Thursday, July 29, 2010

Free at Last, Free at Last

by Katherine Scardino

Is it my imagination, or are we reading too many stories about citizens in this country spending many years of their lives locked in a box in prison and then, decades later, some magic occurs and we learn the person is innocent?

In March a year ago, I wrote an article for Women in Crime Ink about Henry Skinner, who had been requesting DNA testing on the evidence in his case ever since his conviction in 1994. In March, there was an uproar over whether the evidence in his case should be subjected to DNA testing. My position last March, and today, is why in the hell not? What would it hurt? The cost of the lab testing is relatively small compared to the cost of years of feeding, clothing and guarding a prisoner -- or executing him. Even worse is the moral cost of execution if we were to later learn Mr. Skinner is indeed innocent.

The Supreme Court will listen to arguments in Skinner’s case within the next few months to determine whether to open a new avenue for convicts' access to evidence for DNA testing. But for Mr. Skinner, his time is up. This is his last chance; for him, it's life or death. We'll watch the Supreme Court on this case. Its decision could define the basic fairness of the law in the United States, or the lack of it.

This week, we released another innocent man who had spent 19 years in a Texas prison on a 1990 rape conviction. Allen Porter (right) walked out into the fresh air after a hearing in state court in which his nephew, Jimmy Hatton (currently serving time for this crime), and Perry Harrison (never charged in the crime) came forward to say that Mr. Porter was not a party to the crime, that they were the guilty ones. Where have they been for the last 19 years? Did they forget he was locked up in prison? What took them so long?

The ultimate problem is that once again, Texas screwed up. How many times does this have to happen before someone does something? My imagination can't encompass the emotion of hearing a cell door slam shut behind me, or of looking around the 10-foot-square box that would be my home for most of the rest of my life, let alone of knowing that I had not committed the crime for which I was convicted. I'd know that I'd told my lawyer -- over and over -- that I wasn't guilty. I told the prosecutor, the judge and jury. No one listened. No one believed me.

So here I am, alone and scared, wondering how I am going to convince just one person that I am innocent. All anyone has to do is test the evidence for DNA. With competent, efficient lab work, I could be exonerated. But my lawyer did not ask for the DNA testing. I don't understand why not. Where do I go from here?

Amazingly, this is happening more and more often, not less. Here’s a scary statistic: Since 1973, 138 people have been released from Death Rows across the United States after new evidence showed their legal, if not actual, innocence. Does that number get your attention? If all of us had done nothing on these 138 cases, these 138 people would now be dead. This has got to stop. We now have the technology to prove innocence in many cases.

Why is there ever an issue about DNA testing? Why would the prosecutor in every jurisdiction not test all the evidence? The evidence in every criminal case is in the hands and control of the State. Of course, the defense lawyer can request a DNA test by the State, or even get one done by their own forensics experts. But ultimately, the evidence is in the control of the State prosecution and the police. If justice is our goal, then test the damn evidence!

To give credit where it is due, the Harris County District Attorney's Office finally started an investigation in Mr. Porter’s case. They gave the case to a star in their office. Assistant District Attorney Baldwin Chin did something that seems to be a novelty nowadays -- investigate. Through his investigation, Mr. Chin learned that Mr. Porter may be an innocent man.

In an article this week, our elected district attorney said her office has a “sworn mission to serve justice.” She said “The integrity of the criminal justice system means everything. Wrongful convictions are a triple tragedy -- for the accused, for the victim and for society. The true criminal is free to continue to commit offenses.”

Well, Ms. District Attorney, I have a solution for permanently avoiding these embarrassing moments. Tell every one of your assistant DA’s that you will now require that all the evidence be DNA-tested. Period. Wouldn’t that put an end to the seemingly endless stream of stories about having to release, of all things, an innocent person from prison?


Leah said...

Excellent post, Katherine. I don't see why it isn't mandatory to test every piece of evidence. It just makes sense. How does a prosecutor not care about the integredy [sp] of the cases he tries??

Kathryn Casey said...

Great post, Katherine. Sobering. Why do you think it's not being tested? Economic concerns? What's the reason?

A work in progress said...

I agree that it is a great post. I was the victim of a vengeful prosecution and the prosecutor had never even bothered to listen to the tapes of the phone messages that were supposed to be evidence against me! No kidding. Now, going through this stuff with Sangamon County (John Schmidt's office) and the fact that they won't even bother to do a divorce check or even call the guys son who contacted me through my blog to tell me his adopted dad was still married to his mom when he married me and another women twice, 3 in 3 years? My opinion is our justice system has been heading down the road of crisis for many years. I pray the supreme court rules the right way. So often, it boils down to the decision of just one or a few people for justice to prevail. That is the problem with hoping for a sweeping answer to it all. An increase in personal ethics would be probably help, in the areas of honesty and work ethic.