Shelby County Public Defender’s Office Brings National Criminal Defense Training to Memphis

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During the past 20 years, DNA technology has produced valuable evidence in cases that would have, otherwise, gone unsolved.

But juries, judges, police, prosecutors, and even defense attorneys often assign such great value and trust to DNA and other forensic science, that little attention had been paid to whether the science is actually good.

A 2009 study by the National Academy of Sciences resulted in a landmark report calling into question the validity of certain forensic practices and findings.  The study found that although many forensic scientists produce reliable findings, the field is riddled with practioners using junk science for everything from arson investigations to bitemark identification to hair and fingerprint anaylsis. Some of these shoddy practices have put innocent people behind bars or on death row, while allowing the real perpetrator to remain free.

“We did a national needs assessment over the internet asking attorneys what the training needs were.” said Georgia Vagenas, assistant counsel with the American Bar Association. “Out of the 2000 responses, we found one of the huge areas was forensics. This was about the time of the National Academy of Sciences report, there were so many questions. Now their whole worldview of forensics was turned around regarding what they thought was valid science.” 

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Shelby County Public Defenders gather at the FedEx Institute on the University of Memphis campus.

The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office partnered with the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to bring a two-day training program to Memphis.  The program, “Defending in a New Era of Forensic Sciences,” was a combination of lecture and breakout groups facilitated by some of the nation’s foremost experts in forensic defense.

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Prof. Christopher McKee of University of Colorado School of Law and co-founder of Forensic Defense Strategies, LLP, speaks to attorneys about the “CSI effect,” and how it has produced a nearly unshakeable trust in forensic science among juries, judges and attorneys.

“One of the greatest challenges for any lawyer is to understand complex issues. Anymore, we are finding a reliance on science to prove a case, which is fine, but we’re also finding out that science, or what purports to be science, is not really science as a result of many, many exonerations across the country,” said Norman Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). “So, it’s extremely important that those on the frontline of defending accused people have a familiarity with, not too much the specific sciences, but with the general concepts of how to deal with what is offered as science in criminal prosecution”

See these graphics depicting how people are wrongly convicted via the Innocence Project.

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Norman Reimer (upper left corner) —  executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) — leads a group of Shelby County public defenders in direct and cross-examination practice session. 

Shelby County supervising public defender, Donna Armstard, first encounted forensic defense training at an American Bar Association seminar in 2011.  She immediately began working with the ABA to bring the training to Memphis. 

“I spoke with some of our attorneys before leaving for the conference, and they told me that when a forensic issue comes up, it is a matter of going out and buying a book or looking up something to educate yourself quickly.” said Armstard. ” I thought we could probably benefit our clients  more by getting the training, so that we can be experts in our own way or at least find the best avenues to challenge forensic evidence brought by the state. It’s important in the representation of our clients”

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Gerald Skahan, head counsel of the Capital Defense Team for the Shelby County Public Defender’s office, was one of the local trainers for the two day program.  Skahan (far right) is shown leading a demonstration cross-examination about the forensics involved in an arson scenario. 

The program was funded by a grant through the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The BJA is part of an effort by the Department of Justice to support criminal justice systems through training and strategic planning.  

Click here to see the website about the Memphis forensics training.

Read more stories of justice from Memphis and beyond on JustCity.org

This blog is written by the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.

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