Earlier this year, ProPublica ran stories about Richard Vorder Bruegge, a longtime forensic “image examiner” with the FBI. In fact, Vorder Bruegge heads up the FBI’s Forensic Audio, Video and Image Analysis Unit in Quantico, Va. From the introductory article:
"Just as DNA examiners can point to repeating base pair matches to justify an identification, image examiners must be able to point to actual physical features on a face or body to justify their conclusions in court,” an FBI publication from 2008 read.
A bank robbery trial 16 years ago was a watershed for such testimony. Prosecutors charged an ex-convict with robbing a string of banks across South Florida over two years. Richard Vorder Bruegge, an FBI image examiner, told jurors that the button-down plaid shirt found in the defendant’s house was the exact shirt on the robber in black-and-white surveillance pictures. The examiner said he matched lines in the shirt patterns at eight points along the seams.
The prosecutor asked Vorder Bruegge what were “the odds in which two shirts would be randomly manufactured by the company, having all those eight points of identification lining up exactly the same?”
Only 1 in 650 billion shirts would randomly match so precisely, Vorder Bruegge said, “give or take a few billion." . . .
The statistics were also preposterous, seven statisticians and independent forensic scientists told ProPublica.
The features Vorder Bruegge matched might be common in plaid shirts, making them of little value for identifying the garment, said Karen Kafadar, chair of the statistics department at the University of Virginia. No one has studied the alignment of lines on men’s button-down shirts. There is no database of shirt features allowing Vorder Bruegge to calculate the probability of a random match, a statistic used to explain results from DNA typing.
Kafadar has worked in forensic science validation for the past two decades, contributing to a groundbreaking study of the FBI’s bullet lead analysis. She said Vorder Bruegge’s statements are brazen.
“Somehow they feel perfectly entitled to make outrageous statements,” said Kafadar, who said the 1-in-650-billion claim “makes about as much sense as the statement two plus two equals five.”
You might remember that during the Obama administration, a number of scientific bodies pointed out that pattern-matching fields of forensics have a problem: There is no science to them. As these studies and reports came out, Justice Department and FBI officials assured us over and over that they had all of this under control. The Trump administration has taken an even harder line. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions allowed the Commission on Forensic Science to expire, and instead installed a former prosecutor (and defender of the status quo) named Ted Hunt to oversee the Justice Department’s use of forensic evidence. Skeptics (like me) were unpersuaded. The fact that Mr. Vorder Bruegge is still working cases for the FBI speaks volumes about how seriously we should take this latest round of assurances.
But my fellow journalists share some of the blame in all of this, too. I’ve noticed in covering this issue that journalists seem to love stories about how new “science” and new expertise are being used to solve crimes. We swallow them up, often without a hint of skepticism. That tends to legitimize those fields. Back in 1982, for example, the Economist wrote about how computers might be sued to process scientific data in criminal trials. With awed prose and little skepticism, the magazine rattled off a litany of forensic fields now known to be devoid of science, including arson investigation, “voice print” identification and ballistics identification. After summarizing how computers might aid fingerprint analysis, or even be able to identify people through enzymes or bacterial emissions, the article turns to bite-mark evidence, which the magazine says “can be even more discriminating. A group at the Center for Health Sciences at the University of California has found that variations in back teeth can distinguish even identical twins.”
In our recent book, Tucker Carrington and I documented all the positive press about the notorious bite-mark analyst and all-around forensic charlatan Michael West as he began to build his career. When West took his voodoo to Florida in the late 1980s to help catch a serial killer, he received reverent and deferential coverage across a wide spectrum of media outlets, from the Associated Press and local Florida dailies to national publications such as Vanity Fair, to “The Phil Donahue Show.” (Despite the media hype, West failed to help catch the killer.)
But back to Mr. Vorder Bruegge. Over the years, the FBI analyst has testified in numerous cases, claiming, for example, that he can use security camera footage to estimate the height of figure in that footage, that he can distinguish child pornography images that feature real children from those that are fake, or that he can identify specific automobiles from grainy images captured on video.
