On Wrongful Convictions and DNA Evidence

DNA analysis has helped exonerate dozens of people who had confessed to violent crimes. But against Juan Rivera, as detailed in this New York Times piece, prosecutors used new and novel theories to explain away the scientific evidence. How did they do that?

Some interesting facts about DNA evidence:

In the years before DNA evidence was introduced to the legal system, little was known about the extent of wrongful convictions and the situations in which they occurred. That changed in 1986, when an English scientist used DNA testing to help exonerate a man accused of raping and killing two teenage girls (the evidence also led the police to the real killer). Since then, DNA testing has helped exonerate 280 convicted felons in the United States and has exposed deep flaws in our legal system, including misconduct by the police and prosecutors and egregious mistakes made by witnesses and forensic scientists. In his 2011 book, “Convicting the Innocent,” Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, examined most of the case files for the first 250 DNA exonerations. Garrett found that 76 percent of wrongly convicted prisoners were misidentified by a witness and half the cases involved flawed forensic evidence. The testimony of an informant, often a jailhouse cellmate of the accused, was pivotal in 21 percent of the cases. Perhaps most surprising, 16 percent — virtually all of whom were subjected to interrogations lasting several hours and, in many cases, days — confessed to crimes they didn’t commit. Garrett pointed out another, striking detail in the false confessions: in 38 of 40 false confessions, the authorities said defendants provided details that could be known only by the actual criminal or the investigators, thus corroborating their own admissions of guilt by revealing secret information about the crime that could only have been provided by them.

The Life of Lana Peters, Stalin’s Daughter

“He broke my life…I want to explain to you. He broke my life.”

This is a quote from Lana Peters, the daughter of Josef Stalin. According to The New York Times, she died in Wisconsin last week (where she lived in a cabin with no electricity). She’s led a remarkable, though haunting, life, as the obituary in the NYT attests:

Long after fleeing her homeland, she seemed to be still searching for something — sampling religions, from Hinduism to Christian Science, falling in love and constantly moving. Her defection took her from India, through Europe, to the United States. After moving back to Moscow in 1984, and from there to Soviet Georgia, friends told of her going again to America, then to England, then to France, then back to America, then to England again, and on and on. All the while she faded from the public eye.

Ms. Peters was said to have lived in a cabin with no electricity in northern Wisconsin; another time, in a Roman Catholic convent in Switzerland. In 1992, she was reported to be living in a shabby part of West London in a home for elderly people with emotional problems.

Born Svetlana Stalina, she changed her name numerous times in her life:

In her memoirs she told of how Stalin had sent her first love, a Jewish filmmaker, to Siberia for 10 years. She wanted to study literature at Moscow University, but Stalin demanded that she study history. She did. After graduation, again following her father’s wishes, she became a teacher, teaching Soviet literature and the English language. She then worked as a literary translator.

A year after her father broke up her first romance, she told him she wanted to marry another Jewish man, Grigory Morozov, a fellow student. Stalin slapped her and refused to meet him. This time, however, she had her way. She married Mr. Morozov in 1945. They had one child, Iosif, before divorcing in 1947.

Her second marriage, in 1949, was more to Stalin’s liking. The groom, Yuri Zhdanov, was the son of Stalin’s right-hand man, Andrei Zhdanov. The couple had a daughter, Yekaterina, the next year. But they, too, divorced soon afterward.

Her world grew darker in her father’s last years. Nikita S. Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor as Soviet leader, wrote in his memoirs about the New Year’s party in 1952 when Stalin grabbed Svetlana by the hair and forced her to dance.

What an incredible, tragic story her life has been.

Snacks in the Classroom: One Professor’s Method for Students to Work in Teams

This is an interesting story about one professor who refuses to teach his psychology class (lab) if the students fail to bring snacks to class. It’s a novel way of driving engagement and making students work together for a common goal:

A graduate of Cal State’s Chico campus, [Professor] Parrott said that when he was an undergraduate, courses had 12 to 20 students, and those in a class formed close ties among themselves and with the professor. “Those days are long gone,” Parrott said. The course in question is supposed to have a maximum of 42 students, although this year he has 52 in the section that skipped snack last week. That makes it hard for students to connect. So does the nature of Sacramento State’s student body. “It’s a commuter rat race. Students drive in and go home and never connect with their fellow students,” he said.

Enter the snack requirement: Parrott said that he’s teaching students to work together to set a schedule, to work in teams to get something done, and to check up on one another, since everyone depends on whoever has the duty of bringing snacks on a given week. Typically, no individual should be involved in preparing the snack more than twice a semester, he said.

Parrott said that considerable research shows that students learn more if they develop the skills to work in teams, to assume responsibility for projects, and get to know their fellow students. Team members need to count on one another, he said, and his students learned Thursday that if someone fails at a task for the team, there are consequences. “They need to learn to check on one another and clearly they didn’t get that done,” he said. “This was an important lesson.”

I’m all for this method of teaching. I hope the professor doesn’t get in trouble (the professor recently enforced his rule when the students failed to bring muffins to class). I remember the three hour physics labs in college, and how hungry students would get…

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Hat tip: Tyler Cowen.

