By Hassina Leelarathna
July 24 - (UPDATE: SL_USA) - Two high ranking UN officials hell-bent on using the disputed Channel 4 ‘Killing Fields’ video as a springboard for initiating an international war crimes investigation against Sri Lanka have misled the world and are getting away with it under the cover of ‘forensic science.’ An investigation into the background of the ‘experts’ the two officials, Special Rapporteur Philip Alston and Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns, commissioned to authenticate the disputed video has revealed some startling discrepancies and shocking professional lapses which question the validity and objectivity of their findings as much as their professional credentials.
In addition to hyping up and misrepresenting the qualifications of the ‘experts’ they commissioned to authenticate the video, the two officials used their high office to fool people into believing that ‘forensic video analysis’ – the apparent process their experts used to determine that the video was unaltered footage of live executions and atrocities by Sri Lankan forces captured on cell phone cameras during the final days of the war – is an objective, infallible scientific process.
In reality, the entire body of ‘forensic science,’ some of it a hodge podge of procedures developed by cops and popularized by CSI television shows, has come under attack in recent years. "There is no scientific foundation for it," Arizona State University law professor Michael Saks is quoted as saying. "As you begin to unpack it you find it's a lot of loosey-goosey stuff."
The ‘loosey-goosey’ discovered in unpacking the Channel 4 video ‘forensic analysis’ is set forth below.
Raring to pursue their mission of bringing war crimes charges against Sri Lankan authorities, Special UN Rapporteur Philip Alston and his successor Christof Heyns commissioned four US-based forensic specialists on two separate occasions to validate the disputed video. While Sri Lankan officials and experts have called the video a fake, all four experts they commissioned ended up telling the UN officials what they wanted to hear -- that it was authentic, with no alterations.
In the most recent development, on May 31, Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns told the media that he had reviewed the 5-minute, 25-second video frame by frame with his team of technical and forensic specialists and ‘concluded that the video suggests there is enough evidence to open a war-crimes case.’ That cue has unleashed a frenzy of screenings on national TV in England and Australia and at meetings of human rights agencies in the US.
The video, especially after the gold seal authenticity provided by the ‘experts, has become the main driver of international opinion against Sri Lanka. Ben De Pear, head of foreign affairs for Channel 4 News, was quoted as saying that the station chose to broadcast the footage after the ‘ U.N. experts helped it conclude that it is genuine.’
Mr. Alston commissioned three experts:
Forensic Pathologist Dr. Daniel Spitz
Forensic Video Analyst Jeffrey S. Spivack
Peter Diaczuk Firearms Specialist
Mr. Heyns added: Grant Fredericks, Forensic Video Analyst (who was also hired by The Times to assess the video)
Dr. Daniel Spitz – ‘Doc Hollywood’
“The man to call to give you the results you need.”
Channel 4 Video: Dr Spitz found that the footage appeared authentic, especially with respect to the two individuals who are shown being shot in the head at close range. He found that the
body reaction, movement, and blood evidence was entirely consistent with what would be expected in such shootings.
Forensic Pathologist and medical doctor, Daniel Spitz is the current Medical Examiner for Macomb County, Michigan.
Spitz is nicknamed ‘Doc Hollywood’ because of his frequent appearances on TV, was summoned before the County Board of Commissioners in November 2010 to explain his failure to locate the bullet that killed a local banker David Widlak who had gone missing for several weeks and whose body was found in a lake. Spitz said he did not find any blunt force trauma and ruled the death inconclusive, essentially endorsing the sheriff’s version that Widlak had committed suicide. Why the sheriff was anxious to have a potential homicide ruled a suicide remains a mystery. But just moments before the body was to be cremated, the family managed to have it sent to the Oakland County Medical Examiner , Ljubisa Dragovic, who found the bullet hole in the back of the victim’s head and ruled that Widlak had been killed execution style.
Spitz's botched autopsy earned mention in a yearlong investigation conducted by ProPublica in partnership with PBS’ Frontline. The ProPublica report noted: "[A] doctor in a suburb of Detroit autopsied the body of a bank executive pulled from a lake — and managed to miss the bullet hole in his neck and the bullet lodged in his jaw."
The Robbie Simpson Case - Murder of Suicide?
There’s another troubling instance when Spitz was quick to endorse the sheriff’s version of a shooting death as a suicide -- the case of Robbie Simpson. Affidavits filed by family members point out that Spitz failed to follow even the basic procedures in conducting the autopsy.
Click Here for details of the Robbie Simpson case.
Are these mistakes or has Spitz been involved in coverups of some sort? The MaComb County public is troubled and there have been public calls for his removal from office. (Spitz was appointed to the position by his father who was the county medical examiner before him!) Several online public comments, such as this one, question his integrity: “ It appears Daniel Spitz is well on his way in following his father's footsteps to creating his own niche as ‘The Man to Call to Give You the Results You Need’ in murder cases.” Should one add: “And war crimes investigations by UN officials?”
