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‘Junk science’ has long been hindering crime fighting around world


The family of Mary McLaughlin had to wait decades before DNA advances finally convicted Graham McGill of her murder in her flat in 1984.

As is obvious from such a welcome development, cold cases can often become “hot” again through scientific advances, although we also have to be aware of “junk science” – supposed techniques, analysis, or data that are in fact not rigorous “science” at all.

And junk science has bedevilled criminal justice systems across the globe for years in the form of phrenology – identifying personal characteristics from the shape and size of the head, “shaken baby syndrome”, forensic odontology – bite marks – and microscopic hair comparison.

Last week, I was interested in the quashing of the case against Anthony Broadwater, the 61-year-old black man who had spent 16 years in prison in New York for the rape of author Alice Sebold, whilst she was a student at Syracuse University in 1981.

Five months after the rape, Sebold told police she had passed her assailant on the street and this led to his arrest.

However, in a line-up of five men Sebold identified a different man, though she later identified Broadwater as the rapist in court – testimony that led to his conviction, along with analysis of a microscopic hair found on Sebold that prosecutors insisted proved it was him.

There’s that junk science again.

Sebold wrote about her rape in searing detail in her 1999 memoir Lucky.

And she would later come to even greater prominence through her book The Lovely Bones, which sold millions and was made into a Peter Jackson film.

Speaking after Broadwater’s exoneration, Sebold said she continued to “struggle with the role that I unwittingly played within a system that sent an innocent man to jail”, and blamed the “flawed legal system” of the US for sending him to prison.

She also issued a direct apology to Broadwater, who now lives with his wife in the countryside and who seem to exist in what has been described as “straightened circumstances” – a polite way of saying they are poor and live in a derelict apartment block.

It is clear Sebold was raped – she was a victim of a heinous crime and it is unlikely her rapist will ever be brought to justice. That’s a tragedy.

However, l wonder if, like me, you find it disingenuous that she imagines that she has “unwittingly” played a part in Broadwater’s wrongful conviction?

“Unwittingly” means accidentally, or unintentionally, and that simply isn’t true – she gave testimony from the witness stand that led directly to his conviction.

I’ve no doubts as to the sincerity of her apology but I wonder if there’s more that Sebold should do to right this wrong?

Scribners, the publishers of Lucky, have temporarily withdrawn the book from sale but will Sebold now change the account of her rape in the book and, if she is really sorry, then it does seem to me that some of the profit that she made from her memoir should also go to Broadwater.

DNA can’t unlock Bible John identity

I’ve spent all week answering scores of emails about Bible John and I blame my colleague Jane Hamilton with whom I endlessly debate this sequence of murders.

These emails fell into two categories. The first from those who wanted to share with me that they had “danced” with the serial killer at the Barrowland Ballroom and were more or less certain of his identity.

The second related to DNA evidence and how this might prove the guilt or innocence of a number of different suspects but specifically Peter Tobin.

I have to be honest and – without being too flippant – say that if everyone who claimed to have danced with Bible John had actually done so, then I doubt that he would ever have had the time to commit any murders.

As for DNA evidence, a subject I considered at some length for a book I wrote about the case, I was assured by detectives on the case that there was no “usable” DNA – how it had been collected and then stored meant that it was degraded and was therefore unreliable.

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