March 2003--even though 100s of thousands of informed Americans were in the streets protesting the bad judgment of the exploitive and manipulative elements of the USA intelligence community.

CLOSER TO HOME: OSBI in the 1980s and Now

In John Grisham’s only non-fiction book, THE INNOCENT MAN (2006), the author chronicles how the police investigators of the small-town of Ada, Oklahoma send 4 innocent men to jail (and in some cases onto death row) in 3 different trials in the 1980s based on very bad evidence, including hair samples, and on expert witness testimony of OSBI (Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation) officials.
In each of these cases, all kinds of rules were broken in terms of how to carry out investigation. For example, the scene of a kidnapping at a convenience store was cleaned by the owner of the store while a policeman stood around. That is, the crime scene was obviously not secured—making fingerprinting useless. It is also not clear that the expert testimony on hair samples at one of the major crime scenes followed the rules of proper investigation of all 30 sets of samples he had been given. (The OSBI hair sample expert from Enid, Oklahoma had spent two years on three sets of samples and then one month on the other 27 sets of samples.)
In many other instances, prisoners were bullied for hours in a police station before Miranda rights were read and even before the interrogation was taped. In one case, a supposed confession went unsigned. Meanwhile, the actual killer had been in police custody several times over a period of five years, but he had never been asked to give hair, semen, saliva, or any other samples for investigation.
The only apparent reason for railroading the 4 men (in two different crimes) into the Oklahoma penitentiary was that, supposedly, the people of Ada needed a sense of justice. This blind scream for biased or out-of-whack justice kind of reminds me of what one long-time Oklahoman told me in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. She had stated simply that George W. Bush wanted justice. The younger Busgh was out to get justice on Saddam Hussein, who had supposedly tried to assassinate his father, George H.W. Bush on a visit to Kuwait in 1992.
The former Oklahoman just shrugged her shoulders at the thought of someone trying to get in the way of a Texan seeking revenge.


The main protagonist of the tale, THE INNOCENT MAN, is one Ronald Williams, who is finally exonerated in 2002 for murdering a young women of Ada. Before William’s trial, the Oklahoma judge (who should have not even tried Ron Williams because he was often mentally incompetent and needed treatment often by the state’s mental health institutions over the decades) explained what Ron Williams was up against in a courtroom. “It’s kind of like a sporting event as far as the adversary process. Each side has an opportunity to be on defense, but you can’t take issue with the with the fact that each side gets these opportunities. That’s just part of the process.”
Ron Williams retorted, “Yeah, but I’m the football being kicked.”
Early on, John Grisham tells the readers of his non-fiction work that Oklahoma—dating to its Indian territory days—had a long history of vigilante justice.
The small city of Ada, had its heyday in 1909 when 4 men were taken from the court house and lynched.
The 1988 trials of Ronald Keith Williamson and Dennis Leon Fritz ended in the dearth row for Williamson and to Fritz getting a life sentence. It took 12 to 14 years to exonerate the two men. The earlier trial of other two men, Tommy Ward and Terry Fontenot, who were charged in a murder under similar peculiar circumstances in Ada, are still in Oklahoma penitentiaries.


