Friday, June 5, 2009

Blocking Access to DNA Testing

by Diane Fanning

In Louisiana, Kenneth Reed sits in prison convicted of rape. He continues to claim his innocence and file appeals. A simple DNA test could confirm his guilt or throw his 1991 conviction into doubt. The prosecutor is blocking that testing as hard as he can even though though the state of Louisiana is one of forty-six states to give that right to inmates.

For the past three years, an Illinois state attorney has been obstructing DNA testing for Johnnie Lee Savory (right), convicted of a double homicide in 1977 when he was 14 years old, insisting that the jury didn't need DNA to convict. A ridiculous statement considering the fact that there have been 175 exonerations by DNA.

State after state, the story continues--prosecutors balking at the tests that could actually confirm the guilt of the inmate or point to possible innocence. Certainly, all claims of innocence are not valid just as DNA testing is not always the whole answer to every case. But even if it doesn't tell the whole story, it is a vital piece of the puzzle.

Hearing all these prosecutors battle against the revelation of all the facts and truth in a case makes you wonder if they understand the meaning of justice, have any concept of their mission, or remember they are representing us in the courtroom, not themselves. Too many of them have prioritized winning over truth and justice, making a mockery of the law they are sworn to uphold.

Fortunately, not all of the people’s representatives in the court of law have lost sight of the meaning behind their calling. One sterling example of a prosecutor with a clear vision of his mission is Craig Watkins (right) in Dallas County, Texas.

Watkins took office in January 2007 inheriting a staff that possessed a win-at-any-costs mentality embedded in the office culture by legendary Dallas County prosecutor Henry Wade. Wade actually bragged about obtaining convictions on innocent people--he said it proved his tremendous skill as a prosecutor.

In July 2007, Watkins established the Conviction Integrity Unit charged with the oversight of four hundred post-conviction reviews where DNA could provide answers. He staffed it with one assistant district attorney, one investigator and one legal assistant who work in conjunction with the Innocence Project of Texas. It is the first division of its kind in the United States.

Since its inception, the unit has called for testing in forty cases of claimed innocence. As a result, nineteen men were determined to be wrongfully convicted and ten innocent men have been set free from Texas prisons. Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project said: "Sometimes district attorneys are reluctant to admit that a mistake was made. What he proved is if the district attorney's office is not afraid to admit that a mistake was made and correct it, then juries will reward them for it. By doing justice, you establish credibility."

It's not all one-sided in Dallas County as a single viewing of Dallas DNA on the Investigation Discovery channel demonstrates. Many men requesting the genetic testing to clear their names are informed that, to the contrary, it confirmed their guilt. I imagine most of those inmates were just gambling that the science would fail and a mistake in the lab would set them free. A few had probably lied so long, they'd forgotten the truth. Either way, the jury verdict was confirmed as just and true.

There are those out there who are not moved by the thought of an innocent person in jail. They tend to think that those people probably committed another crime and just got away with it--so what difference does it make to keep them behind bars. This cynical attitude overlooks one very important problem--a complication that leaves all of us less safe, by exposing us to the predation of more rapists, killers and molesters.

Every time an innocent person is wrongfully convicted, there is a guilty person--perhaps a very violent person--who walks free able to re-offend. Brandon Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, analyzed 225 cases of DNA exoneration. In 98 of those cases, the new information led straight to the actual perpetrator allowing law enforcement to get the guilty man off of the streets.

Conviction at any cost is simply not in our best interests, even if we never end up in a courtroom on either side of the aisle. Self-preservation alone should prod all of us into demanding that prosecutors in our jurisdiction care more about justice than they do about winning. I don't expect perfection from the state's attorneys--they are human, there will be mistakes.

But I do expect prosecutors to care about these errors, to be willing to admit to them and to do everything possible to restore justice to wrongfully convicted inmates.

After all, as citizens, it is in their best interests, too.


FleaStiff said...

Police are proud of their interrogation skills even if the confessor is innocent or no crime took place.
Prosecutors are proud of their skills even if the defendant is innocent.

The goal is to win. Admitting an erronious conviction is akin to making an apology. Its a sign of weakness.

Nobody wants these wrongfully convicted people to get out and benefit. They may have been innocent of what they were charged with but they are still viewed as bad people who belong in prison. Florida recently denied compensation to someone wrongfully imprisoned for nearly three decades because he had a prior drunk driving conviction instead of clean-hands. The clean hands is the excuse, the goal is to deny success to those accused of crimes. Keep them from getting out, keep them from getting compensaton.

Diane Fanning said...

Unfortunately, Flea Stiff, what you are saying is often true. But it is not universal. There are law enforcement agencies who are more focused on finding the real perpetrator than on closing a case; and prosecution offices where truth and justice trump the win/loss stats. This level of ethics and principle has to start at the top. We need to demand that the leaders of these agencies embrace their true mission and serve the public with honor and honesty.