Perhaps he’s very good at those sort of analyses. But his clothing analysis is unscientific and shouldn’t be allowed in court. But it sure sounds cool. And that’s why he too has been the subject of some deferential media coverage. Here’s the BBC on him in 1998:
A decade ago scientists developed a revolutionary new way to identify criminals through their genes. Now, they can identify them through their jeans.
Richard Vorder Bruegge, a forensic scientist with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, has invented a way of analysing closed circuit television (CCTV) pictures which enables the police to match criminals to their trousers.
The process was used for the first time late last year to convict Charles Barbee, the leader of a white separatist gang responsible for two bank robberies in Spokane, Washington, in April 1996.
The masked Barbee thought he had outwitted the cameras in the bank he was robbing. But he made one serious mistake: wearing one of his favourite pair of blue jeans.
The offending articles were found at Barbee’s home and, after enlarging a still from the CCTV film, Mr Vorder Bruegge was able to match 25 distinguishing characteristics which proved they were the pair worn in the bank video.
Here’s the Chicago Tribune, in 1999:
Using pictures of clothing to catch criminals is nothing new, but investigators like Richard Vorder Bruegge have added a new wrinkle to the process. Vorder Bruegge is an examiner with the FBI Crime Lab’s special photographic unit and worked on the Barbee case. His expertise is photographic forensic science -studying photos to find clues that can help solve crimes. . . .
“Every piece of clothing that you own is going to undergo abuse during your lifetime,” Vorder Bruegge said. “If you’re a kid, maybe you’re sliding down hills and getting a lot of scrapes on the jeans. Or maybe your jeans get washed and ironed. But you’re rubbing them back and forth, and the blue dye is abraded.”
Here’s Wired, in 1998:
If you have plans to rob a bank or stick up a 7Eleven, best stick with the formal wear – slacks or corduroys – and leave the blue jeans in the closet. FBI scientists reported at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in February that they are using a new technique to identify criminals – analyzing the unique wear patterns of denim jeans and comparing them to photographs taken from crime scenes.
The Associated Press also covered Vorder Bruegge’s blue jean theories in a 1998 article that also sang the praises of a bite-mark analyst who claimed to have solved crimes by matching bites on a two-year-old piece of weather stripping and a wad of chewing gum, respectively. Vorder Bruegge’s clothing analysis was also touted by USA Today, the Daily Mail, the Independent, the Ottawa Citizen and several Australian newspapers. He was interviewed by “CBS This Morning” and featured in two episodes of the popular syndicated true-crime show “Forensic Files.” None of these outlets thought to ask a bona fide scientist or statistician to analyze Vorder Bruegge’s claims. His name pops up in another wave of stories in the mid-2000s about the use of digital photography in criminal cases.
In an illustration of just how difficult it will be to rein in the excesses of the forensics world, in 2014, Vorder Bruegge was named chair of the National Institute of Science Technology’s Organization of Scientific Area Committee on digital media. This was a committee that was supposed to reform forensics. But that also isn’t surprising. As I reported here, the committee on bite-mark analysis was actually stocked with practitioners of bite-mark analysis, which is like assembling a team of tarot card readers to assess the scientific validity of tarot cards. (Vorder Bruegge also served as a chair for the annual American Academy of Forensic Sciences conference last February in Baltimore.)
The lesson here is when a self-proclaimed expert starts claiming he or she can solve crimes by using some new method of analysis, we journalists ought to be skeptical. We ought to ask if this new method is subjective or objective, if it has a rate of error, and if the proponent of this new field would be willing to be subjected to blind testing (or if such testing is even possible). We tend to be suckers for new technology and niche expertise, and that enthusiasm can cloud our natural skepticism. Flattering profiles of people peddling pseudoscience give those peddlers legitimacy, both with courts and with juries, and that false legitimacy has contributed to wrongful convictions. Whether it’s a bite-mark analyst, a guy who claims he can identify a specific pair of blue jeans in a grainy security video, or someone who, say, claims he can solve crimes by analyzing knots, some dubiety is in order.