MFIA Wins Victory in Crime Lab’s Software Case

Three weeks ago, Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA) filed a motion on behalf of the news organization ProPublica in the Southern District of New York. Earlier this week, Judge Valerie Caproni issued that the source code for analyzing DNA samples would be released. This reverses the protective order that prevented the public disclosure of the source code of the Forensic Statistical Tool (FST) used by the New York State Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME).

The ruling is a victory for ProPublica and MFIA. ProPublica reporter Lauren Kirchner published an investigation in ProPublica and the New York Times last month detailing the history and controversial use of the FST in criminal proceedings. Amid the ongoing debate over the program’s validity, ProPublica sought access to the source code underlying the FST software itself. Kirchner published another article today covering the release of the FST.

Judge Caproni previously ordered OCME to produce the source code to defense counsel in a federal criminal trial against defendant Kevin Johnson. OCME resisted but ultimately did so under a protective order that prevented the defense and its expert witness from disclosing the code to the public. Large portions of the defense expert’s report on the code were also redacted. Judge Caproni’s latest ruling unseals the report and lifts the protective order, allowing defense counsel to disclose the FST source code to the public.

Despite earlier resistance, in light of ProPublica’s motion, OCME told the Court it did not object to the lifting of the protective order. The U.S. Attorney’s Office followed OCME’s lead and also chose not to oppose the motion. “We’re pleased that OCME and the government have decided to resolve this matter so quickly and in a way that furthers the goals of public disclosure,” said Catherine Martinez ’19, a law student intern from the MFIA clinic. “The government has a serious advantage over defendants in criminal trials. The public has a right to know what tools the government is using to obtain convictions, and the release of the FST source code is a step in the right direction.”

Disclosure of this source code is crucial given the debate among scientists over the use of the FST and other DNA analysis programs like it. ProPublica can now inspect the source code and run an independent analysis of the validity of both the FST procedure and the software itself, which OCME has reportedly used in more than a thousand cases in the past six years. “No one should be sentenced or serve time because of error—human error or machine error,” said Aislinn Klos ’18, a law student intern from the MFIA clinic. “Computer algorithms play an increasingly significant role in the administration of justice. The release of this code will increase public confidence in the courts and crime labs. It’s a significant step towards a more transparent and more trustworthy system.”

Judge Caproni’s ruling granting the motion represents an early success in the ongoing effort across the country to gain access to the statistical and algorithmic tools used by state and federal governments in criminal investigations and prosecutions. With this victory under its belt, the MFIA Clinic will continue to look for other avenues to pursue government transparency in the public interest.

ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.

The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic is a law student clinic at Yale Law School dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression by providing pro bono legal services, pursuing impact litigation, and developing policy initiatives. ProPublica is represented in this matter by law student interns Aislinn Klos ’18 and Catherine Martinez ’19, and supervising attorneys Hannah Bloch-Wehba and David Schulz.