Roci said...

Ms Fanning,
I agree with everything you have said and only wish to add that DNA alone cannot exhonorate any more than it can convict. A negative match only means that the sample examined did not match the accused. It leaves open the possibility that there were samples from multiple persons present with the accused's sample being masked by a more dominant sample.

Other evidence presented at trial and crossexamined is very important to complete the whole picture.

From the cases I have heard, finding the actual offender does not remove him from the street. In many cases, he was in the DNA database because he was already locked up for another crime.

But I agree with you that knowing the truth is better than not knowing and locking up even a few more genuine offenders instead of innocent men is a worthy goal.

What are the penalties for prosecutors who willingly prosecute innocent men? If this is just a game to them with no value but the score at the end, then I don't see a solution. Society depends too much on the integrity of the prosecutor, not just his ability to prove a case. It ought to be a crime to knowingly prosecute an innocent man. Even if he is exhonorated, the accused will still have to pay punitive-sized legal defense bills and the loss of employment, alienation from family and status inthe community.

Diane Fanning said...

You are right that, in most cases, DNA is only a step in exoneration. But what they've found in Dallas is that it can demonstrate the need for further investigation into a claim of innocence. There are some exonerations in which that is all that is needed. For example, there was a rape case of a woman who was not sexually active. A man was convicted essentially on her identification in a line-up. However, the DNA test proved that he was not the rapist.

Cheryl said...

I saw a program on American Justice yesterday about "Eye Witness Testimonies" and the high rate of errors actual eye witnesses make. Some people convicted soley on eyewitnes testimony were exonerated by DNA.

Prosecuters, Judges or anyone for that matter, who denies a person access to DNA evidence should be punished themselves.

I also believe that a Proscuter who shows a history of being someone "who has to win no matter what the cost," should be removed from his postition of power.

The thing that scares me the most is it could happen to You or Me.

Diane Fanning said...

You are so right, Cheryl--it just seems like someone else's problem until you realize it could happen to any of us.

FleaStiff said...

Please don't misunderstand my comments. I do think it is proper to re-test evidence and right past injustices. (Though I wouldn't go as far as apologizing for slavery or the Battle of Hastings or any such thing.)
I just don't think the people who prosecute are ever going to want to ought but drag their feet until some inevitable release and then try to re-prosecute them!
Even the prosecutor of that Marine's widow tried to do an end-run around the defense lawyer and the media and still fought to reserve her options regarding a re-trial.

LadySheila said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LadySheila said...

Total agreement is with Cheryl. Though I don't get to read or comment on every post, I sure try. I always go back to see what I have missed. Also, I have left several comments and for some reason, sometimes it won't save!
Thank you for the insight, Ms. Fanning. This is so sad. Besides writing to leaders continually, and voting, what else can we do? I pray, as God says "remember the those in prison as if you were there yourself". (To make it perfectly clear, there are many that deserve and have to be in prison, this according to God)

Soobs said...

I've watched Dallas DNA. Good show. I don't understand the hesitation, truly, in testing DNA if it is available, to make sure that the right person is incarcerated. Seems like a no brainer to me. Obviously, this would be used in older cases (newer cases are already tested during investigation.) Can one's ego really be more important than one's freedom?

BTW, I also liked the episode that found the inmate to have matched the DNA sample. And his awkward explanation to the judge was intolerable. Glad it was short.

Diane Fanning said...

Soobs, The first time I watched Dallas DNA, I expected a show about the exonerated inmates and nothing more--a one-sided presentation, basically. I was delighted to see that they covered an assortment of cases including those who thought they could play any system, including DNA.

Flea Stiff, I do believe I understood--sorry if I made you feel that I didn't.

Diane Fanning said...

LadyShelia, I'm not sure what else to do. I wish more prosecutors could follow the Dallas County example. When Craig Watson came into office, he there was a policy that all promotions and raises were based on the win/loss record of the cases that hit your desk. Watson eliminated that policy and but a sign in all the offices of assistant D.A.'s quoting from their job description in the Texas constitution which clearly states that their focus is truth and justice--nothing less and nothing more.

Cheryl said...

Hey Diane, I just want to thank you for coming back and responding to everyone who comments on your articles. Very nice of you. (and NO, there is no need to respond to this one too!)

Note to LadySheila: Are you making sure you log in? and are you making sure you hit Publish Your Comment?" I kept forgetting to do one or the other when I first started making posts and mine weren't showing up either.

Roci said...

Ladysheila-- "...what else can we do?"

One thing many of us can do is serve on juries instead of trying to evade them. A sensible educated juror is an innocent person's best chance of be being acquitted in court. Leaving this important task to those who are "too stupid to get out of jury duty" is a recipe for injustice.