DNA gathering and testing is an important tool to ensure the innocent remain free and the guilty are punished. With the increased use of DNA testing, which began in 1986, it has helped to determine the guilt or innocence of perpetrators in capital cases. As of September 2011 in the US, 273 people have been exonerated due to DNA testing, including 17 people on death row.
What is DNA
DNA is DeoxyriboNucleic Acid, the essential building block of life that is part of every cell in every living organism. Commonly called the Double Helix, due to it’s structure, James Watson and Francis Crick are credited with decoding it and were awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine in 1962. It is often referred to as “the most important biological work of the last 100 years.” DNA is what enables an embryonic cell to become a living, functioning organism.
An important property of DNA is its uniqueness, like a cellular fingerprint. While human and animal DNA are remarkably similar, it’s unique to each individual. The exceptions are identical twins and bone marrow transplant recipients. An individual’s DNA remains unchanged during their life, and is a reliable identifier found in every cell.
DNA testing can be done on any biological specimen like skin, semen, saliva, hair, or blood. If the biological evidence is collected and preserved properly, kept free from contamination, and is analyzed correctly, it can help convict or exonerate a person charged with a capital crime. Under these conditions, DNA testing is more accurate than fingerprinting.
DNA and the Jury
In the US criminal justice system, juries are instructed to render a guilty verdict ONLY if no reasonable doubt exists. Whenever a conviction if overturned as a result of DNA evidence, one may assume that the jury had reasonable doubts but ignored them. If, due to their ignorance, an innocent person is sent to death row or must spend the rest of their life in prison, should the jurors be penalized? Perhaps knowing an innocent person has been convicted and put to death due to their actions is punishment enough.
Nationwide Exonerations Statistics Due to DNA Testing
Some statistics that were posted on February 7th, 2007, indicated there has been 329 exonerations given after convictions due to DNA testing in the United States.
- The first exoneration due to DNA testing was in 1989. Since 2000, 262 exonerations have been granted in 37 states.
- Of the 329 people exonerated due to DNA testing 20 served time on death row, and 16 others charged with capital crimes did not have a death sentence.
- The average time an exoneree served was 14 years. The total years served is approximately 4,505.
- The average age for an exoneree when they were wrongfully convicted was 26.5.
- The races for the 329 exonerees included 205 African Americans, 98 Caucasians, 24 Latinos, and 2 Asian Americans.
- Real suspects and/or perpetrators have been identified in 161 of the DNA exoneration cases.
- Tens of thousands of cases have been identified since 1989 where the prime suspect was pursued and identified before DNA testing proved they were wrongfully accused.
- In a National Institute of Justice study, over 25% of cases suspects were excluded after DNA testing was done as part of the criminal investigation (the 1995 study included over 10,000 cases where FBI labs perform the testing).
- The federal government, including the District of Columbia, and 30 states have passed laws compensating people who have been wrongfully incarcerated. So far 71% of DNA testing exonerees have been financial compensated. These awards vary from state to state.
- A review of closed cases from 2004 to 2010 by the Innocence Project revealed 22% of closed cases were because evidence had been lost or destroyed.
- Of the 329 DNA exonerations, the Innocence Project was involved in 176 of them. Others were assisted by Innocence Network organizations as well as private attorneys and pro se defendants.
- Of the DAN exonerees, 31 pleaded guilty to crimes that they didn’t commit.
Leading Causes for Wrongful Convictions
Exonerations due to DNA testing provides positive proof that wrongful convictions are neither rare nor isolated. Many times they are the result of systemic defects that can be specifically identified and address. The Innocence Project has worked for over 15 years to pinpoint and identify these trends. Wrongful convictions that have been overturned due to DNA testing involve multiple causes.
The leading cause of wrongful conviction is eyewitness misidentification testimony. In 72% of post-conviction DNA exoneration cases in the US it was the factor. A minimum of 40% of these involved cross racial identification. Currently race data is available only on the victim rather than for non-victim eyewitnesses.