If Dr. Spitz has failed in at least two known instances to determine cause of death when examining a physical body, how reliable is his testimony regarding death captured on a cell phone camera?
Robert Dziekanski Tazered
“No training in photogrammetry and no more expertise in the science of making measurements by use of photographs than the average layperson.”
Mr. Grant Fredericks has a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Gonzaga University, a Catholic Jesuit university in Spokane Washington. He worked as a constable for the Vancouver Police Department from 1988 to 1997 when he became a coordinator for its video unit. He left the Department in 2000 for private practice. Since then Mr. Fredericks has also been an instructor for a series of video forensic analysis courses offered by the Law Enforcement and Emergency Video Association (LEVA), a non-profit organization that has reportedly trained hundreds of law enforcement video analysts throughout the world.
In the UN Rapporteur’s report on the Channel 4 video, and in other documents, Mr. Fredericks claims to be ‘an adjunct instructor for the University of Indianapolis.’ Mr. Scott Hall, a media spokesperson for the university, clarified that while Mr. Fredericks is a ‘respected teacher’ he is not on the university staff. He does teach courses for its multimedia lab as an employee of LEVA which has a contract with the university. There is a big difference between being an instructor at a university, which has stringent academic requirements, and being an instructor for a seminars/training firm or vendor where requirements are much less demanding, if they exist at all. Mr. Frederick’s claim is a shabby lie that goes a little beyond common ’resume padding.’
Mr. Fredericks, who has testified as an ‘expert witness’ in numerous cases was in the spotlight in Canada when he appeared as a witness for four policemen who tried to cover up their involvement in the death of an immigrant at the Vancouver airport in October 2007. The Mounties maintained they used a Taser gun on Robert Dziekanski because he was violent and refused to cooperate. However, a bystander’s video contradicted that version.
At a public inquiry held in 2009 into the killing, which drew public furor and demands for the police to stop using Tasers, Fredericks, in support of the cops, said his analysis of the video showed Dziekanski moving toward the officers shortly before he was jolted.
First, Fredericks was caught in a lie about his contacts with the manufacturers of the guns, Taser International. Don Rosenbloom, a lawyer retained by the Polish government to represent Dziekanski’s interests, pointedly questioned Frederick about his organization’s (LEVA) affiliation with Taser. Frederick denied that there was any connection.
“Let me suggest to you, sir, that one of the major sponsors of that laboratory and that program under LEVA is Taser International. Do you agree?” asked Rosenbloom.
“No, I don’t think Taser even knows it exists and I’ve never had any involvement with Taser International,” Fredericks replied.
But as Rosenbloom pressed on, Fredericks’ answers changed.
“I believe I saw Taser as one of the vendors at our conference last year,” Fredericks eventually admitted.
Taser was and still remains one of LEVA’s corporate sponsors.
Fredericks’ credibility and professional expertise got a further hammering when he was questioned about his forensic analysis of the video.
Fredericks supported the RCMP police officers’ defense that Mr. Dziekanski stepped toward them while clenching the stapler in his fist. He even testified that from his repetitive viewing of a three-second segment of a stabilized version of the Pritchard video, he identified Mr. Dziekanski take three distinct steps forward (right, left, right), based on his analysis of shoulder movements, although he could not say how far – whether an inch or a foot . He acknowledged that he could not see Mr. Dziekanski’s legs or feet, and had no special expertise in biomechanics or the study of human motion.
Mark Hird-Rutter, a certified photogrammetrist who was called by the Braidwood Commission that inquired into the Robert Dziekanski killing to analyze the methodologies used by Fredericks, described the methodology as ‘flawed.’ Hird-Rutter said:
The methodologies that were used in Mr. Fredericks’s report do not follow the rigours of the Science of Photogrammetry and it would be wrong to use them to determine the movement of Mr. Dziekanski either forwards or backwards.
Another expert Duane McInnis called by the Commission also criticized Fredericks’s analysis and methodology. McInnis, a mechanical engineer and founder and senior engineer in MEA Forensic Engineers and Scientists, Canada’s largest forensic engineering and scientific firm concluded that Mr. Fredericks’ opinion (that Mr. Dziekanski moved toward the officers) is not technically supportable because of measurement errors.
The Commissioner’s final opinion on Grant Fredericks:
NOTE: In the latest development in this case, the police officers — Const. Bill Bentley, Const. Kwesi Millington, Const. Gerry Rundell and Cpl. Benjamin Robinson — are being charged with perjury are accused of lying during the testimony they gave during a public inquiry into Dziekanski's death.
