The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The emperor of junk science forensics has died

According to local news reports, 66-year-old Robert O’Block died late last month in an apparent murder-suicide. It appears that O’Block shot himself after shooting and killing his 27-year-old girlfriend. It is a strange, tragic and violent end to a truly bizarre life.

O’Block was the founder and chief executive of the American College of Forensic Examiners Institute (ACFEI), which claims to be the largest forensics organization in the world. It may well be. But the group’s impressive size is as much a warning for the rest of us as it was an accomplishment for O’Block — because the rise of O’Block and the ACFEI embodies everything that’s wrong with how forensics is used in the American criminal-justice system.

The ACFEI story begins in the early 1990s. For about a decade, O’Block had been teaching criminal justice at Appalachian State University, a small liberal arts school in the Blue Ridge Mountains. But the school fired him in 1991, with college officials alleging that he falsely claimed co-authorship of several academic articles. (In a 2000 article in ABA Journal, O’Block insisted that his termination was retaliation for whistleblowing.) O’Block was subsequently hired by the criminal-justice department at the College of the Ozarks in southern Missouri.

While teaching in Missouri, O’Block took an interest in handwriting analysis, a highly subjective field of forensics that critics say hasn’t been subjected to scientific scrutiny. O’Block eventually applied for membership to an existing organization of forensic handwriting experts but was rejected. Rather than apply again, O’Block decided to form his own credentialing organization for the specialty. In 1992, he founded the American Board of Forensic Handwriting Analysts and put himself in charge. He began soliciting fees for membership and certification. According to a profile in Fraud magazine, the first “national training director” O’Block hired for his new organization was a man who had no more education than a high school diploma and who claimed he could enlarge women’s breasts through hypnosis. The breast-enlarging hypnotist would later resign, apparently because even he began to have doubts about what O’Block was doing in forensics.

And yet in spite of all of this, O’Block’s organization’s membership continued to grow. That’s because of a series of Supreme Court decisions that came down just a year after O’Block started the group. Until 1993, the admissibility of expert testimony in federal court and in nearly every state in the country was governed by a 1923 case for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit called Frye v. United States. In Frye, a polygraph instructor had testified that a rise in systolic blood pressure was indicative of lying. The court rejected that testimony and ruled that in order for scientific evidence to be admissible in federal court, it must have “gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.” But the most important part of the decision came almost by accident: It put judges in charge of determining what is and isn’t good science. Judges of course are trained in law, not science. Ever since, the courts have used a legal analysis to evaluate the merits of scientific evidence. The results have been disastrous.

It took another 70 years for the Supreme Court to address the issue of expert testimony. In the 1993 case Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, the plaintiffs alleged that a medication the company had marketed to pregnant women for morning sickness was causing birth defects. The Supreme Court used the case and two others to issue a sweeping series of rulings that sought to suss out the proper relationship between science and the law. In the end, the court found that the Frye “general acceptance test” risked excluding science that was not yet generally accepted by the status quo but could still be valuable in court. The justices instead instructed judges to consider a variety of other factors, such as whether an expert’s claims are testable, whether his or or her conclusions are subject to peer review, whether the methods are governed by standards and protocol, and whether a witness’ general testimony has been accepted within a particular scientific community.

But to be admitted, expert testimony needn’t meet all of these criteria. It’s left to judges to determine what weight and significance — if any — to assign each factor. Daubert opinions are scientifically suspect at best. They’re often little more than citations to other courts that have approved the evidence in question.

The immediate impact of the Daubert rulings was to create more space for expertise that had yet to be scientifically scrutinized (though it wasn’t all that difficult for such experts to testify before the ruling). But as with Frye, one of the decision’s most important effects was essentially an afterthought: It put the Supreme Court’s imprimatur on making judges the “gatekeepers” of expert testimony. Daubert is now the law in federal court and in all but nine states.

Asking judges to separate good science from bad has been as flawed in practice as it sounds in theory. Judges began to look for shortcuts, one of which was to rely on professional organizations and certification in considering Daubert challenges. The market responded, and soon the forensics field was awash in acronyms as certifying organizations sprang up to meet the demand. For O’Block, the timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous.

Within just a few years, O’Block expanded his new group to include other emerging fields of forensics. Administrators at the College of the Ozarks later told Fraud magazine that the school terminated O’Block when officials discovered he was using his students to collect fees, stuff envelopes and send out promotional materials for the new certifications on offer.

But by that point, O’Block no longer needed to teach. In 1995, he renamed his organization the American College of Forensic Examiners. He would later add the word “institute” after objections from a group already using the ACFE acronym. (That group is the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, which publishes Fraud magazine.) As his organization grew, O’Block formed a board of directors, consisting of him, his then-wife and his two minor children. He paid himself a salary just over $50,000 per year. And he started a hotline to hook his members up with lawyers in need of expert witnesses — 1-800-4AExpert.