It’s been shown in studies that people can’t easily recognize faces of different races from their own. Reforms based on this study have been embraced by leading criminal justice organizations and adopted in North Carolina and New Jersey, as well as large cities such as Seattle and Minneapolis. Many smaller jurisdictions have also adopted them.
A second cause is the invalidation or improper use of forensic science, which played a part in 47% of wrongful convictions which were later overturned due to DNA testing.
Although top academic centers developed DNA testing through extensive scientific research, there are numerous other forensic techniques that haven’t been subjected to the same scientific evaluation, such as hair microscopy, firearm tool mark analysis, bite mark comparisons, and comparisons of shoe prints. Other forensics techniques that are properly validated are sometime improperly conducted or inaccurately reported during testimony at trial, such as serology which is blood typing. Forensic scientists have engaged in misconduct in other cases of wrongful conviction cases.
Wrongful convictions in about 28% of cases are due to incriminating statements and false confessions. False confessions were the leading factor in 71 out of 113 homicide cases that were later exonerated due to DNA testing, 31 of which had pled guilty even though they had not committed the crime. In order to prevent coercion and keep an accurate record of any questioning, the Innocent Project encourages that an electronic record be created by police departments.
In 15% of cases wrongful convictions were due to testimony of informants. The Innocence Project recommends that when informant testimony is used that the judge should instruct the jury of the fact that most informant testimony is not reliable due to the fact that it was given in exchange for deals, special treatment, or even for dropping the charges against the informant. They also recommend that prosecutors reveal any incentives they’ve given the informant, as well as recording any and all communication occurring between the prosecutor and informant.
Exoneration of Texas Death Row Inmate Michael Blair Due to DNA Brings Total of Innocent to 130
Michael Blair, convicted of murder and sentenced to death row in 1993 for murdering Ashley Estell, had his capital murder charges dismissed by the Texas Collin County court. After a decade of appeals and requests to use DNA testing, the hair evidence used to convict him was overturned because the testing showed it was wrong. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals cited the fact that using the existing, non-DNA testing evidence, no jury could reasonably convict Blair.
On August 25th, the District Attorney’s office filed a motion to dismiss the charges stating, “It has been determined that this case should be dismissed in the interest of justice so that the offense charged in the indictment can be further investigated.” The Plano Police Department is now in the process of reinvestigating the 15-year-old case in order to find the real killer. The DNA evidence used to clear Blair indicates another man, who is now deceased, may be the real suspect in the murder of Ashley Estell. In court documents the possible perpetrator is Referred to as “Suspect 4.” This suspect, now dead as least 10 years, appeared to have an obsession with her and purchased a grave plot as near as possible to where she was buried.
In the mid-1990s this case was made famous due to a series of legalized reforms called “Ashley’s Laws,” after Ashley Estell. The laws instituted longer prison sentences as well as the requirements for lifetime sex offenders to register.
The DPIC’s innocence list lists Blair as the fourth person in 2008 to be exonerated from death row and the ninth located in Texas since its reinstatement of the death penalty. Although Blair remains in prison due to other charges, his case makes the total of exonerations on death row since 1973 to 130.
DPIC’s innocence list is made up of former death row inmates acquitted of all the charges that was related to the crime that put them on death row. The charges were either dismissed, or they were granted complete pardons based on the new “evidence of innocence” from DNA testing.
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has stated he intends to re-examine almost 40 death penalty convictions and if necessary would stop their executions in order to review the cases. After he exonerated an innocent man in the first week in his office, and exonerated 19 non-death penalty DNA-based cases in the county, he wanted to assert that no innocent person would be executed during his time in office. “I don’t want someone to be executed on my watch for something they didn’t do,” he said. Currently Texas leads all the other states with 414 executions, including 9 this year.
If you’ve been wrongfully accused of a crime and would like to have it re-investigated, you need the expert advice and experience of a criminal defense lawyer such as Sevens Legal, APC. Contact Sevens Legal, APC, today for a free consultation.
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