Saturday, 9 August 2008

When the guilty really are innocent

Microscopic strands of proof: Post-conviction DNA testing has shown that not every inmate who claims, “I didn’t do it,” is lying

Published: Thursday, August 7, 2008 12:10 PM EDT

Ohio Innocence Project director Mark Godsey is every convict’s fairy godmother—and his ability to get post-conviction DNA testing is his magic wand.

“Our organization provides a couple benefits,” Godsey said. “We try to eradicate social injustices and I think we reform the criminal justice system and make it better.”

Robert McClendon is one of the group’s biggest fans. After serving 18 years in an Ohio prison for a rape he says he didn’t commit, McClendon got the attention of the Ohio Innocence Project, which conducted a post-conviction DNA test and revealed the semen found in the victim’s underwear did not match McClendon’s. He’s now hoping a release date and a huge apology is on the horizon.

The Ohio Innocence Project’s impact extends beyond the freedom of one man.

Since its founding in 2003, the University of Cincinnati-based group has received over 4,000 requests from inmates seeking release based on their innocence, said Godsey.

“We’ve only gone to court for five people claiming they were innocent,” he said. “We’ve gone to court for about 30 other cases and just said ‘there needs to be DNA testing.’”

He said going to court claiming an inmate’s innocence requires new evidence. Sometimes the new evidence is a DNA test; sometimes it’s a confession from the real perpetrator. When the group goes to court requesting a DNA test, it’s based on Senate Bill 262 that says a DNA test can be requested without new evidence, he said.

Through post-conviction DNA testing, the OIP has confirmed the guilt of two and exonerated two, bringing Ohio’s exoneration total to six—four were under the New York Innocence Project’s direction, which handled Ohio before the Buckeye State had its own IP.

“I’m happy when it comes back guilty, as much as when it’s innocent,” Godsey said. “Because in that case, it shows the system got it right.”

Nationally, the impact is even greater. The Ohio effort is part of a nationwide Innocence Project, which was founded in 1992. To date, 218 convicts have been exonerated nationally based on post-conviction DNA testing—16 of whom spent time on Death Row. Altogether, they served an average of 12 years in prison before being released.

To date, 218 convicts have been exonerated nationally based on post-conviction DNA testing—16 of whom spent time on Death Row.

But freeing the innocent is only part of the Innocence Project’s mission. It also endeavors to spark reforms in the criminal justice system to correct some of the mistakes that land the wrongly accused in prison in the first place.

In Ohio, Godsey said he and the OIP are leading a crusade to change lenient state laws that rely too heavily on witness testimony and allow investigators to throw away valuable DNA evidence.

“When it comes to DNA and eyewitness ID reform, Ohio is not on the cutting edge. In Ohio, you can get DNA evidence and then just throw it in the trash without any penalty,” he said. “The state is slow to adopt these bills compared to similar states with similar bills across the nation. We won’t be slow anymore.”

He’s hoping that Legislative Service Committee bill 127 1984-2, set to be introduced to the general assembly this fall, will help prevent the kind of mistakes that occurred in McClendon’s case, he said, where swabs from the victim’s medical exam were discarded after his trial—and in other cases, where exonerated inmates were convicted based on erroneous witness testimony.

“All these exonerations are showing that testimonies are unreliable,” Godfrey said. “There are ways to improve wrong ID’s and there’s different ways you can show photos to a witness to increase the chance of it being correct, but police bureaucracies are slow to change.”

The efforts have highlighted problems such as sloppy detective work, poor DNA collection and overzealous prosecutors who latch on to a certain suspect and won’t let go, often leaving the real perpetrator on the loose. LSC 127 calls for DNA preservation, recorded interrogation methods, and reforming eyewitness identification procedures to address those issues.

“Post-conviction DNA testing has shown that there are ways you can greatly improve police investigations,” said Godsey. “I mean, it’s sort of a myth that DNA testing is always being done on the front end.”

In addition to pushing for tougher laws and freeing innocent prisoners, the Innocence Project has also been able to find genetic matches for the real guilty party in some 40 percent of its cases.

“Our goal is not just to get people off—we strive to find the real perpetrator,” said Godsey.

McClendon’s case also highlighted another inherent problem in the criminal sciences—the rapid advance of technology. In McClendon’s case, since the original swab had been thrown away, the only place for scientists to look for DNA evidence almost 20 years later was the victim’s underwear, still in storage. In 1990, Columbus police couldn’t find any semen on the underwear. But in 2008, faint traces of semen were discovered because more powerful equipment was able to detect it.

“There could be a murder tomorrow and we can’t do DNA testing today—but 10 years from now, we’ll have the technology so we can,” Godsey said. “It’s constantly advancing.”

The DNA testing in the OIP cases is typically done by a private lab, not the state lab, and in McClendon’s case, the DNA Diagnostics Center—a Cincinnati-based lab—performed the testing for free at the request of Godsey’s organization. The state Bureau of Criminal Identification lab requires a judge’s order to perform a post-conviction DNA test, said BCI lab spokeswoman Jennifer Brindisi.

“We don’t do many,” she said. “Maybe a handful a year. We’re not involved with the investigations. Post-conviction DNA testing is an issue between prosecutors and defense attorneys.”

As for McClendon, his fate now rests in the hands of his attorneys, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien and Common Pleas Judge Charles A. Schneider.

“We are still going through testing additional information and evidence that we have in connection with the case,” said O’Brien.

Said Godsey: “It’s hard to imagine something worse than being in prison for something you didn’t do. It’s your biggest nightmare. I don’t have any interest in whether the result is innocent or guilty. Either way, we should want to know.”

1 comment:

mason said...

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