Netflix has hit another home run when it comes to casting doubt on our criminal justice system. If “Making a Murderer” had you anxious over the legal system’s power to destroy a life, “Exhibit A” will only reinforce those doubts.
The new series “Exhibit A” focuses on the science of criminal investigations, and it does a stellar job of showing us why forensics doesn’t — and can’t — hold all the answers.
Our fascination with forensic science isn’t new. True crime stories have riveted people for over 100 years.
Just like we waited for new episodes of “CSI,” Victorian fans waited breathlessly for new stories from Sherlock Holmes and his trusted assistant, Dr. Watson. And Sherlock Holmes, or more acutely, his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, invented forensics.
Investigating Criminal Science
It’s our blind trust in the science under the microscope in ‘Exhibit A’ and how its misuse can send innocent people to jail. “Making a Murderer” suggested that biased cops built a case of false evidence specifically to send Steven Avery to prison.
In “Exhibit A,” you’ll learn how police and prosecutors can use our perception of scientific evidence to close a case.
Science should be infallible, right? DNA is DNA and indisputable proof of guilt. If only it were that simple.
Episode 1: CCTV and the Mean Streets of Killeen
I’ve always wondered how the police manage to identify anyone from those grainy, stop-motion CCTV cameras. With no real depth of field or detail, I’m not sure I’d recognize my own mother if she decided to hold up a bank one day.
The first episode of “Exhibit A” examines how experts analyze video feeds to identify criminals. In this case, the courts convict local rapper, George Powell III, for robbing a 7-Eleven store. This happens after local police distribute a CCTV video and offer a reward of $1,000 for identification.
Lo and behold, his landlady is pretty sure he’s the perpetrator. And after, all, things are tough all over Killeen, Texas, as she tells the camera.
It’s always a bit cringe-inducing when an unknown artist of dubious talents claims that “the man” has singled them out for persecution because of their “art.”
But when even the store clerks present at the robbery say it wasn’t him, it makes you wonder.
Episode 2: Blood Spatter and Grandma’s Big Secret
Probably more horrific is the story of Norma Jean Clark. The Texas woman was convicted for homicide some 25 years after the murder of her husband, Edmund Clark, in 1987.
Ed was shot in the middle of the night, as Norma Jean slept peacefully upstairs. At least, that was her story when questioned by the police at the time. Ed wasn’t a popular guy; he had enemies enough that he even received a death threat on the phone.
And while they collected evidence from the scene, the police accepted Norma Jean’s story. They never found a suspect, and the case remained cold for two decades.
But in 2010, faced with a stack of cold case files and Norma Jean’s nightgown, an expert for the prosecution found a speck of blood after three months of painstaking examination with a microscope.
According to the expert, Norma Jean would have had to have been within 3 feet of the victim to have “blood spatter” on her gown. Based on this testimony and “evidence,” police arrested the now-elderly woman.
Here’s the kicker
Although they identified one microscopic spot as blood — it never tested as Edmund Clark’s blood.
In fact, they never identified whose blood it was. But it was enough to put the Texas grandmother behind bars for 25 years.
Episode 3: Cadaver Dogs and the Case of the Missing Child
In Episode 3, creator Kelly Loudenberg hits a number of sensitive spots with the tale of two-year-old Bianca Jones, who went missing when her father got car-jacked in 2011.
At least, that’s his story and the story that the child’s mother believes to this day.
During the investigation, the Detroit police used cadaver dogs in an attempt to find the missing child. The dog, a specially trained pooch brought in from the United Kingdom, indicated that it smelt death on the child’s car seat, where she presumably sat when the car was jacked.
Based on this, according to “Exhibit A,” the father was charged and convicted of the child’s death.
The police never found her body. And several witnesses, including a Detroit police officer, claim to have seen the child after her alleged death.
“Exhibit A” doesn’t really attack the dog’s ability to identify scents. But it clearly illustrates how our blind faith in forensic science can convict a man of murder with only circumstantial evidence.
The ugly truth
Most heartbreaking of all is mother Banika Jones’ resilience and determination to continue the search for her child.
Unfortunately, a little research outside of the narrow frame of your Netflix screen will show that there was a lot more evidence — circumstantial or not — to convince of a jury of D’Andre Lane’s guilt. Along with motivation and a potential weapon.
But it’s very easy to wish the jury got it wrong on this one. No one wants to think a father can kill his own child. And you can’t help hoping that Banika Jones will find her child alive again.
Episode 4: DNA, Touch DNA, and Statistics
You’d think we could trust DNA — after all, DNA is forensic science with a capital “S.” You can’t change, alter, subvert, or otherwise disguise your DNA, right?
Generally, that’s true. But in Episode 4 of “Exhibit A,” you’ll find out why DNA is only a tremendous investigative tool when used right.
When used incorrectly, it can be the cause of injustice.
People expect a lot of the police. And the public demands that they use every tool in the arsenal to identify evildoers. In this case, they wanted justice for the criminal assault of Taj Patterson, attacked while walking through a Hasidic neighborhood of Brooklyn.
During the assault, 20 men in the community “watch” beat the young man, causing grievous injury. One grabbed him and gouged his eyes, permanently blinding him in one eye.
One of his attackers removed Patterson’s shoe and threw it on a roof, where it was later found by police during the investigation.
While trivial to the other injuries he suffered, the discovery of the shoe led to the arrest of Mayer Herskovic, based on DNA found on the heel.
Problem is, they didn’t find very much.
Investigators derive Touch DNA from the small number of skin cells left when you handle an object.
After weeding out the owner’s DNA, there really wasn’t enough to test. And some labs will clone insufficient DNA in order to produce enough to test.
Junk science in our courts
In this case, the police used FST, or the Foresenic Statistical Tool. But all this program provides is a statistical analysis that indicates how likely it is that the small amount of DNA matches a suspect.
The FST program placed Herskovic as a suspect based on the likeliness that it belonged to him.
And you know, considering the inclusivity of the Hasidic community, statistics would probably have implicated many of the male members of the neighborhood.
While Herskovic was eventually cleared, what’s most concerning is that New York has many previous convictions based on the FST analysis program.
Juries – and even judges — hear the word “DNA” and think that any evidence presented is solid. But the FST program was discontinued in 2018 because of its unreliability and faulty programming.
And while it’s heartbreaking that Mr. Patterson has undergone such trauma with no justice pending, it’s just as horrific to consider how many people have been incarcerated based on statistic and bad math.
Forensic Science Under Investigation
Science doesn’t have the answers — its purpose is to find the answers. While we don’t know all the facts, we can fall back on the process of science. But we have to remain skeptical as to its accuracy when searching for the truth. Especially when people’s lives hang on the results.
And when it comes to our justice system, we need to remain vigilant that it’s being used correctly and ethically – to discover the truth instead of to manipulate the outcome of a trial.
If you love true-crime TV, you’ll love “Exhibit A.” With four brief but in-depth episodes, you’ll find it a riveting binge that’s just long enough to satisfy.
Director and producer, Kelly Loudenberg, is also known for another Netflix true-crime documentary series, “The Confession Tapes,” where she explores a number of cases where police investigators used psychological tricks, duress, and coercion to force confessions out of innocent people.
Have you watched “The Confession Tapes” yet? Do you think documentaries like “Making a Murderer” and “Exhibit A” create more tension with police? Or do you think they’re basically harmless speculation? Tell us your thoughts in the comment section.
Featured Image: Promotional Image via IMDb