Visiting Moscow in the Winter

I really like this post in The New York Times travel section about visiting Moscow in the winter.

The author, first of all, is correct in this assessment (having been to Moscow in the winter myself):

It would be a stretch to say that Muscovites embrace the winter, but they come as close as human beings are able to outside a ski resort. Bitterly cold outside? No matter. Snow piles atop snow piles? Life marches on. Restaurants are full. Sidewalks are crowded. Theaters and opera houses are packed. Parks are crisscrossed by people on ice skates along with those who are simply taking a leisurely stroll as though at the height of spring.

The author explains that if you don’t know Russian, it’s tough getting around in the city (this is true):

Communication was difficult. The waitress, dressed in a sexy version of Georgian folk costume, offered little help. So we opted for the famous Georgian dishes we’d read about, a delicious chicken satsivi (cold chunks of white meat in a walnut sauce), some khachapuri (cheese-stuffed bread) and an assortment of grilled, skewered meats. It was very good. But other tables seemed to be having much grander, happier feasts — huge platters of meats and salads and toast after toast, sometimes with the kitchen staff scurrying out to serenade everyone.

On the infamous coat check person found in most Russian establishments:

This was also our first encounter with what we discovered to be a distinct Moscow character: the insistent coat check person. At many modest restaurants, and certainly at the top ones, customers are given no choice but to check their coats (it’s free, and tips are not expected). A dining room free of winter gear seems to be a sign of class, and the whole process becomes a little ceremony, a punctuation point between the cold world outside and the warmth within. It also provides a frame for that most frequent Russian winter activity: wrapping the scarf, putting the coat on, positioning the hat just so, checking to make sure your gloves are in the pocket.  

Why don’t we see the coat check as a tradition in more American cities? It adds a grandeur to the dining experience, I think.

I like the author’s bravery to try the famous Russian sauna (banya):

Inside, men took turns pummeling one another with thick bundles of leafy birch branches soaked in water. I tried whipping myself with the things a few times — it’s supposed to make your skin feel great — but couldn’t quite get the angle right. Every now and then, one of the Russian men walked over to a giant steel door in the wall, opened it to reveal a glowing red inferno and slung in a giant ladle of water. By the time I left, the floor was strewn with leaves and debris, like a driveway after a storm.

Financial Bombshell of the Day

The details unveiled in the Bloomberg Markets Magazine piece “Secret Fed Loans Gave Banks Undisclosed $13B” are stunning. And here we thought we knew everything we knew about the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Think again:

The Federal Reserve and the big banks fought for more than two years to keep details of the largest bailout in U.S. history a secret. Now, the rest of the world can see what it was missing.

The Fed didn’t tell anyone which banks were in trouble so deep they required a combined $1.2 trillion on Dec. 5, 2008, their single neediest day. Bankers didn’t mention that they took tens of billions of dollars in emergency loans at the same time they were assuring investors their firms were healthy. And no one calculated until now that banks reaped an estimated $13 billion of income by taking advantage of the Fed’s below-market rates, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its January issue.

Saved by the bailout, bankers lobbied against government regulations, a job made easier by the Fed, which never disclosed the details of the rescue to lawmakers even as Congress doled out more money and debated new rules aimed at preventing the next collapse.

This statistic is just astonishing (half the value of U.S. GDP!):

The amount of money the central bank parceled out was…dwarfed the Treasury Department’s better-known $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. Add up guarantees and lending limits, and the Fed had committed $7.77 trillion as of March 2009 to rescuing the financial system, more than half the value of everything produced in the U.S. that year.

There’s a lot more quotable material here, so I suggest you read the whole thing…

Why Must Fliers Turn Off Electronic Devices on Flights?

Nick Bilton has a post in today’s New York Times rationalizing how airline rules that are decades old persist on flights without evidence that they should be enforced. In particular: why must you be required to turn off your iPhone or Kindle during take-off and landing?

According to the F.A.A., 712 million passengers flew within theUnited States in 2010. Let’s assume that just 1 percent of those passengers — about two people perBoeing 737, a conservative number — left a cellphone, e-reader or laptop turned on during takeoff or landing. That would mean seven million people on 11 million flights endangered the lives of their fellow passengers.

Yet, in 2010, no crashes were attributed to people using technology on a plane. None were in 2009. Or 2008, 2007 and so on. You get the point.

Surely if electronic gadgets could bring down an airplane, you can be sure that the Department of Homeland Securityand the Transportation Security Administration, which has a consuming fear of 3.5 ounces of hand lotion and gel shoe inserts, wouldn’t allow passengers to board a plane with aniPad or Kindle, for fear that they would be used by terrorists.

 Continuing:

Les Dorr, a spokesman for the F.A.A., said the agency would rather err on the side of caution when it comes to digital devices on planes.

He cited a 2006 study by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, a nonprofit group that tests and reports on technical travel and communications issues. The group was asked by the F.A.A. to test the effects of cellphones, Wi-Fi and portable electronic devices on planes.

Its finding? “Insufficient information to support changing the policies,” Mr. Dorr said. “There was no evidence saying these devices can’t interfere with a plane, and there was no evidence saying that they can.”

