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Bad ballistics
Hundreds of people have gone to prison on the word of Boston’s untrained, unqualified, unskilled firearms examiners

The smoking gun. It is the icon of investigative perfection, of irrefutable evidence connecting criminal to crime. Yet it is more than mere symbol: the reports and testimony of the Boston Police Department’s (BPD) ballistics unit have been critical to putting hundreds of people in prison since the lab opened 40 years ago, and dozens more every year.

But the Phoenix has discovered that these firearms examiners — the officers who analyze bullets and cartridge casings to determine whether a particular gun was used for a particular crime — are ill-trained and inept. Compared with their counterparts in big cities like New York, smaller cities like Pittsburgh, or states like Illinois, Boston’s firearms examiners are amateurs, who would not qualify to work in those other jurisdictions.

The BPD’s firearms examiners were not selected based on any particular science background or skill with firearms. They have been given no special training or sent to any classes on ballistics identification. They are given no particular oversight. They have had a recurring problem with misplaced evidence, as BPD firearms examiner Martin Lydon has conceded during testimony.

And when these ballisticians, as they’re called, have failed basic proficiency exams (as one recently admitted and then retracted on the stand), their supervisors’ response has been to do nothing about it.

Furthermore, some of these BPD personnel appear to have deliberately misled juries. In cases where they only have evidence that could match a bullet or cartridge to a particular brand of gun, they have been willing to report, and testify, that it matches a specific gun.

While DNA experts display their findings with numerical precision, and fingerprint experts demonstrate specific "points of correspondence" against industry standards, the field of bullet- and cartridge-matching has barely advanced, experts say, since it was used in the Sacco and Vanzetti trial in the 1920s. The recent trend across the country is to prove expertise in ballistics through accreditation by a national standard-setting body. Driven by a desire to gain such legitimacy, the BPD claims to be heading towards that goal. But two years into the process it appears that the BPD’s ballistics lab hasn’t made a dent in fixing its systemic flaws. And in their typical fashion, the department will not concede that anything was wrong to begin with, and they are not hiring anyone with expertise in the field.

Instead, they transferred Lieutenant Catherine Doherty to command the unit. Before joining the lab last December, Doherty conducted background investigations on the department’s new recruits and had never conducted a firearm examination. The department did send her to a training class at the California Criminalistics Institute — more than they’ve done with any other member of the unit. In many labs, this training would have been the first step, qualifying her to begin a one- or two-year apprenticeship. But at the ballistics unit of the BPD, Doherty has been made the boss, reviewing other ballisticians’ work and testifying at trials.

Meanwhile, the other firearms examiners at the BPD have no external training in their craft. (They do occasionally attend classes, sponsored by gun sellers, about the manufacture of their firearm models.) They were all trained solely through apprenticeships — tagging along for a year with a senior ballistician who learned the same way from someone else who learned the same way. If any bad habits or low standards got into the mix, nothing prevented them from being passed down for 40 years. "A lot of problems are very easy to fall into with the apprentice system," says James Gannola, an independent forensic consultant in Brooklyn, New York, who moved the New York City ballistics unit away from that kind of training 10 years ago. Earlier this year he submitted a business proposal to do the same for the BPD, but he never heard back from them.


Firearm examiners, more than most other forensics technicians, ask the jury to rely strictly on the results of their expertise. To reach their conclusions, examiners test-fire a suspect gun to create a bullet or cartridge casing, and then compare those to the bullets or casings found at a crime scene. They are looking for "sufficient" corresponding microscopic markings to declare them a match — to say that they must have been fired by the same gun. Explaining to a jury how they arrive at a given conclusion is nearly impossible; it would be similar, some say, to explaining which lines and markings you used to recognize a person’s face.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that firearm matching is less valid; but it does mean that juries — and detectives, prosecutors, and defendants — must take the examiners’ conclusions on faith. Their ability to do the work well is, therefore, of critical importance, which is why most forensics labs employ a quality-assurance manager — although not the BPD, even though the accreditation they want requires one. And an increasing number of labs periodically administer proficiency exams to their ballisticians.

Until two weeks ago, nobody outside the BPD seems to have known whether the department even tested its firearms examiners. Then, on the stand during a pre-trial hearing in Suffolk Superior Court, Detective Tyrone Camper surprised the prosecutor and defense attorneys by saying that in his eight years in the unit, he had been given "four or five" proficiency tests by the unit’s previous commander, Mark Vickers, the most recent being perhaps a year and a half ago. In each, he had been given several shell casings and told to determine which of them did and which did not come from the gun provided.

Camper could not recall all of his results, but he knew that he failed some, and he believed that he may have passed some.

A week later, on the stand again, Camper recanted. "I have come to learn that I have not failed any" proficiency tests, he said. "I have come to learn that I have passed them."

In a city and state where the public is obsessed with MCAS results, this sort of happy-go-lucky attitude about expertise and testimony that could send people to prison, in some instances for life, is strange indeed.


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Issue Date: October 7 - 13, 2005
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