How Many Billion in a Trillion?

“How many billions are in a trillion?” the prosecutor asked a private DNA expert they employed to determine whose DNA was on the business card.  The answer was jaw-dropping…

Human Identification Technologies, or ‘HIT’ is a now-defunct testing laboratory that the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department contracted to analyze the items found at the scene of the Pinyon Pines murder scene. Initially, HIT found only a small sample of DNA on a business card found 200 yards from the scene. The match was only partial. Eleven years after the first analysis, the technician responsible for the analysis was no longer employed by HIT. In fact, nobody was.  HIT was out of business.

In fact, it was a strange move by RCSD to select HIT in the first place.  The normal path was to send all DNS evidence to the Department of Justice.  They had plenty of DNA processing tools, and did this service for law enforcement agencies all of the time. Why incur the expense of a private party analysis? We wonder.

Years later, after re-opening the case, investigators went back to HIT to try to improve the evidence.  HIT wasn’t there, but they found the previous owner.  He was now operating as a private consultant.  Apparently, he was a pretty brilliant scientist.  He even found a new way to look at the same data and improve the match statistics.  Now, instead of being a one in 300,000 match, the match became one in 28 TRILLION!

“How many people are in the world?” the prosecutor dramatically asked the scientist. “Around seven billion” came the answer.

“And how many billions are in a trillion?” the prosecutor pursued.

“Um…I don’t know…Ten?” was the answer.  The courtroom gasped! An answer that any scientist, or basic chemistry student for that matter, should know off the top of his head, surely couldn’t elude a man of his credentials.

“Maybe a hundred?” the prosecutor helpfully offered. Continued gasps.

“I object! They are misstating basic math!” injected Jeff Moore, Robert Pape’s defense attorney.

The simple answer is 1000.  There are a thousand thousand in a million. A thousand million in a billion. A thousand billion in a trillion, and so on.  An average person can be forgiven this oversight, but a scientist? Especially a scientist that peddles himself as an expert witness in identification of potential culprits.

As such an expert, he is responsible for making statistical calculations of probability after doing extensive scientific research. His calculations can have life-or-death implications for defendants. Many innocent people have been convicted on much less.

Unfortunately, the jury, made up of average citizens, may not have seen this mistake for what it was: an indication that this expert wasn’t capable of even the simplest calculation, and that should have called into question all of his credibility.

Back to the private consultant issue. 

Why would Riverside sheriffs go anywhere other than the Department of Justice for its DNA work? They say it is because the DOJ was backlogged for months. They were in a hurry. However, they didn’t even check with the DOJ until mid 2007, nine months after the investigation started. 

When considered along with all of the other delays incurred along the way, it appears there was no hurry at all.

But it is consistent with the RCSD investigators mode of operation in this case.  For example: rather than get cell phone coverage maps directly from Verizon, they opted to hire another private firm to analyze the cell phone coverage.  They claim that Verizon wanted over $15,000 for the maps, but then they paid Gladiator Technologies over $17,000 to re-create the same data.

Is it about controlling the outcome? After sitting through all of the cherry-picked facts and testimony, it certainly seems that way.

Investigations are supposed to be about finding the truth.  Trials are supposed to be about dispensing justice, where appropriate, and acting as a check on law enforcement where it isn’t. 

But this was just a railroad job.  The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and the Riverside County District Attorney’s office should both be deeply ashamed that they put such a hapless charlatan up as an expert witness.

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