Opening statements begin today at 9:00 a.m.  The trial will be streamed live online.  Judge Debra Nelson ruled Saturday, in a decision that arguably makes her the best judge in a televised trial ever, to bar the testimony of the state audio experts, Tom Owen and Alan Reich.  Reich and Owen both testified in pre-trial hearings.  Reich said that he believes the screams from the 911 call made on the night Trayvon Martin died belong to Martin, and Owen conferred.  But Owen said he could not say the screaming was Trayvon Martin only that it was “probably not” George Zimmerman.  However, more witnesses testified that features of the 911 call and the science of audio analysis prevent a proper analysis, certainly not to the caliber that should be required in a court of law.

Nelson concluded that “there is no competent evidence that the scientific techniques used by Mr. Owen and Dr. Reich are generally accepted in the scientific field.  There is no evidence to establish that their scientific techniques have been tested and found reliable.”

Judges aren’t known for their understanding of unreliable science, so the decision comes as a pleasant surprise to those aware of the dangers flawed forensics pose to the pursuit of true justice.  Nelson clarified that the recordings can still be played to the jury and witnesses that are familiar with the voices of Zimmerman or Martin can still testify.  There are many news organizations calling this a win for the defense and Zimmerman, but I don’t see it that way.  Neither side should want, ideally, to allow false evidence and testimony (in reality we know this is not the case).

In addition, both sides were preparing to present experts that disagreed about the validity and the origin of the screams as well as what was being said.  I know that there are people out there saying that the defense didn’t have any experts to counter the state’s experts and that’s why they wanted them barred.  And that people should think that says something about the evidence, but what do you call the experts who testified in the hearings?  I believe they would be called defense experts.  And not having an expert to counter an argument doesn’t automatically make that argument true.  First of all, you’re putting too much stake in an expert, they could be wrong, and secondly, that’s quite a leap of reasoning.

In pre-trial hearings, speech scientist George Doddington called the claims of Reich who said that Trayvon Martin was yelling “I’m begging you”, “imaginary” and he testified that the methodology used by Reich and Owen was “absurd.”  Leading FBI analyst Dr. Hirotaka Nakasone said he was “disturbed” by the state’s expert conclusions, and the attempt by anyone to make a positive identification based on the screams.  Nakasone testified to the accepted methodology in the scientific community and said that the three seconds of the 40-second call that is un-obscured is not enough to meet good voice analytical standards.

“[The sample] has to be at least 16 seconds long,” Nakasone said. “American English has 44 different sounds. To cover all those it takes 20 to 30 seconds.”

Nakasone also testified to the umpteen circumstances that can affect the reliable reading of voice recognition, including rain, distance, and phone quality.  All of which were present the night the 911 call was recorded.

“A screaming voice is too far for us to address,” Nakasone said. “It might mislead in the worst case.”

Judge Nelson gave special attention to Reich in her ruling, noting that none of the five other experts who testified heard the words and phrases that he did.

She stated that the information “would confuse issues, mislead the jury and, therefore, should be excluded from trial.”

Another huge issue for me was that Reich had worked for the media on the Zimmerman case before being recruited by the State, big conflict of interest there.  Even Judge Nelson pointed it out in her ruling.  She stated that his report to the prosecution “differed from one given earlier to a newspaper.”  Really?  That’s quite interesting.  

Courts stand for fairness and the media stands for money.  Speaking of financial motives, there were also some legitimate questions about the voice-recognition software, which gave me serious concerns.  Profiteers in the justice system testifying are an issue especially with all these so-called “forensic evidences” that come out.  Judges should be careful when admitting novel science.  No one should want faulty evidence putting anyone in prison.

Doddington called the entire process of looping 10-seconds of speech to figure out the speaker a “violation of common sense.”  He even admitted that there is a known potential for error.  Not to mention another expert named Dr. Peter French who said that speech analysis software isn’t made to measure screaming.  Dr. French also said that you cannot garner a person’s age from this analysis and that Dr. Reich’s findings were disturbing and would not be acceptable to the scientific community.

Kyra Phillips of HLN did an interview with a forensic audio expert Rick Rithmire, in which she presented him a 6 person scream test.  It slightly mimicked the Zimmerman circumstances, in the sense that it was a person speaking compared to a scream.  Mr. Rithmire said exactly what the experts in the Frye hearings said.  You have to enhance the audio and you cannot be 100% sure even after that because of acoustics and other factors.  In fact, he quoted himself as only being 90% sure of his final analysis if he were able to analyze it in his lab.

Frye hearings and evidentiary hearings are supposed to serve to find out whether or not the expert is just guessing, making an opinion based on bias not analysis, using a science that is suitable for court, or actually has a valid interpretation of the evidence.  The judge in this case made the right call, in my opinion.  Is the science good enough for court and a jury?  No.

Unreliable sciences, or “junk sciences”, as they are popularly called, have made their way into courtrooms before.  Time and time again.  They are bad news and they do not further truth or justice.  Just because a science is suitable for research doesn’t make it in any way, shape, or form the type of thing we should be using to lock people up in prison.  There are just too many questions with these novel forensics and none of them lead to anything good and they all can and do lead to wrongful convictions.

Mike Brooks, HLN’s law enforcement analyst, even said that there is too much reasonable doubt to make a determination on a “scream test” and if you’ve watched him over the years, you know he hardly ever, if ever, says that!  He made a guess as to which producer he thought was screaming and he was wrong.

Judge Nelson also ruled that prosecutors are allowed to tell the jury that Martin was “profiled”, but that the “profiling” must not be racial, but based upon something else.  The prosecutors had argued that they should be allowed to say Trayvon Martin was “profiled” because profiling isn’t just based upon race, but also gender and clothing.  They can also call Zimmerman a “wannabe cop”, “vigilante”, and use the word “confrontation” if they see fit.

If George Zimmerman is found guilty and voice recognition analysis had been allowed in he could have appealed based upon the unreliable science that should never have been allowed in.  People who have a pre-conceived notion that he is guilty should be glad this is barred, not upset.  Those that have the pre-conceived notion that George Zimmerman is not guilty should be happy about the decision as well.  It means that the jury won’t be confused or be given false information.  Everyone should be happy because this distraction has been neutralized and the trial is made a whole lot fairer because of this.

But alas, not everyone is happy.  I’ve seen all across the Internet judgmental people already claiming that Judge Nelson is “pro-defense”.  Now, it is quite obvious these people don’t know what that means.  To be pro-prosecution or pro-defense, there has to be an obvious bias in a judge’s rulings.  For instance, one can make an argument that Judge Stephens was pro-prosecution in the Arias case.  That’s something to analyze, but Judge Nelson is clearly not pro-defense.  She didn’t admit the audio experts, not as a partisan thing, but as a truth thing.  If she had admitted this science that is clearly not ready for court, if it ever will be, then she could have been pro-prosecution, but certainly not pro-defense.  The jury being “all-white” as some people say, though that isn’t accurate either, has nothing to do with her.  The attorneys run jury selection and the judge cannot strike people without the attorneys bringing up an issue.

If Judge Nelson were pro-defense, as some people seem to already being padding their arguments with, then why would she allow such a severe and possibly prejudicial blow to happen to the defense by allowing the prosecution to say such loaded words?  People, who feel the need to make this kind of ad hominem argument even before the trial has begun without any evidence to back it up, obviously have questions in their own mind.  There just isn’t enough evidence there to say Judge Nelson is pro-defense.

Misinformation and misunderstandings are plentiful in televised trials, but people shouldn’t forget the adage:  ignorance breeds intolerance.


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