Jeffrey S. Spivack
The UN Special Rapporteur’s report describes Mr Spivack as “formerly a Forensic Multimedia Analyst with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD), and a calibration laboratory specialist for the US Air Force. He is a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners Institute, is a Certified Forensic Consultant, and has been qualified as an expert witness on forensic video analysis in courts throughout the US.”
A check with LVMPD into Mr. Spivack’s tenure with that police department revealed that he worked there for just 8 months during 2008-2009!
Click Here for a description of his job responsibilities.
It is startling to note that the UN Special Rapporteurs seem impressed by his membership in the American College of Forensic Examiners (ACFE) as a qualification for analyzing the Channel 4 video . A check with that organization revealed that it has a membership of 20,000 and that anyone can become a member by simply paying a membership fee.
As for being a ‘Certified Forensic Consultant,’ ACFE and several colleges confer the certification after a very minimal online study process. ACFE’s website states “This certification course is available to any one with the desire to further educate themselves.” Payment of $495 gets you into an online self-study course that promises to “prepare and educate you on the following tasks:”
The Litigation Process; Federal Rules of Evidence; The Discovery Process; Note Taking; Site Inspection; The Written Report; The Retainer Letter; Types of Witness; The Expert Witness Report; Preparing for Deposition; What to Expect at Deposition; Preparing for Trial; Testifying at Trial; What to Bring to Court; The Business of Forensic Consulting
Which of these tasks came into play in the analysis of the Channel 4 video?
As for certification to become a ‘Certified Forensic Consultant,’ there’s test that may be taken at any time online, even without completing the above course. According to a staff member, the test consists of 100 true/false type multiple choice questions to be answered within 4 hours, that’s 2.4 minutes per question! (For comparison, the GED test, mostly taken by dropouts who want to get a high school diploma, allows only 1.4 minutes per question involving much more than a true/false answer.)
This ludicrous certification process illustrates partly the concerns raised in the US about the practices loosely defined as ‘forensic science.’ The blind dependence on forensics or the ‘CSI Effect’ as it is called resulted in scores of wrongful convictions in courtrooms. In 2005, Congress at the urging of many civic and law groups, as well as the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations itself, passed legislation mandating the National Academy of Sciences to appoint a committee to study the forensic science community. The Academy in its report issued in 2009 confirmed “serious deficiencies in the nation's forensic science system” and called for major reforms. It said that rigorous and mandatory certification programs for forensic scientists were lacking and that there are no strong standards and protocols for analyzing and reporting on evidence. The Academy found that “with the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, no forensic method has been rigorously shown able to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source. Non-DNA forensic disciplines have important roles, but many need substantial research to validate basic premises and techniques, assess limitations, and discern the sources and magnitude of error,” said the report. It further said the field suffered from a reliance on outmoded and untested theories by analysts who often have no background in science, statistics or other empirical disciplines.
“The simple reality is that the interpretation of forensic evidence is not always based on scientific studies,” the Academy concluded.
And yet the UN Special Rapporteurs has smugly accepted as infallible the conclusions of the four ‘forensic experts’ they fronted to authenticate the Channel 4 video while throwing out as worthless the analyses offered by Sri Lankan experts and officials who studied the video when it was first released.
The Sri Lankan experts and specialists who submitted opinions and analysis were:
Responding to their statements, Philip Alston released a Technical Note in which he at once cast doubt on their validity and impartiality stating: “While recognizing the promptness of the investigation, I observed that two of the four Government experts were full-time Government employees, that the third had previously acted on behalf of the Government, and that “the basis on which the fourth was identified and selected as an expert remains unclear”.
While implying an integrity issue with the Sri Lankan experts, Alston has failed to explain the basis on which he identified and selected his four experts.
Indeed, how did Spivack, a smalltime, to all intents not very successful, self-employed private investigator (he filed bankruptcy in 2003),with little verifiable work experience, and flaky credentials get identified and selected as an expert?’ Interestingly, this same Mr. Spivack, Alston tells us, “reviewed each of the Sri Lanka expert arguments and found most of them to be inaccurate or faulty.”
And what about Grant Fredericks who was caught lying on the stand about his company’s ties to Taser, who was obviously trying to support a police coverup, and who makes false claims about being employed as an instructor at a leading state university? (Not to mention his ‘flawed methodology’ and other professional deficiencies). And why ‘Doc Hollywood’ who seems to be conveniently missing obvious bullet holes while dittoing whatever the local sheriff is saying? (These days the folks in Macomb County are reportedly going for second opinions and second autopsies because they don’t seem to trust Dr. Spitz to get it right! )
Clearly, the UN Special Rapporteurs had no concern for the professional abilities or integrity of their ‘experts’ since they were looking for people who were career ‘expert witnesses,’ who would give them the answer they sought. The two have abused their authority and perpetrated a ‘forensic hoax.’
SriLanka should be demanding a full inquiry.
Hassina Leelarathna may be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org