Hookah 2/11/21

Recollections by Richard Bleil

While working as the forensic lab director, the comment I tried to impress upon my analysts is that we didn’t work for the prosecuting attorneys. Our job was not to find the evidence to convict, nor was it our job to find the evidence to prove innocence. It was, in fact, our job to run tests, and report our findings. It is important to maintain neutrality. Looking at the cases where forensic scientists have been caught fabricating evidence, there is often an underlying factor that the people caught believed that they were in fact finding evidence to put away the guilty. In other words, they decided the outcome before even running the tests.

As a forensic scientist, neutrality is key. Whether your results make the prosecuting attorneys happy, or the defenders is immaterial. The forensic scientists are not the jury, or the judge. We have no reason to want any particular result. We report our findings, honestly and openly, and let the chips fall where they will.

Early on in my tenure as the director, the police chief came to me to ask me what constitutes smoke. As it turns out, there is a historical answer to this. Jan Ingenhousz studied the motion of smoke particles in 1827 by trapping them in a petri dish and watching them in a microscope. He noted the random motions of the particles today known as “Brownian Motion”. This provides a definition of smoke as a suspension of particles in the air. So is Hookah actually smoke, or is it “vapor”?

This question arose because of a law in the state that forbids smoking in public places. The only exception to this rule are tobacco shops that are allowed to have smoking, but are forbidden by that same law from serving or allowing alcohol. The logic is that if you can both smoke and drink in these places, it’s not fair to bars that are not permitted to allow smoking. A Hookah bar in the area sued claiming that since Hookah is not smoke, it’s exempt from the law and should be allowed a liquor license. Their argument is that you don’t actually light the tobacco on fire, so it’s not really smoke. Of course, my aunt burned the turkey one Thanksgiving, and she never lit that on fire but the house sure did fill with smoke.

A chemical analysis I had done showed the same chemicals in Hookah smoke as found in traditional smoking products like cigarettes or cigars, the most obvious of which was phytol, a chemical caused by the breakdown of tobacco as it burns. I wrote a summary of my findings for the chief, which wound up somehow as a document submitted for this case. So, of course, I was subpoenaed.

I sat and watched the testimony from the beginning. On the second day, immediately after lunch, I was called to the stand. First up was the attorney for the city. They asked me to explain my test, how we did it, and what we found. The experiment showed pretty conclusively that, indeed, Hookah did produce the same compounds as smoking. I testified from resuming after lunch until the trial was called for the day.

The next morning, I was called back to the stand to resume my testimony from the opening of the day. This day it was the attorneys for the Hookah owners that was allowed to cross-examine. What really struck me were the tricks they used to try to trip me up. For example, they misquoted an expert witness from the first day of the trial, asking if I saw her testimony and how I felt about the statement she had made that the kind of testing I did should have been done by an accredited lab, which we were not at the time. Of course, she didn’t say that. What she did say is that testing done in a non-accredited lab needs to ensure that quality control was performed, which is how I answered the question. The attorney was bright enough, by the way, to avoid asking the obvious follow-up question, namely if those quality assurance methods were in place which, of course, they were.

He had found a list of chemicals from a study commissioned by the tobacco industry of potential chemical additives to make smoking more appealing. Among them was phytol, an entry the attorney had highlighted. He informed me that the list was one of potential chemical additives, and he asked me to read, out loud, just the one line he had highlighted, which I did. Then I asked if I could read the first line of the list which clearly said they were potential additives, not actual additives.

Trials have been described as nothing more than a show. It’s a song-and-dance to convince the jury to see things the way the attorney wishes. To do this, the attorneys will leave out key pieces of evidence, include things that may or may not be relevant, and other tricks. If you want to see these games in action, they’re being performed every day this week in the impeachment trial. The impeachment attorneys created lovely videos to tug at the hearts of the senators, a review of what had happened but does not address the legal grounds for the impeachment. The former president’s attorneys are worse, dancing around a plethora of arguments and conveniently presenting only that which supports their side while ignoring the entire story, such as, for example, hand-picking the few legal scholars they could find that would say the impeachment is unconstitutional while conveniently ignoring the fact that most constitutional scholars say that the impeachment is indeed legal. I encourage my readers to watch what they can stomach of the spectacle, and enjoy the show.

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