Sunday, May 30, 2010

DNA & Reform: Texas Editorial

Credit for photo to
The Innocence Project

Moving toward reform in a post-DNA world OP Ed
first posted in Dallas News (featured also at MVFR)
Friday, May 28, 2010

Hank Skinner had eaten a double bacon cheeseburger, fries, onion rings and a milkshake. He was ready to die. But a last-minute delay ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court on March 24 spared his life.

On Monday, the court announced plans to fully review his case to determine if convicted criminals are entitled under federal law to DNA testing of evidence after their trials. It's one of the complex and frustrating legal issues that can block the path of the wrongfully convicted.

It seems so obvious when you step back from the labyrinthine appeals process: If you have DNA evidence that might point to someone else, test it. Especially when that inmate is on death row.

That Skinner's lawyer in 1995 did not seek such testing seems foolish in retrospect, now that 254 convictions have been overturned with DNA evidence.

Most murder cases lack the drama of a last-minute appeal or the made-for-TV plot twist of a second suspect and untested DNA evidence that might settle the case once and for all.

That's why it's welcome news that Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins is shifting the focus of his nationally respected conviction integrity unit. Having worked through most of the local cases involving DNA, the unit is beginning to look at other cases.

The unit could not take that step were it not for the lessons learned from the cases it explored using DNA evidence. For example, faulty eyewitness testimony played a role in all but one of the 20 cases where DNA helped set men free in Dallas County.

There's no logical reason to believe eyewitness testimony is somehow more reliable in non-DNA cases, so it stands to reason that cases built solely on eyewitness testimony may be ripe for a second look. The same can be said about other common flaws highlighted by DNA cases.

Still, these are DNA cases, where people believe the truth can be found in a series of lab reports. In truth, even in these cases, smoking guns, definitive answers and closure often prove elusive. Even in those 254 cases where DNA helped free the wrongfully convicted, less than 40 percent of the time did the evidence clearly identify the guilty party.

That's why it's welcome news to hear Watkins say his approach has shifted from simply freeing the innocent. He is moving to the next stage: reforming investigatory work to address the most common flaws uncovered in DNA cases.

Although it may be helpful to directly lobby lawmakers in Austin to address these issues, Watkins' conviction integrity unit still has a different, more important role. If his office demonstrates that these flaws infect non-DNA cases, reform should follow.
(End of Editorial}

(As Box with above Editorial at Dallas News)

Leading causes of wrongful convictions

The Innocence Project has tracked 254 cases where DNA evidence has been used to overturn convictions. In those cases, the following factors played a key role. In some cases, there were multiple factors:

• Eyewitness mis-identification testimony: 75 percent

• Invalidated or improper forensic science: 50 percent

• False confessions and incriminating statements: 25 percent

• Unreliable snitches: 19 percent

• Other factors include incompetent defense counsel, government misconduct or forensic science misconduct.

Injustice and Identification

Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions overturned through DNA evidence, playing a role in 75% of the 254 DNA exoneration cases. Simple factors at the crime scene and improper police lineups can lead to misidentifications and wrongful convictions. Learn how witnesses get it wrong and what the Innocence Project is doing about it.

(More info at the Innocence Project here

Find original link to the above article with the box insert here

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