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DNA Evidence, the Innocence Project, and the Release of Innocent People from Jail

Courts Increasingly Stay Executions and Release ‘Criminals’

You may have heard that on Monday a Texas court granted a stay of execution for convicted murderer Henry "Hank" Skinner, giving Skinner time to pursue DNA testing his lawyers say could prove his innocence. Skinner had been scheduled to die by lethal injection Wednesday evening for the New Year's Eve 1993 killings of his live-in girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons in the Texas Panhandle town of Pampa. But the state Court of Criminal Appeals halted the proceeding Monday afternoon, ruling that it needed time to review the state's revised law on DNA testing. In a written statement, Skinner's lawyer, Rob Owen, said the decision "has ensured that Mr. Skinner's request for DNA testing will receive the thorough and serious consideration it deserves."

Skinner, now 49, has strongly denied any involvement in the crime and claims that the DNA analysis of untested evidence will not only show him innocent but help determine the real killer. He came within 45 minutes of execution in March 2010 before the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and handed him a legal reprieve.

One day later in a separate case, a Cook County Circuit Court judge set aside the convictions of three men who were convicted of a rape and murder in 1991. Robert Taylor, James Harden and Jonathan Barr, all of whom were teenagers when arrested, were represented by the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project, the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth with private attorney Jennifer Blagg and the Innocence Project.

In June 1994, before any of the teenagers were tried, the Illinois State Police crime lab identified a lone male DNA profile from sperm recovered from the victim’s body. Even though all 5 defendants were excluded as the source of the semen, the prosecution pushed forward rather than seeking the source of the semen recovered from this young victim.

In August 2009, James Harden, through the Chicago Exoneration Project, again sought DNA testing. For more than a year, the Dixmoor Police Department claimed that it was unable to locate the DNA and was threatened with contempt of court for failing to respond to a subpoena. Eventually Judge Michele Simmons ordered the Dixmoor police to allow counsel to view the evidence storage areas and log books for themselves. In short order, the Department informed the lawyers that they had finally located the evidence. DNA testing uncovered a full male profile that was entered into the national DNA database of criminal offenders, matching serial violent offender Willie Randolph.

“It is abundantly clear that overly aggressive police interrogation techniques can cause adults to falsely confess to serious crimes – and when it comes to juveniles, it can happen at a truly alarming rate,” said Joshua Tepfer with the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. “These techniques don’t only hurt those wrongfully convicted, but as we saw in this case, they allow the real perpetrators to go free and commit other crimes. Hopefully this case will lead the way for much-needed reforms like requiring that all police interviews and interrogations be videotaped in full.”

The number of cases of innocent people released from years after being found guilty of a crime has skyrocketed since the establishment of the Innocence Project. You may have heard about a Texas man imprisoned 30 years ago on aggravated robbery charges that had his conviction overturned in January after DNA evidence exonerated him. Dallas County Judge Don Adams overturned Cornelius Dupree Jr.’s conviction clearing his name officially. Dupree had served more years in a Texas prison for a crime he did not commit than anyone else in the state who was later exonerated by DNA evidence. Only two other people exonerated by DNA have spent more time in prison in the entire country, the Innocence Project said. Texas has freed 41 wrongly convicted prisoners because of DNA testing since 2001, more than any other state.

I have to wonder about the increasingly frequent discovery that DNA evidence was not properly screened during legal proceedings. Is it incompetence? Do those who fail to properly examine DNA evidence have an ulterior motive for not doing so? What that might be? I believe it is a combination of all these factors including the emphasis by some police departments to close cases as soon as possible and the desire by some investigators to maintain a high conviction rate. However, this is doing real harm to our society. Freedom is the number virtue for all Americans and the basis for our Constitution. I can’t imagine anything worse than losing 30 years of your life for a crime you did not commit.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 11, 2011