Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Bomb Squad - Part II

On January 12 and 18, 2005, Steven Dowell, a criminalist with the Los Angeles Coroner's Office, testified to his findings in regard to gunshot residue particles (GSR) found on Robert Blake's hands, his clothes, his .38 revolver and holster, and on an experiment Dowell did with the help of LAPD detectives.

That experiment attempted to mimic the circumstances under which detectives James Gollaz and Greg Whelan retrieved Blake's clothes on May 5, 2001. Gollaz, who testified on January 5, 2005, said that he obtained a copier paper box without a lid from the North Hollywood police station, collected Blake's clothes, and drove it around in his police car for the weekend before checking the clothes into evidence. The experiment involved placing a new shrink-wrapped tee shirt in a similar copier paper box taken from Robbery-Homicide headquarters and transporting it for a weekend in the same police car.

For some reason, the tee was placed in another box first, then put in the copier paper box. Neither Dowell nor Gollaz could explain why, but the experiment was conducted this way nonetheless.

Dowell talked about his role as an expert and the science he used to draw his conclusions. He explained that “highly specific” or “specific” particles of gunshot residue contain three elements: antimony, barium, and lead. When these three elements are combined in a microscopic particle, it is highly likely the particle came from a discharged gun. If a particle contained one or two of those elements, the particle is considered “consistent” with GSR, and may have come from a discharged gun or other environmental sources.

It is not possible, according to Dowell, to exclude a consistent particle of GSR as originating from a gun, unless that particle contained other elements that are not produced by a particular gun, such as zinc, titanium, and manganese. When defense attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach attempted to confirm whether phosphorous was considered an element found in gunshot residue, prosecutor Shellie Samuels objected, preventing Dowell from answering. It seemed a telltale objection.

It is important, Dowell said, to understand what elements the gun produced, although he admitted that he had never examined the elements produced by the Walther P-38 handgun used to murder Bonny Lee Bakley.

Dowell also said that he considered the size of the particle when evaluating a sample to be consistent or specific to GSR. He said that GSR particles are typically .5 to 20 to 30 micrometers.

During his direct examination, Dowell testified he found no traces of GSR on the test tee shirt, on the outside of the copier paper box, nor on the inside of the trunk. On the inside of the copier paper box he found one highly specific particle and two consistent particles of GSR.

He also testified that he tested Gollaz’s hands on June 18, 2001, after the clothes-in-the-trunk experiment was over, but not before. Samuels never asked what Dowell found on Gollaz’s hands.

Interestingly, on May 11, 2001, Dowell tested Whelan’s hands because, he said, it was his understanding that Whelan had retrieved Blake's clothes on May 5, 2001.

Although Dowell testified to his results on direct, referring to his report occasionally for verification, Samuels never displayed Dowell’s findings to the jury. However, Schwartzbach did.

Dowell explained that when he performed an analysis, he took notes, referred to as bench notes, and later summarized his findings in a report. Schwartzbach meticulously walked Dowell through his reports and bench notes, sometimes displaying each related documents side-by-side for comparison.

He displayed Dowell’s report on the outside of the “second” copier paper box used as the test box. The report said that Dowell found “no particles of gunshot residue.” But his bench notes from which he produced his report told a different story.

Particle #9 was listed as a lead and barium particle. Schwartzbach questioned why he didn’t consider that particle to be consistent with GSR. Dowell replied that yes, it was consistent “by itself.”

Particle #10 was listed as a lead-only particle, about 10-15 micrometers.

“So wouldn't that be a particle consistent with GSR?” Schwartzbach asked.

“Yes. The difficulty is that on any given sample, if it's a lead-only particle, I will give any sample two lead-only particles and not call it consistent,” Dowell said. “So I have a threshold level of two lead-only particles that it has to get over before I'm going to call it consistent particles of gunshot residue. Just because looking at thousands of hand samples, it's not uncommon to find one or two particles of lead on many, many hand samples.”

“That would deal with number 10,” said Schwartzbach. “But with regard to 9, that has lead and barium; correct?


“Under the standards you apply, that would be consistent with GSR?”

