Add a gallon of destroyed evidence to a tubful of junk science and what do you get? Another man set free. Philip Scott Cannon was released from prison Friday after serving 10 years for a triple murder. Note that I have not yet used the term exonerated – and that’s for a reason. We don’t know if he is truly innocent and we will never know. That’s because the police in Polk County, Oregon destroyed all the physical evidence they had collected during their investigation, despite a county policy.
Cannon’s conviction was overturned in the first place because it had been based on the now debunked “comparative bullet lead analysis”, that the FBI distanced itself from in 2005 after another NAS report in 2004 called bullshit on the “science” [not to be confused with the NAS report that this year called bullshit on a whole bunch of other "forensic science tools" and other tales of "junk science"].
In 2004, after the NAS report but before the FBI disavowal, NACDL’s Champion published this lengthy piece on CBL and its flaws. And then in 2007, the Washington Post had this article questioning the FBI’s failure to alert courts and lawyers of their distancing themselves from CBL and the closing window on the possibility of reversing questionable convictions.
Cannon, however, was one of the lucky ones:
The dismissal came after prosecutors were told to take another look at the case, which relied in part on evidence from “comparative bullet lead analysis,” a technique abandoned by the FBI in 2005 because of its unreliability. After [Cannon's lawyer] challenged the use of the bullet analysis, the state agreed in August that Cannon should receive a new trial.
It was in that quest for a new trial that the prosecution discovered that there was no more evidence. In a case that lacked any confessions or eyewitnesses, the lack of physical evidence to test spelled the end of any possibility of determining who actually committed the crime. With Cannon maintaining his innocence, the State had no choice but to agree to his release and the reversal of the conviction.
I feel bad for the victims’ family and for Cannon. One was burdened by the yoke of junk science and the other will be burdened by inexcusably shoddy evidence retention.
[Alternate title for this post involved the portmanteau "bullead": a pun involving bullet, lead and bullshit. For obvious reasons, I did not employ it.]