Gunshot Residue Evidence and the Trayvon Martin Case

My presentation might have exhausted the class’s interest in gunshot reside analysis, but for anyone still interested, some of the recently-released forensic evidence in the Trayvon Martin case reflects the principles we discussed, without delving into the detailed studies. Investigators found one GSR particle on the sleeve of George Zimmerman, the shooter, and two particles on Trayvon Martin’s sweatshirt.

This, of course, should mean very little in light of the frequent false positives we discussed. Regardless of whether Martin and Zimmerman actually tussled, merely being in close quarters was enough to transfer particles between the two. And even a scrupulous lab technician could get a false-positive result based on contamination from the activities that followed the shooting, including paramedics responding and hurriedly rendering aid at the scene. In short, this evidence should mean very little.

Instead, outside experts retained by the press have suggested the GSR results necessarily mean Martin died from a “contact shot,” meaning the barrel was physically pressed against his body when it fired. This would ostensibly support Zimmerman’s defense, that he only fired once the two were fighting in close-contact. Though the defense attorneys have not said whether they intend to rely on the GSR evidence to support their self-defense theory, this case could become a high-profile case study in the shortcomings of this pervasive evidence. But even if the GSR proves crucial, the sensationalized aspects of this case are an apparently poor context for any thoughtful progress toward better understanding the science.

Science Reinforces that the Law Has It Right Regarding Rescue

Absent a scenario in which a person created a hazardous situation or one in which a special relationship exists, the law maintains that there is no duty to rescue another in peril. We recognize that although there may be a moral or ethical duty to rescue, there is generally no legal basis upon which to impose liability.

In an article written by Sheila Eldred, a situation is described in which a NY man, a freelance photographer by trade, was highly scrutinized after supplying to the New York Post photos of a man just seconds before he was run over by a train. The photographer’s response was that all he could do was follow his instincts and that he did not have time to rescue the man. He wrote, “I had no idea what I was shooting. I’m not even sure it was registering with me what was happening . . . It all went so quickly; from the time I heard the shouting until the time the train hit the man was about 22 seconds.”

Twenty-two seconds? When you think about it, depending on the surrounding environment, that seems like it could be more than enough time to rush in and save someone from certain death. (For perspective, that amount of time is nearly two iterations of the Happy Birthday song). But neuroscience and psychology say “not so fast” when it comes to even the moral/ethical blame. Although we would all like to think we’d be the first to aid in a life-or-death situation, it seems that people have several reasons for failing to rescue another, some of which are deeply rooted in instinct. Neuroscientist Jordan Grafman notes that the pattern of brain activation under conditions like danger is very unique.

Darcia Narvaez, Notre Dame Professor of Psychology and Director of the Collaborative for Ethical Education, has explained that many people are so overcome with shock in these types of situations that they actually cannot save the individual. Instead, these bystanders may default to a learned reaction, which explains the photographer’s “instinct” to snap pictures. (On the other hand, someone who is trained to overcome shock and act affirmatively, like a military service member, may default to his or her training and rush in to rescue the individual).

If there are many bystanders witnessing this type of event taking place, often times no one individual steps forward to save the day. The reason for this is two-fold: (1) we get our social cues from others, and if several people fail to act, we may also fail to act, and (2) the responsibility we feel individually is often inversely proportionate to the number of people present. The article uses the example that if we are in a group of ten people, we may feel that individually, we each only have about 10% of the responsibility. Further, the social practice of walking around a big city with “blinders” may cause people to simply not be aware that someone is in danger, and our sense of compassion for others may be dulled as product of our prevalent violent media.

In my first year torts class, I remember being very surprised to learn that there is generally no legal duty to rescue, and I suppose it’s because it seemed so contrary to public policy in some respects. I understand the reasons why we do not impose a legal duty, and in this instance, the current state of the law is consistent with recent science.

Maturity in the Courtroom: Hit or Miss?

As a litigator or prosecutor, certainly having an older, wiser witness comes with obvious perks.  A jury might believe that the older gentleman more so than a younger witness who is more frantic in his prattling.  Of course, jurors most likely have a “sweet spot” for age, as an older witness can also be cross-examined about senility and other shortcomings of recollection.  Well, add this to the Cross-Examiner’s tool-kit:

A new article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States America lays out that as we age, our genetic predisposition towards distrust diminishes.  In fact, “[O]lder adults are disproportionately vulnerable to fraud, and federal agencies have speculated that excessive trust explains their greater vulnerability.”  While it would seem philosophically logical to think that someone wise in their years could accurately assess a situation, apparently studies yielded in the article showed that younger people are safer in varied social situations because of their skepticism.  Not only might this study, if accurate, yield a better impression on why people keep falling for those Nigerian Prince e-mails, but it might also facilitate a better understanding of what older jurors are going through in their mind during testimony (at least at the scientific level!)

Murder: An Infectious Disease

According to Tia Ghose, new research suggests that murder is contagious and may spread like the flu. In this study, the researchers relied on the same techniques public-health officials use to track the spread of diseases, but applied them to the spread of homicide in Newark, N.J., over a 26-year span from 1982 to 2008. Just as in other epidemics, certain neighborhoods were more susceptible than others. Diverse, immigrant-rich communities looked to be protected against homicide’s spread in the research, while the poorest neighborhoods were more vulnerable. These findings suggest communities could inoculate themselves against murder waves by addressing the underlying risk factors.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions Hit All-Time High in 2011

Many of you would not be surprised to discover that the carbon dioxide emission levels hit all-time highs and are (extremely) far from meeting the international goal of limiting the ultimate global warming to 3.6 degrees.  Sadly, we are already nearly halfway there–average global temperatures have increased 1.5 degrees since 1850.  This article discussed how global emissions increased 3 percent in 2011 and anticipate another emission increase of 2.6 percent in 2012.

One of the biggest problems identified is the continued (and increasing) reliance on coal–by far the “dirtiest” of the fossil fuels.  As I discussed in my presentation, using natural gas as an alternative fuel–or even displacing coal and petroleum through a supplementary use of natural gas–could provide remarkable changes in carbon emissions, and subsequently vast differences for our future environment.

Despite an international agreement to curb global carbon emissions, there have been little changes in its three years.  While an international agreement is necessary, the regulatory changes must start domestically.  Without progress at home, enforcement of emission limits abroad seems inane.

There will soon come a day where a carbon-tax will be necessary to deter these detrimental emissions.  As disappointing as renewable energy efforts may seem, the potential for solar and wind energy still surpasses our current technology.  At what point does the United States “lead by example” and implement carbon reducing regulations (i.e. a true carbon tax) that makes a difference?  This study discusses the sustainability of reduced domestic emissions and offers a few hypothetical scenarios that are intriguing.  Efficiency, carbon capture, and renewable energy are possible (or at least plausible) but in order for real changes to take place, a complete overhaul of the United States energy infrastructure will eventually need to take place.  So, the real question is whether it’s going to be sooner or later.


Apparently, there’s no insanity defense to a crime in Idaho.  While you still have to be capable of understanding the charges against you to stand trial, once you do, it doesn’t matter that you weren’t able to understand that what you did was wrong when you did it.  This isn’t about proving insanity.  What a judge or jury will or won’t believe about a defendant’s mental state is a completely different matter.  The issue here is that the defense isn’t even allowed in Idaho.  The defense doesn’t even have the option of excusing the conduct with a mental illness particular to the defendant.  And more troubling, the Supreme Court of the United States decided not to even hear the case. Whatever happened to not allowing cruel and unusual punishment? Is it not cruel and unusual to punish someone who had no idea he’d done wrong anymore?

Check out this Slate article on point.