Science and the Spector prosecution

The Times’ March 29 editorial, “Spector — and expert witnesses — on trial,” in which you raise questions about the credibility of expert witnesses retained by criminal defendants, and particularly Phil Spector, is disturbing not only because its timing suggests an intention to influence public opinion while the Spector jury is deliberating, but more importantly because it betrays a misunderstanding of the real workings of the justice system. It also inexplicably ignores the findings reached by the National Academy of Sciences, the nation’s most prestigious scientific organization, in a study of the dismal quality of work produced by crime labs throughout the United States -- a study on which The Times reported in February.

To begin, crime labs are organized and directed by law enforcement agencies, and the “experts,” or scientists, they employ are paid law enforcement agents. The result, as the study found, is that scientific objectivity is routinely sacrificed to the perceived needs of law enforcement. The study supplies several hundred -- and the Spector case more than a dozen -- examples of crime lab scientists tailoring their findings, or even fabricating them, to fit the theories of police officers and prosecutors.

Yet juries are routinely convinced -- as apparently is The Times -- that these scientists are simply public servants doing their jobs without bias.

But the bias is pervasive. As the Spector record reveals, from the moment police officers and their scientist experts arrived at the scene, they alone determined what evidence was significant and what was not, what evidence should be tested and what should not, and what evidence should be seized and what should not. The seized evidence was then tested, retested, analyzed and reanalyzed in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department crime labs for 18 months.

As the prosecution “expert” witnesses admitted at trial, no expense was spared: Every test, experiment or analysis that was proposed was undertaken. The prosecution’s DNA expert alone spent more than 800 hours in his efforts. The sheriff’s chief criminalist could not estimate how many hours or public dollars she had spent, because no one had required her to keep any records, but she proudly asserted that she had spent months just on the examination of every square inch of clothing seized as evidence.

The L.A. County coroner admitted that in addition to undertaking every conceivable test and analysis, his office held meetings involving doctors, criminalists, sheriff’s crime lab personnel, sheriff’s investigators and representatives of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office to determine whether the death of Lana Clarkson could be declared a homicide even though the medical evidence could not support that determination.

Nonetheless, in September 2004, more than 19 months after the death, Spector was indicted. At that point, for the first time, Spector and his representatives were given access to the prosecution’s “scientific evidence.”

What is it that The Times suggests he should have done at that point? Is it your suggestion that law enforcement’s scientific evidence is nonpartisan and should not be challenged? Is that what the presumption of innocence directs? If not, what alternative does a defendant who maintains his innocence in the face of arguably partisan forensic evidence have? The only choice is to find independent forensic experts to challenge that evidence.

Unlike the prosecution, a defendant retains experts and pays for their time and effort. But as soon as he or she does that, prosecutors such as those in the Spector trial, abetted by your editorial writers, discount those witnesses for the fact alone that they have been paid.

It is true that one of Spector’s experts received about $181,000 for his work over four years and two trials. But there can be no doubt that several times this amount in public funds was spent just on the work and support of the prosecution’s chief criminalist.

A fair, objective, evenhanded approach to this issue should not have identified retained defense experts as the problem. One doesn’t have to be a member of the Spector defense team, as we are, to recognize that.

Attorney Doron Weinberg and trial consultant Susan Matross are members of Phil Spector’s criminal defense team.