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Federal Prison Handbook

Articles by Michael Fortino, Ph.D

Latest Forensic Technology, Pattern Analysis, May Be ‘Pseudoscience’

Television crime dramas and docudramas have, for decades, lulled the public into accepting the infallibility of forensic crime science. However, a groundbreaking study by the National Academy of Sciences (“NAS”) — made up of legal, technical, and policy experts authorized by Congress in 2005—was tasked with investigating the reliability of forensic science, ultimately casting serious doubt on many of the techniques investigators used to convict defendants.

According to S.J. Nightingale with the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, “The NAS Report” published in 2009, “calls for a broad and deep restructuring of how forensic techniques are validated and applied, and how forensic analysts are trained and accredited.” The report determined, “[with] the exception of nuclear DNA analysis ... no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”

One highly questionable technique routinely used over the past 50 years by the FBI to secure convictions is that of photographic pattern analysis. When subjected to rigorous, unbiased testing, photographic analysis may be used to compare something as innocuous as a seam pattern found ...

Virus Vigilantes v. Virus Violators: Shunning, Shaming, or Policing COVID-19 May not Be the Cure

Crises have a way of bringing out the best as well as the worst in all of us. When driven by fear of the unknown, and in this case the unknown is a microscopic viral assailant known respectfully as COVID-19, a society’s response can vary dramatically.

In the media, we are shown messages of hope, endurance, and recovery, yet for every positive message, the media seem to feed us two that promote shunning, shaming, and of course, political slamming.

Fear of the unknown tends to breed contempt, and during a crisis, the blame game turns to war. Human nature attempts to mask its own fear through the use of deflection, and because we are all at war with this epidemic, we tend to deflect by offering our opinion on who misspoke, who mis-stepped, or who misled us deeper into this contagion. 

Of course, not everyone is focused on the negative. We see people creating nonprofit food banks, setting up websites to offer volunteer services for the sick or elderly, and people hand-sewing masks from their basement or garage. We see the best in people.

On the flip side of that equation, however, we also witness the ...

Repeat Offenders May Be the Result of Different Brain Composition

With consideration for the age-old adage, “nurture versus nature,” a recent study suggests that the single common characteristic shared by repeat offenders may be isolated to the structure and composition of the brain itself, suggesting “nature” may trump “nurture” as the key to identifying a future career criminal.

According to the Ministry of Justice in England and Wales, a 2006 study showed that although criminal behavior may arise in adolescence, most who may have stolen a candy bar or picked a fight on the schoolyard go on to become well-balanced, law-abiding adults. The study suggested that only about 10% continue along a path of criminality, but it is unclear if this non-conformity to social rules could be the product of a broken home, a deprived lifestyle, misguided role models, or a biological anomaly that presents itself as a striking difference in the makeup of the brain.

“These findings,” suggests Professor Essi Viding, “underscore prior research that really highlights that there are different types of young offenders—they should not all be treated the same.” Terrie Moffit, a professor at Duke University, and part of the research team behind the study, upon evaluating biological differences in brain structure, ...

Fact or Fiction, Television Crime Shows Ignore Racism and Reality

by Michael Fortino, Ph.D.

Both fictional and non-fictional depictions of crime and justice abound on television, film, and throughout the media, yet nearly all exist in an alternate reality ignoring racism and balance. Americans have developed a boundless appetite for such fare in our society, yet they are being fed a skewed and unrealistic version of the criminal justice system.

Recently, Color of Change, a not-for-profit civil rights organization studied 26 scripted series that focused on crime and justice in the 2017-2018 season. The study claims that many of these productions advance “distorted representations of crime, justice, race and gender in media and culture.” According to Valencia Gunder, a Miami community activist, “the media continues to represent preconceived notions based on stereotypes.” She goes on to suggest, “The crime genre glorifies, justifies and normalizes the systematic violence and injustice meted out by police, making heroes out of police and prosecutors who engage in abuse, particularly against people of color.”

Non-fiction shows like Live PD and Cops, which follow the “reality” show format, often portray police as beleaguered defenders and public servants who sometimes overstep constitutional limits in order to promote safety. This simplistic idea of “justice” heralds back to ...

Life Sentence for Murder Overturned by New DNA Technology

by Michael Fortino, Ph.D.

After nearly 10 years behind bars, Lydell Grant, now 42, is on his way to being exonerated after the highest criminal appellate court in Texas vacated his conviction following its review of revised DNA evidence analyzed through newly developed proprietary software known as “TrueAllele.” 

“I really believe that my story will be able to help someone else’s,” says Grant.

Nearly a decade ago, Grant was handed a life sentence in a Texas courtroom for the stabbing murder of Aaron Scheerhoorn outside a Houston gay bar in December, 2010.

To convict Grant, prosecutors relied mainly upon eyewitness testimony who described the assailant as black, age 25-30, and about 6 feet tall. Police believed the stabbing had been a “crime of passion.”

Following a tip describing the suspect’s car, an officer pulled over a vehicle in which Grant was driving just five days after the murder. At the time, Grant was driving on a suspended license. He also had an extensive criminal record that included aggravated robbery.

Seven witnesses then picked Grant out of a lineup as Scheerhoorn’s attacker. Throughout the investigation, Grant maintained his innocence, insisting he had never met Scheerhoorn and even produced an alibi ...



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