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Stielow and Green: A Landmark in the History of Forensic Science

Charles Stielow and Nelson Green were wrongfully convicted of a double homicide in upstate New York in 1915. The case rested on an invalid firearms examination by Albert Hamilton, who produced a string of fraudulent forensic testimony in the early 20th Century. Hamilton styled himself as a Renaissance Man with expertise in ballistics, chemistry, toxicology, and pathology. He testified that the bullets from the murder scene came from Stielow’s gun, but he hadn’t conducted any analysis to match the markings on the bullets with the rifling of the .22-caliber revolver.

The appeals court summarized the implication: “The bullets were extracted from both bodies, and contained certain irregularities conforming to an irregularity in the barrel of the defendant's revolver. The defendant and Nelson Green caused this revolver to be concealed soon after the murder, and both denied that the defendant owned a revolver.”

Postconviction, ballistics experts Charles Waite and Max Poser determined that the bullets could not have come from the revolver. In addition, it was found that the overall investigation was seriously flawed—police investigator Newton had pursued only one theory of the case and had abused his power to falsify evidence and elicit a false confession. Stielow and Green were fully exonerated.

Waite and Poser would work with Calvin Goddard and others to develop the comparison microscope and rigorous standards for the field of ballistic impression evidence. They would go on to train a new generation of ballistics examiners. Their work was so successful that it became the basis for the development of the FBI Laboratory and the foundation for firearms examination all the way up to the present day.

The case contains significant lessons for experts. First, charlatans find opportunities when a field lacks appropriate standards for professional training and practice. Hamilton was able to work as a forensic scientist across many disciplines because there were no standards that the courts or the police were applying to determine what was acceptable forensic science. Second, practitioners should play a role in the development of new technologies and standards to ensure that they are relevant and lasting. The partnership between scientists and practitioners led to lasting and positive change for the field of ballistic examination.

Finally, we should recognize the sad fact that the Stielow/Green wrongful convictions may have occurred even if the ballistics were done correctly. Police and court reform must walk hand-in-hand with improved forensic work.

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