“Well, again, it doesn't -- it's at the two particle level. It's really a lead particle, lead and barium in this case. But for me, this result would not be a strong enough result for me to call this a consistent particle by itself. If this were a hand sample and on the other hand there were, say, three lead particles, then I would have called this hand several consistent, and I would have specified two consistent on this hand. If it were a hand sample, but it's not. It's a sample from a box. It's a single sample. So I weighed it a little differently.”

Listed below the #9 particle on Dowell’s bench notes were two more lead and barium particles. Dowell said he did not consider those two particles consistent because they didn’t meet the size criteria. So, he said, he was “back down to one particle” and, therefore, he didn’t meet his two-particle threshold.

On the bench notes below Particle #10 was the notation “many 10-15 lead only.”

Schwartzbach asked whether that particle population met Dowell’s threshold. “Because you had said -- as I understood what you had just explained to the jury -- you had a threshold of two. So if it's 10 to 15 you are past that threshold?"

“Correct. The notes seem to indicate that that's what was there,” Dowell admitted. “Lead comes in lots of different shapes. So I'm looking at shapes and I'm looking at the overall particle population. Individually, yes, there are some lead particles, apparently many lead particles, and there were some other particles that had lead and at least the element barium in them. My overall impression of that sample is, is that I would not call it gunshot residue.”

On the inside of the same box, Dowell testified that there was one highly specific particle and two consistent particles. One of the consistent particles, a lead-only particle, was captured on an image as one within cluster of particles. About that cluster Dowell wrote on his bench notes, “30+ lead-only particles” -- well over his two-particle threshold, he had to admit.

"Would it be fair to say that if someone picked up a box out of a squad room at RHD that there is a chance that there would be GSR particles either on the outside or inside of that box, assuming the box was open at the time?"


"And if clothing were placed in a box that had been contaminated with GSR, it's possible that some of the GSR from the box could get onto the clothing; is that correct?"


It is little wonder Dowell found no particles on the tee shirt. The box the tee shirt was in was not tested, so it is unknown what particles were in the box, if any. It was also not known where the box came from. Since the tee shirt was not in contact with the outside box, the one which tested positive for consistent particles of GSR, none of the many particles on the inside of that box could have transferred to the tee shirt. Not testing the box containing the tee shirt was inexcusable for a scientist with Dowell’s experience.

Although Dowell did not analyze the murder weapon, he did test the .38 automatic Smith & Wesson and holster Blake had with him the night of the murder. However, Dowell's testing was done after the LAPD test-fired the weapon.

On the gun, as expected, were many highly specific particles and many consistent particles. There were particles of copper, zinc, aluminum, antimony, barium, lead, iron, sulphur and combinations of these in particles.

There were also many highly specific particles on the holster and consistent particles containing the same elements as the handgun samples.

The gun and holster were delivered to Dowell in one large envelope. He tested the envelope and found many highly specific and consistent particles inside and outside the envelope. The consistent particles, again, contained the same elements as the .38 and holster.

"And since it was on both the inside and outside of the envelope, it also demonstrates that the GSR can be transferred from one object to another object," Schwartzbach said.

"That could be true if a gun and holster came in contact with some clothing, then the GSR from the gun and the holster could contaminate clothing even if that clothing had previously not had any GSR on it?"

"That's correct," Dowell replied.

And if a person's hands did not have any gunshot residue on them, but the person picked up that holster and/or gun, GSR from the holster and/or gun can get on the person's non-contaminated hand, and therefore have GSR?"


On Whelan’s hand samples, Dowell found one consistent particle which he listed on his bench notes, but on his reports, he stated he found no consistent particles.

On Gollaz’s hand sample he found one antimony and barium particle, which he considered consistent.

Dowell testified that he found one “highly specific” particle on Blake's boots. However, that particle was actually antimony and barium, the same particle makeup found on Gollaz’s hand. Dowell explained that at the time he made the analysis in 2001 a particle of antimony and barium was considered specific. There was no explanation why Gollaz’s hand sample, which was also taken in 2001, was considered consistent and Blake’s boot sample considered specific. Dowell had to admit there were no highly specific particles found on Blake's boots.