Despite the evidence, this practice of turning off electronics continues. The reasoning is unclear. But this smart comment in the post makes sense:

From what I understand, a big reason that people are still asked to turn off devices is because the biggest change of an emergency situation is during take-off and landing. Forcing people turn off their devices during this time is supposed to keep everyone more alert and paying better attention if something were to happen.

And another comment provides food for thought:

I don’t want to be on the one flight that proves they do interfere when it crashes. 

For now, I am happy to oblige in turning off my electronics during take-off and landing, even if my neighbor doesn’t.

What do you think? Is the precaution to turn off electronic devices unnecessary?

The Sad Story of the Bulldog

Tomorrow, the University of Georgia Bulldogs face off against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the annual “Clean Old Fashioned Hate” football game. But it’s the animal that will be present at the sideline which has caught my attention: the mascot of UGA, a bulldog named Uga.

In a very strong piece in The New York Times, “Can The Bulldog Be Saved?,” we learn about the bulldog’s history, how its bred, and the host of diseases that the bulldog succumbs to. What humans desire in the bulldog, such as its squashed face, is a trait that can be passed down from generation to generation through selective breeding. But if you read the piece, you’ll tend to agree that “it is the most extreme example of genetic manipulation in the dog-breeding world that results in congenital and hereditary problems.” A few quotes from the piece below.

Bulldogs are more prone to diseases than other dog breeds:

Bulldogs are significantly more likely than other dogs to suffer from a wide range of health issues, including ear and eye problems, skin infections, respiratory issues, immunological and neurological problems and locomotor challenges. 

It is worthwhile to note how the British Kennel Club and its American counterpart, the Bulldog Club of America, differ on the bulldog standard:

The British Kennel Club announced that it was revising the bulldog standard (a written template for the look and temperament of a breed) in an effort to make bulldogs sleeker and healthier. The new bulldog standard in England calls for a “relatively” short face, a slightly smaller head and less-pronounced facial wrinkling.

But the Bulldog Club of America (B.C.A.), which owns the copyright to the American standard, says it has no plans to follow suit. The American standard still calls for the breed to have a “massive, short-faced head,” a “heavy, thick-set, low-swung body,” a “very short” face and muzzle and a “massive” and “undershot” jaw.

An interesting note on how Uga VII served his mascot duties:

Uga VII didn’t appear to relish his mascot duties. Unlike his father, Uga VI, who was loud and boisterous and enjoyed chasing after the school’s costumed bulldog mascot, Hairy Dawg, Uga VII seemed most comfortable in the back corner of his doghouse — or, better yet, outside the stadium entirely. A few minutes before halftime, Seiler’s adult son, Charles, led the dog off the field by a leash to a waiting golf cart. Uga VII hopped on, and a young woman drove us out the stadium’s back service entrance, up a hill, around some bends to an unspectacular patch of grass that doubles as the dog’s game-day bathroom. When the cart came to a stop, Uga VII bounded off it and spent the next few minutes happily sniffing the grass, urinating on a tree and defecating behind a bush.

An analogy of how humans would breathe if they were bulldogs:

Dr. John Lewis, an assistant professor of dentistry and oral surgery at Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, says the human equivalent to breathing the way some bulldogs do “would be if we walked around with our mouth or nose closed and breathed through a straw.”

A trivia about the bulldog’s showing at the Westminster dog show:

The last time a bulldog won best in show at Westminster was 1955, and it has been nearly 30 years since a bulldog made it out of the group competition, which pits it against other nonsporting yet decidedly higher-brow breeds — including what may be the bulldog’s aesthetic opposite, the poodle.

A brief history of the bulldog and the author’s observations about how hard it is to judge a healthy bulldog:

It was my first time at a bulldog show, and I had a hard time differentiating the champion dogs from the inexperienced newcomers — or the hopelessly outmatched. Some of the more than 60 bulldogs in attendance appeared to move around the show ring better than others, which several show breeders confirmed to me was something that most judges value. (The bulldog standard in America calls for a bulldog’s gait to be “unrestrained, free and vigorous” but concedes that the breed’s “style and carriage are peculiar.”) While I discounted several dogs for appearing overweight, the judge chose one of the larger bulldogs (Brix) as her winner and told me after the competition that she likes bulldogs to be “big and sturdy.”

What was clear to me while watching these bulldogs compete was that none could have succeeded at the breed’s original purpose. Bulldogs get their name from their role in bull-baiting, arguably the most popular sport of the Elizabethan era. Though the genetic origin of the bulldog is debated, most believe that bull-baiting dogs of that era were descended from a mastiff-type dog. Fighting bulldogs were leaner and higher off the ground than bulldogs today, and their muzzles were longer. They had smaller heads, fewer facial rolls and a long tail. As a respected bulldog breeder conceded to me at the B.C.A. show, “Bulldogs today are not even a figment of what they used to be.”

It’s a fascinating piece, and well worth reading. The author, Benoit Denizet-Lewis, has spent at least a year compiling facts for this article, as his personal stories of visit to Sanford Stadium (on the campus of University of Georgia) attest.