Wednesday, January 04, 2012

How will the Law and Chemistry Interact? - The Sheri Sangji Case

While there has been much excellent discussion of the Sheri Sangji case elsewhere (Jyllian Kelmsly has the best coverage of the unfortunate women killed in a UCLA lab when a large volume of a pyrophoric chemical was spilled in a hood containing hexane), I see a common underlying theme in all the commentary. Being chemists, we take a strongly scientific view of the matter, looking at the reported facts, filtering them through our collective chemistry culture and producing a "factual" answer. This is the way we operate on a daily basis at our jobs, as well we should. We do a great job at it, but now we are being cast aside. You see, now that the legal system has gotten involved, an entirely new perspective will enter the picture, one that is well removed from the "reality" that we experience in our hoods and on our benches. Or as Rees Kassen said in a recent Nature editorial "Our mistake is to think that science will be given a privileged voice on an issue. This is almost always wrong."

Consider these thoughts in no particular order:
  • While the Constitution guarantees Prof. Harran a jury of his peers, consider what the makeup of those "peers" will be. Does anyone think it will be 12 other chemicals professors? Or 12 chemists? Or even 1 from either of those groups? Or even a single technically educated person? No, there will not be anyone of such background on the jury. If there was, the jury would be effectively reduced to the that lone technical person, as everyone else would defer to their technical background and experience. Instead, the jury will be made up of 12 people from all walks of life. Some young, some old, probably an unemployed person or two who is just happy for the income and free lunch. Considering that only 30% of the population has a college degree, that means only 4 people on average will so educated. Look at some of the comments on the "Trending Topics" from Twitter to see the intelligence level that Professor Harran is facing. So it will not be enough for the prosecutor to state that there was also hexane in the hood at the time of the incident. As chemists, we all understand that hexane is very flammable. The jury will not. They will need to be told that a component of gasoline was also in the hood, but at the same time, the only "experience" most of them will have had with hexane on fire is seeing a car explode in a Hollywood movie - an entirely different matter. And while the judge will have a law degree, he most likely knows nothing about chemistry either, so it would be pretty easy to snow him with some "less than totally accurate facts".
  • If the prosecutor had an easy case, he would have not waited until the statue of limitations nearly kicked in before filing the charges.
  • The way evidence is looked at in a trial is greatly removed from anything we ever see as chemists. As an example, know that until a few years ago, it was possible for a forensics lab to produce a one-sentence report against you stating for example, "The substance was cocaine"! It was assumed that appropriate analytical techniques were used, that the instruments were calibrated, that the results were interpreted correctly...Compare that with any peer-reviewed paper, or even a lab report that students turn it. There was nothing you could to about it except pay for testing the substance yourself, and then you would have competing reports and arguments about who was right and allusions that you found someone biased in your favor and... Remember that the constitution guarantees us the right to confront our accusers, but until the Melendez-Dias case reached the Supreme Court, that was not possible. The Melendez-Dias case opened the door at least to allowing the defense to actually question chemistry reports. Regardless, the law takes an entirely different approach to evidence than chemists do.
  • Any comments being made know by the UCLA lawyers or the Prosecutor's office are just PR blurbs. None of the people making the statements are going to be the lawyers arguing at the trial, so ignore what is being said.
At the same time, we as chemists/scientists/engineers need to approach the legal system in the same way that we perform our jobs. As the trial proceeds, we can't be content to just read what is being reported in the mainstream press or the chemical press or blogs or...The real answers will be in the primary literature and the raw data - the actual proceedings that occur in court. Only by accessing that information will be able to truly understand what occurred in the trial.

I make no predictions of the outcome as I see difficulties on both sides and no clear cut "justice" as an outcome. Cases like this are why we are taught to pray to "save us from the time of trial".


juanrga said...

I have always been said that a fundamental difference between science and The Law is that in the latter two half-evidences give one evidence.

mara said...

Nothing of this changes the fact that a human being is dead. RIP.