May 04, 2007

Does DNA Condemn The Innocent??

This past week the media reported that according to the Innocence Project, the 200th person has now been exonerated by DNA evidence. This sobering milestone was reached when Jerry Miller, a now 48-year old former Army cook was proven innocent by DNA. Evidence from a brutal kidnapping and rape that took place in Chicago in September of 1981 had sent Miller to prison. The victim never identified Miller as her assailant but two parking lot attendants did identify him.

Miller spent 25 years in several Illinois prisons insisting he was innocent before recently being paroled. Through these many years Miller filed numerous appeals challenging the validity of his wrongful convictions; to no avail. With no appeals left, about ten years ago Miller sought out the assistance of the New York based Innocence Project, co-founded in 1992 by renowned attorney Barry Scheck. Agreeing to take the case, Miller was released from prison on parole before the DNA testing was completed. Last week the Cook County Court granted a motion vacating Miller’s convictions and legally exonerating him.

But with all the attention focused on DNA testing, has exoneration by DNA evidence now become the new litmus test for proving innocence? If so, then could it be that DNA is now actually condemning more innocent people than it is exonerating? Through the past 30 years over 125 men and women have been legally exonerated and released from death row; after being found to have been wrongfully convicted and condemned to death. Of that number, only a handful, were exonerated by DNA evidence.

Of the 200 exonerations through DNA evidence, 54 of those were convicted of murder – with less than 10 also wrongfully sentenced to death. Like in the Miller case, the leading cause of the wrongful conviction was mistaken identity, followed closely by faulty scientific evidence. False confessions accounted for only about 25 percent.

There is no question that DNA testing has proven to be a valuable tool in exonerating the innocent. In fact, the very first criminal case in which DNA testing was used in an attempt to prove guilt actually resulted in an unexpected exoneration. The story of how DNA testing came to be utilized in criminal cases begins in Leicestershire, England. In November 1983 a local 15-year old Lynda Mann was raped and strangled to death with her body callously discarded in a field not far from her home. Although the local community searched for the killer, the case went unsolved.

Then almost three years later in August 1986 the body of another 15-year old girl (Dawn Ashworth) was found – she too had been raped and strangled in a manner remarkably similar to Lynda Mann. An investigation led local police to Richard Buckland, a porter at a nearby hospital. Buckland soon confessed to the Ashworth murder, but given the similarities and proximity of the earlier murder of Lynda Mann the police felt that Buckland had to also be responsible for that murder.

Anxious to close the books on both murders the police called upon Alec Jeffries, a professor at Leicestershire University, in England, who while attempting to identify the myoglobin producing gene, which governs the tissues that carry oxygen from the blood to the muscles discovered that DNA is unique to each individual.

The English police thought this new discovery could help them prove that Richard Buckland had also murdered Lynda Mann and Professor Jeffries collected blood samples from Buckland to compare against semen recovered from both of the young victims. The results shocked both Professor Jeffries and the police – contrary to his own confession; Buckland did not commit either murder! The semen taken from both Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth undoubtedly did come from the same man – the same man committed both crimes – but it wasn’t Buckland.

With this DNA evidence now able to identify the true killer, the police launched an extensive manhunt, collecting over 5,000 DNA samples from men living around the Leicestershire area – but no match was found, The cases seemed to be destined to remain unsolved and the killer free to kill again until the police unexpectedly received a call from an acquaintance of Ian Kelly, a baker who lived some distance from the area of the crime. He claimed that Kelly had told him that he had provided the DNA sample for a friend and information led the police to Colin Pitchfork . Pitchfork’s DNA was then proven to be a match for the semen found in both victims. Based on this evidence in January 1988 Pitchfork became the first ever person convicted based upon genetic fingerprinting and was then sentenced to life on both murders.

There can be no question that DNA’s genetic fingerprinting has proven to be an invaluable tool in both identifying the guilty and exonerating the innocent. And that those who are committed to fighting for justice by using DNA to exonerate the wrongfully convicted should be commended for their work. Barry Shack and the Innocence Project, as well as the many universities that now have similar projects, have brought hope to countless victims of injustice and have successfully brought justice to at least 200.

But the problem is that the success of of these numerous DNA exonerations have effectively stolen the limelight. Increasingly, because of all the attention on exonerations by DNA evidence, those who cannot prove their innocence by DNA – because it doesn’t exist or was lost by the state in their case – are ignored. Most of the Innocence Projects today will not even accept cases unless there is forensic evidence that can be subjected to DNA testing. Almost without exception, those exonerated by DNA evidence were convicted of sexual assaults, yet these crimes account for only a small percentage of those wrongfully convicted.

Historically most of those exonerated after being wrongfully convicted (and even condemned to death) never had any DNA evidence to prove their innocence – does this make them less innocent? If society and the judicial system place to much dependence upon DNA to prove a person’s innocence, then ultimately this dependence on DNA evidence as the litmus test of innocence will actually condemn far more innocent people that it will exonerate.

It is an unfortunate tragedy that there are very limited resources available to handle the many thousands of cases in which wrongfully convicted and even condemned prisoners allege innocence. Our judicial system generally has proven unwilling to provide legal support to the allegedly innocent and contemporary politics has resulted in Draconian procedural rules that actually make it almost impossible for a wrongfully convicted person to even argue – much less prove – his or her innocence.

Is it really fair that with all the attention on DNA and the vast majority if these limited resources available to the organization dedicated to fighting the injustices of wrongful convictions are now dedicated almost exclusively to cases where DNA evidence is an issue? What about the larger number of prisoners wrongfully convicted that do not have DNA evidence that are being deliberately ignored and forgotten?

Am I the only one troubled by the fact that in the numerous articles I read proclaiming the 200th person exonerated by DNA evidence this past week, not even one article mentioned that DNA exonerations actually account for only a small percentage of the cases in which the wrongfully convicted and condemned were subsequently exonerated and released? That in fact, DNA exonerations are almost exclusively limited to cases involving and alleged sexual assault and that of the now over 125 men and women exonerated and released from death row across the country in recent years, less than ten percent were exonerated by DNA evidence.

It is not my intent to negate the commendable job, Barry Scheck and many other dedicated lawyers associated with these Innocence Projects are doing. These are the hero’s of all those wrongfully convicted. But it is my belief that they have a responsibility to remind the public that DNA exonerations are actually only the more visible tip of the proverbial iceberg and that the greater mass if wrongful convictions cannot be so easily exposed by DNA testing. Without constantly reminding the public of this undeniable truth the greater injustice will be perpetuated by the very individuals so obviously and selflessly devoted to exposing injustice, as the general public becomes fixated on DNA evidence as the litmus test of innocence. As attention becomes increasingly focused on DNA exonerations inevitably overshadowing the significantly greater number of wrongful convictions that cannot be expose by DNA testing, then ultimately DNA will actually condemn far more innocent people than it will exonerate – and that would be the greater injustice.