In January a minister named Matt Baker was convicted in a Waco, Texas, court of staging his wife’s suicide. The trial was covered last week on CNN’s In Session. “Forensic science” played only a small part in the conviction. Most of the evidence presented was circumstantial and based on eye-witness testimony, admissible “hearsay,” and the victim’s personal journals. The forensic evidence included the usual medical examiner’s testimony as well as computer forensics and fingerprint evidence.
Eye-Witnesses and Hearsay
The Baker trial was conducted in a rational, unemotional manner, as is appropriate. Of all the eye-witness and hearsay-witness testimony, the most dramatic and subjective, as well as the most telling, was that of the woman with whom Baker was having an affair at the time of his wife’s death. But it wasn’t this woman’s claim that Baker told her what he planned to do that convicted him (IMHO).
Baker’s conflicting statements and inexplicable computer-use is what convicted him. Taken in light of his wife’s statements from the grave (journals and psychological counselor’s testimony) that she thought her husband was trying to kill her, his production of an obviously phony suicide note, followed by his destruction of the computer and printer used to produce the suicide note, is what condemned him.
Given that Matt Baker was found guilty of first-degree murder in Texas, a capital punishment state, but he was sentenced to life, he’s a fortunate man indeed. Perhaps God really did hear his prayers.
The Forensics of the Suicide Note
Baker claimed to have found a computer-printed suicide note beside his wife’s body. It wasn’t hand-signed. The first cops on the scene handled the note. At some point, the note was dusted for fingerprints and many smudges were found, but no clear prints other than a palm print, which could not be matched to the victim (because her fingerprints were never taken) nor to any of the 18 or 19 people who touched the note or could have touched the note.
If I remember correctly, 18 of the 19 people were “excluded” from the palm print; the 19th person (Baker) “could not be excluded.”
The fingerprint expert testified for the prosecution. Both on direct examination and on cross-examination, she refused to fall into the trap of declaring definitively either that Baker could have made the palm print or could not possibly have made the palm print. Although she used the intellectually dishonest phrase that all forensics experts are trained to use (“could not be excluded from contributing”), she went on to explain why it was impossible for her to draw any such conclusion. This woman should be given a medal.
Unfortunately, the lawyers for both sides didn’t understand logic or inference. This is one of the great failings of American criminal justice. Even as we learn more and more about the natural world (how things work and don’t), the justice system continues to rely on the logic of ancient Rome (or earlier, perhaps Greece or even Biblical times).
The following isn’t a logical syllogism:
- 18 people are known to have touched this piece of paper, and we know their palm prints; 2 other people we know of (the killer and the victim) could have touched this piece of paper, and we know 1 of their palm prints.
- The 18 people whose palm prints we know and whom we know touched the paper could not possibly have made the palm print.
- Therefore, the 1 person we know of whose palm prints we have but who won’t admit to having touched the paper and whose print might have made the mark is the most likely person to have made the palm print—not the victim and not some unknown person (from among the other 7 billion on the planet).
Sidebar: The above “logic” was that used by the prosecution. The defense used a similar “logic” to suggest that Baker could not possibly have made the print, because he was not “included.”
Even a superstitious old Greek like Aristotle would have gasped at that. Yet the American adversarial system constantly foists arguments like this on juries.
Of course, when using fingerprints and palm prints as evidence, the courts also don’t understand that they aren’t “scientific” evidence at all: fingerprints are only suggestive, not real proof of anything.
- Aren’t provably unique
- Are subject to mutation
- Aren’t obviously identifiable, because they’re so complex
- Are rarely complete and clear
As evidence taken from a crime scene, fingerprints are meaningless unless they don’t belong to anyone who lives there or is known to have visited there for a legitimate reason.
Sidebar: It seems to me, it is the “thing” that shouldn’t be found at the scene of a crime that’s always relevant, not the “things” expected to be found: a stranger’s fingerprint, an unlikely suicide note. Yet, forensic science goes out of its way to try to find things they can “include” and “not exclude.”
What difference would it have made—to the jury, especially—if Matt Baker’s fingerprints were clearly on the paper? He could simply have claimed that he always loaded the printer paper for everyone in the house.
In fact, this was Baker’s big mistake, in my non-legal opinion: he thought he needed to deny any contact with the suicide note and to destroy all evidence related to the printing of the note. He even told investigators at one point that he and his mother tried to find evidence on the computer’s hard drive of when the note was printed in order to show that the note was printed when he had an alibi. That really wasn’t necessary. If he was so worried about the note, why did he print one at all? Most suicides don’t leave a note.
Of course, Matt Baker like most murderers isn’t as smart as he thinks he is—or he would have been able to find another solution to his problems.