These same discordances between Dowell’s reports and his bench notes were shown to the jury in regard to the testing on Blake’s clothing. Schwartzbach focused specifically on lead and phosphorous particles which Dowell excluded from being GSR particles. Lead and phosphorous particles were excluded as consistent on Blake’s tee shirt, socks, and jeans and belt (which were sampled together as one item). “Several” lead and phosphorous particles were excluded from Blake’s boots.

It was a lot of excluded lead and phosphorous particles.

When it came to lead and phosphorous particles on Blake’s hands, however, that was a different story.

Dowell testified that he found three consistent particles of GSR on Blake’s left hand and two consistent particles of GSR on Blake’s right.

The two particles on the right hand were lead-only particles.

Of the three on the left hand, two particles consisted of lead, phosphorous, and calcium. The third particle consisted of lead and phosphorous.

If Dowell had applied his own standards to Blake’s hands, he would have eliminated the three particles on Blake’s left hand as consistent with GSR because of the phosphorous element; he had done so on all the clothes. And because, as he said earlier in testimony, lead is so prevalent in the environment he sees it on “many, many hand samples,” he set a threshold of over two lead-only particles before he calls a sample consistent with GSR. According to Dowell’s standards, Blake had no consistent or specific GSR on his hands.

Earlier in testimony Schwartzbach asked, “When you're interpreting GSR results, is it important to establish what criteria you're going to use to include or eliminate particles as being consistent with GSR?”

“Yes,” Dowell answered.

“And should you apply those criteria in a consistent way?”

“Of course.”

“For example, if you decide that the presence of phosphorous precludes a particle from being considered consistent with GSR, then you must exclude all particles with phosphorous in them as being consistent with GSR. Would that be fair to say?”


And although it was not said in court, it would be fair to say that Dowell applied a double standard when it came to police and the defendant.

The night of the murder, Blake was put in the back seat a police car with officers and their guns, where other persons arrested in commissions of crime sat. He was taken to a police station, again where police officers with guns routinely hung out. He was put in a holding cell used for prisoners.

What makes all this more insidious than a series of blunders is that the LAPD made no attempt to preserve evidence on Blake’s hands and clothes. On January 18, 2001, Cheryl MacWillie, an investigator with the Los Angeles Coroner’s office, testified that before Bakley’s body was delivered to the Coroner’s office, her body was wrapped and her hands bagged so evidence would not be contaminated.

Dowell testified that it is “preferable” to bag a suspect’s hands until a GSR test can be administered and, to reduce risk of contamination on clothing, have a suspect sit on paper in police cars. In fact, Dowell admitted he had published scientific papers on amounts of GSR found in the back seats of police cars. He also testified that it was preferable to do a GSR test as soon as possible and seize clothes as soon as possible to prevent further contamination. When clothes are collected, he said it is preferable to place each piece of clothing flat between two sheets of paper and fold it carefully so that one item could not contaminate another.

Blake was afforded no protection from contamination. The LAPD waited two-and-a-half hours before they tested Blake’s hands for GSR, the maximum time allowed for a valid test according to the LAPD guidelines.

The LAPD tested Blake’s clothes at least three times looking for evidence that didn’t exist. When they realized they had been careless with evidence, they devised a bogus experiment in an effort to fool jurors that even third grade science students would know could not possibly be validated.

Weeks later the defense would call their own gunshot residue expert, Cecilia Hartnett. Hartnett would later be criticized in the press and by Dowell himself for testifying about the amount of gunshot residue the Walther PPK produced and the amount she expected to see on Blake’s hands. But she was not asked to refute Dowell’s evidence; Dowell had provided sufficient testimony to discredit himself.

The Bomb Squad – Part I - Keystone cops collect some evidence

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At 3:42 PM, Blogger hoopa said...

This is mind boggling. Were they just incompetent or was there an alterior motive going on here?

At 8:17 PM, Blogger JHills said...

Most of the police and scientific personnel who testified, including Dowell, Gollaz, and Ito, had over 20 years experience. It is difficult to believe that these were unintentional blunders. It is more likely these men were practiced in misleading jurors and knew how to minimize "reasonable doubt" in criminal cases.

Unfortunately for them, they were up against a tenacious defense lawyer who would not let misleading testimony go unexposed.


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