ABA Journal reported that by 2000, the ACFEI offered “boards” in 11 specialties. It claimed more than 13,000 members and 17,000 diplomates (if you were a member, you could be a “diplomate” in more than one field). Revenue for the group topped $2 million that year, and O’Block’s salary rose to $200,000 per year. According to tax records obtained by the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader, O’Block earned more than $400,000 from the ACFEI and related organizations in 2010 and 2011.

Today, the ACFEI claims to be the largest forensic certification organization in the country. It probably is. It boasts celebrity forensic spokespersons, like the famed medical examiner Cyril Wecht and the forensic analyst Henry Lee, who worked on the O.J. Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey and Laci Peterson cases. It features certification in areas such as “forensic professional technologist.”  The “survival mindset” certification is taught by Dave Grossman. Regular readers of The Watch will recognize Grossman as the man behind controversial police training seminars such as “The Bulletproof Warrior.”

The group has several sub-specialty fields with names that sound suspiciously similar to existing, more reputable organizations. For example, it features a number of “advisory boards” that use the term “American Board” (the American Board of Forensic Medicine, American Board of Psychological Specialties, and so on). That same term is also used by more credible and widely accepted medical boards such as the American Board of Medical Specialties, the American Board of Pathology, and so on. There is a world of difference between a medical examiner telling a judge that he or she is certified by the American Board of Pathology vs. the American Board of Forensic Medicine. But both sound pretty official, and both sound like the sort of group that might certify medical examiners. Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys often don’t take the time to learn the difference.

One of the main criticisms of the ACFEI over the years is that the group seems to spend far more time and energy collecting fees from its members than it does verifying the expertise of the people it certifies. In fact, many members over the years have simply been grandfathered into certification or some other form of accreditation. They needed only to send a check and a résumé.

The Wall Street Journal reported in 1999 that ACFEI candidates who weren’t grandfathered in had to score 75 percent or higher on an ethics test. But the test was largely symbolic. It included questions such as “Is it ever okay to misrepresent yourself?” and “Is it ever okay to stretch the truth?” Failing applicants could retake the test up to three times. The test requirement could also be waived entirely if a candidate’s application accumulated 100 “points.” A published article was worth 10 points. Attending a “scientific meeting” was worth 5. A bachelor’s degree alone was worth 30. Points weren’t determined by the ACFEI, but by applicants themselves, using the honor system. And even that could be waived. “Dr. O’Block himself ultimately determines who gets a credential, based on his review of an applicant’s background,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

ABA Journal interviewed one psychiatry professor at Washington University in St. Louis who received ACFEI certification without trying. He had applied for certification after seeing an ad in the back of a medical journal. When he received the ethics test (which could be returned by mail), he said, “The questions were so trivial, I didn’t even bother to fill it out.” To his surprise, the ACFEI sent him his certification anyway, followed by solicitations for higher levels of certification — all for an additional fee, of course.

Similar stories abound. Former prison inmate Seymour Schlager was able to obtain a certification from the ACFEI’s “American Board of Forensic Medicine” while serving time for attempted murder. In 2002, one woman was able to get certification for her cat. O’Block took exception to that report. “First of all, ACFEI did not certify a cat,” he said. The group “certified a human being who used fraudulent credentials and called himself Dr. Katz.”

But that was sort of the point. The ACFEI never bothered to verify any of those credentials. And those credentials are what allowed the fictional feline to skip the take-home exam. ACFEI employees interviewed by ABA Journal reported that the ethics tests were often written by low-level staffers with little to no experience in the fields for which they had been assigned.

Despite the bad publicity, the ACFEI continued to grow throughout the 2000s. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the group began offering a certification in “Homeland Security.” After paying $500 and passing an ethics test, the group will grant something called Level I CHS (Certified in Homeland Security). For an additional $500, you can move up to Level II. A 2007 ad in Forensic Examiner, the ACFEI’s official publication, offered Homeland Certification up to Level V. (The program has proved lucrative. As of 2014 the U.S. Navy had paid the ACFEI more than $12 million to certify sailors through the organization.)

In 2004, O’Block created a company to oversee his other ventures, including the ACFEI. In 2011, he changed the name of that company to the Center for National Threat Assessment.

Oddly, the ACFEI hasn’t always been forthcoming about whom it certifies. Back in 2007, I contacted the organization to inquire about the controversial Mississippi medical examiner Steven Hayne. For years, Hayne had claimed in court to be “board-certified” in forensic pathology, despite the fact that he failed the certification exam given by the American Board of Pathology, generally recognized as the only legitimate certifying body for medical examiners. To my surprise, the group told me that it doesn’t release the names of the experts it has certified. That seems to defeat the entire purpose of certification. If the group won’t verify whom it has and hasn’t certified, anyone could claim to be certified. There’s no way to check.