According to many sources, “Williamson received the death penalty and at one point came within five days of being executed in Oklahoma's death chamber. Williamson's appeals processes had been exhausted and his family had made his funeral arrangements as the date for his execution neared.”
Williams was saved by the fact that “Mr. Fritz managed to convince a federal judge to order DNA testing. DNA testing which not only cleared Fritz but also Williamson. An innocent man would have met his death by lethal injection in what can only be called that which it is, ‘state sanctioned murder’, were it not for the success of the appeal of another man.
U.S. District Judge Frank H. Seay eventually had the“wisdom” and “the courage to act to right a gross injustice we also condemn the criminal justice and appellate courts system of Oklahoma for gross incompetence as well as a total disregard for both the law and the US Constitution.”
Each courtroom—one in Ada, and one at US District court—“had had before it the identical information which led Judge Seay to overturn the convictions of Williamson and Fritz. Each had the power to order DNA testing. Each had information which even without the results of DNA testing clearly indicated that the men failed to receive a fair trial. Each had the facts which pointed to a travesty of justice and which led Judge Seay to state:’God help us, if ever in this great country we turn our heads while people who have not had fair trials are executed. That almost happened in this case.’”
Critiques of the state justice system and lack of good quality crime investigation practices in Oklahoma asked, “Why then did the Oklahoma criminal justice and appellate systems fail so miserably? Why was the state so ready and eager to execute an innocent man? The answers to these questions are best found in the words and actions of District Attorney Bill Peterson, who prosecuted the murder trials. Petterson soon noted, "At this point, we don't know who the hairs belong to. We haven't tested them against anybody except (Ronald Keith) Williamson and (Dennis Leon) Fritz. There was no question in my mind when we started the whole DNA process that these 2 men were guilty."
Most importantly, all witnesses to the facts emphasized: “It should be noted that DA Patterson did not charge his ‘star witness’ with the crime until more than two years passed after DNA testing revealed that Williamson and Fritz were innocent and the DA's "star witness" was implicated in the crimes. That ‘star witness’, Glen Gore, was a classmate of the victim. Gore testified in Fritz’s trial, saying he saw Williamson with the victim the night she was killed. The transcript of Gore’s testimony was read at Williamson’s trial when Gore refused to testify.”
Oklahoma law critics have stated: “Hopefully as a result of this travesty of justice not only will DA Peterson but also Oklahoma juries, judges and appellate courts learn to ‘question’ the quicky and easy solutions in our rush to judgment.”
Such critics “refuse to in the words of Judge Seay ‘turn our heads and look the other way and we urge you to do likewise. There can be no justice for anyone until there is justice for everyone. This is true even in Oklahoma.’”
The worst fact is: “While the Williamson/Fritz case is shocking, even more disheartening is the fact that this case is not all that unusual in Oklahoma, a state which prides itself on a reputation for being ‘tough on crime’. If only we could manage to get the right persons the first time around it might help us gain a reputation as a state where justice is served rather than perverted.”
In short, Oklahoma [like Texas] “is a state where the ‘word’ of police officers, prosecution witnesses and districts attorney are held in a degree of reverence associated with Biblical commandments and as such are often unquestioned by juries, judges and appellate courts in a head long rush to judgment to convict someone, anyone and this without regard to guilt or innocence.”
See link to the Daily Oklahoman Special on the Police Lab Scandal about other Oklahoma scandals. “Numerous reports there center upon Oklahoma City Police Lab Chemist, Joyce Gilchrist, the person at the heart of that on-going scandal. She was also the prosecution witness that provided ‘scientific’ testimony in the Williamson/Fritz case. Testimony which not only resulted in the false conviction of the two men but also discounted as a suspect the prosecution's star witness. That man, Glen Gore is now charged with the rape/murder for which Williamson and Fritz were falsely convicted, served 12 years in jail and prison and in the case of Williamson was almost murdered by the State of Oklahoma.”

EPILOGUE: The Ward and Fontenot Case
Meanwhile, as millions of Americans are bedazzled each week by the investigative technology and CSI episodes from CBS-TV and AXN-TV, another two Ada victims still sit in Oklahoma penitentiaries. They are the aforementioned Tommy and Teri Fontenot.
Their tale was already chronicled in the non-fiction work, THE DREAMS OF ADA, before Williams and Fritz case went to trial.
According to the publishers, Robert Mayer’s,THE DREMS OF ADA “is [t]he true, bewildering story of a young woman’s disappearance, the nightmare of a small town obsessed with delivering justice, and the bizarre dream of a poor, uneducated man accused of murder—a case that chillingly parallels the one, occurring in the very same town, chronicled by John Grisham in The Innocent Man.
In Mayer’s tale: “On April 28, 1984, Denice Haraway disappeared from her job at a convenience store on the outskirts of Ada, Oklahoma, and the sleepy town erupted. Tales spread of rape, mutilation, and murder, and the police set out on a relentless mission to bring someone to justice. Six months later, two local men—Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot—were arrested and brought to trial, even though they repudiated their ‘confessions,’ no body had been found, no weapon had been produced, and no eyewitnesses had come forward. The Dreams of Ada is a story of politics and morality, of fear and obsession. It is also a moving, compelling portrait of one small town living through a nightmare.”
In this tale about a tale of dreams, we learn how Tommy Ward had a dream about the kidnapping and the murder of the young Denise Hathaway that proved to be untrue in almost every detail. Nonetheless, Ward and Fontenot are convicted for a dream because the town of Ada and its worried citizens were seeking closure.
The two, Fontenot and Ward, have been in jail for more than 22 years—both serving life sentences. According to FACEBOOK supporters, “There is no way these two men could have possibly murdered Denice Haraway. They are both imprisoned for life for a murder they did not commit. They were convicted guilty based on a FALSE dream they had confessed (in order for the cops to stop harassing them, they gave them a bogus story hoping the cops would realize the truth that they are truly innocent..eventually, their hope went from days to weeks to months to years and now we are looking at life.) They remain in prison. the evidence the plaintiffs had was absolutely ZERO. They convicted them based on their bogus story. NO DNA, No physical evidence, NO nothing. It has been 22 years in counting.
Watchers of CSI and real-potential jurors of America need to remember, “Every time an innocent man is convicted, a guilty man goes free.”


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