In a subsequent article for Reason magazine, I noted that many former members and forensic specialists had criticized the ACFEI as a “certification mill.” (Hayne, like many other ACFEI diplomates, was grandfathered in for his certification. He had to provide only a résumé and pay a $350 fee.) That description prompted a letter to the editor from the group’s “certifications officer,” as well as a series of emails from the editor of the group’s Forensic Examiner magazine. The letter to the editor included vaguely threatening legal language calling my description of the ACFEI “false and disparaging” and “recklessly false and damaging” and warned that I could face “personal liability” for quoting other articles critical of the ACFEI. (O’Block and the ACFEI group have filed at least two defamation lawsuits against critics of the organization. Neither was successful.)

Despite ACFEI officials’ protestations that the group was not a “certification mill,” four years later a journalism grad student named Leah Bartos was able to get certified as a “forensic consultant,” despite having no prior experience in forensics. In an article for ProPublica and “Frontline,” Bartos wrote that to get the certification, she only had to watch a 90-minute video and pass a 100-question online test (with the assistance of the “study packets” the ACFEI had sent her). She also had to pay $495, plus an additional $165 in ACFEI membership dues. (For an additional $50, the ACFEI offered to send her a white lab coat.) In their correspondence with me, both ACFEI representatives claimed that candidates for the group’s various levels of credentials are extensively vetted. According to Bartos, no one from the ACFEI ever contacted any of her professional references.

When asked whether they’re worried that their certification programs are enabling unqualified “experts” to testify in court, ACFEI spokespersons will often say the group has never claimed that certification is meant to qualify a candidate as a witness. But ACFEI publications and promotional materials tell a different story. The descriptions of the group’s various programs advertise how important credentials are to establish credibility as an expert witness. For example, here’s copy from the page for the “Certified Forensic Physician” program:

Forensic Physicians hold an integral role in determining the outcome of many important court cases. Often in extreme cases of assault, murder, or rape, a Physician can unlock the information to put an assailant in jail, or to exonerate the innocent.

Here’s copy from the page for “Certified Medical Investigator”:

Medical investigators are often asked to do many different things. Sometimes they must analyze a crime scene for trace evidence; other times they must review a victim-dead or alive-for signs of violence, yet other times they must analyze DNA or other evidence, to convict the guilty or exonerate the wrongly accused.

Promotional materials also often include photos of courtrooms, gavels and other symbols of the legal system.

Of course, even properly credentialed experts can still give testimony that’s not credible. But proper credentials at least establish a baseline. They’re the minimum qualification to be certified as an expert witness. As Michigan circuit court judge Donald Shelton put it in Bartos’s 2012 ProPublica report, “Credentials are often appealing shortcuts,” adding that “jurors have no way of knowing that this certifying body, whether it’s this one or any other one, exacts scientific standards or is just a diploma mill.⁠” This is the confusion upon which O’Block built a credentialing empire.

Earlier this month, the ACFEI announced on its website that it had indefinitely suspended its operations in the wake of O’Block’s death. The group did not return an email requesting comment, but that notice has since been removed.

The News-Leader profile of O’Block describes him as a controlling, often abusive boss. He was married four times and was once sued for alleged sexual harassment (he settled). That lawsuit accused the ACFEI of paying for the “non-business expenses of O’Block and members of his family, girlfriends and employees.” According to the article, in his autobiography, O’Block dismisses criticism of his organization as little more than envy, writing, “If there is one thing that the history of mankind teaches, it is that success breeds contempt. No one who has ever reached the pinnacle of success has avoided wandering through the valley of the critics.” According to O’Block’s Facebook account, he was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump. That makes some sense. One of the first policies of the Trump Justice Department was to end its partnership with the National Commission on Forensic Science, a group whose aim was to bring scientific scrutiny to forensics.

In his autobiography, O’Block compares himself to Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Alexander Graham Bell. There’s no question that O’Block built an enormous organization, one that proved quite lucrative for him. But Edison and Bell were men of science. Ford, for all his flaws, was an innovator who improved the lives of millions. O’Block made his fortune helping others exploit a fatal flaw in the criminal-justice system. Some of the people O’Block has credentialed are no doubt genuine experts, but they didn’t need O’Block’s credentials in the first place. The people who need the credentials are those who can’t get credentialed by a more reputable organization, or who specialize in fields for which more reputable organizations don’t exist. Many of those people then put O’Block’s dubious credentials to work, whether by testifying in court, aiding in police investigations or giving professional advice they weren’t qualified to give.

O’Block had delusions of grandeur, but he could certainly say at his death what few others can: He changed the world. He made expertise less reliable, certification less reputable and the courts less just. He left the world a less honest, less reliable, less trustworthy place. But if it hadn’t been O’Block, it would have been someone else. Until we fix the flaws in our justice system that allowed him to flourish, another Robert O’Block will inevitably step up to take his place.