Monday, 12 October 2009

Better late than never, DNA lets innocent people reclaim liberty

THERE have been 244 "exonerees" since the creation of the Innocence Project in the United States 17 years ago. Exoneree is an unwieldy but precise term invented within the Innocence Project to describe the prisoners it has helped to release not on ambiguous technical grounds of mistrial but because examination of the DNA evidence from the crime scene established that they didn't do it. They were innocent of the crimes they were jailed for.
Seventeen of the 244 had served time on death row. They would have been executed for crimes they did not commit. Most others had sentences measured in decades.

The Innocence Project was founded by Barry Scheck and co-director Peter Neufield. Scheck is best known in this country for his part in the 1995 OJ Simpson defence team and later as defence lawyer for the British nanny Louise Woodward.

Scheck and Neufield wanted to apply the still relatively new science of DNA profiling as its inventor, Professor Alex Jeffreys, originally envisaged – as proof of innocence. The assumption among the public and prosecutors of the world had quickly become that DNA evidence was a failsafe tool for securing convictions.

The first raft of cases on the Innocence Project books involved people – almost entirely men – whose convictions predated the arrival of DNA profiling.

But in their rather austere offices downtown on New York City's 5th Avenue, the banks of filing cabinets contain hundreds more active cases in which available DNA evidence was ignored, or wrongly analysed. Exoneree number 245 is likely to be one Ernest Sonnier, who was freed on bond in August after 23 years in Texas prisons for a rape he didn't commit. DNA testing eventually proved Sonnier's innocence of the attack on Christmas Eve 1985 and implicated two other men.

His conviction had preceded the invention of DNA profiling and had been based on identification from photographs by the victim and by evidence from the scientist who examined blood-group evidence and who gave testimony that implicated Sonnier, even though his own written report tended to exclude him as the assailant.

Stephen Saloom, policy director of the project, says misidentification is a factor in a high proportion of wrongful convictions and in particular rape and sexual assault cases. Although all participants in the criminal justice process agree that eye-witness testimony is the least reliable evidence, it remains so often the clinching moment in the theatre of a trial. A woman who was undoubtedly raped points to the accused in the dock and says it was him. How difficult it must be for a jury not to convict. But in dozens of the Innocence Project cases, she was wrong. Honest, but wrong.

Misidentification is most common when the victim and accused are from different races. In the project's most recent newsletter, Saloom lists the other common causes of wrongful conviction.

They include inadequate forensic scientific analysis. It is extraordinary to discover that, in the land of CSI, there are no basic general standards of validation for forensic examiners. The threshold in some counties is very low. In a number of wrongful conviction cases, forensic scientists have actively engaged in misconduct.

About a third of cases involved false confessions by young or mentally suggestible accused. Audio and DVD recording of police interviews is required throughout Scotland but is still patchy across the US.

About 16 per cent of cases involved "snitch testimony", in which other prisoners – and sometimes the actual perpetrator – had given statements that incriminated the accused in return for deals, special treatment or the dropping of charges.

In the meantime, how have the 244 exonerees fared after their campaign for release has at last succeeded and the prison doors have closed behind them? "Mixed," say Angela Amel and Karen Wolff, the two- person social work team charged with easing the transition back to life outside.

"There is very little in the way of support services for any ex-prisoner on release in most states," says Wolff. "Bizarrely, if you are released because you turned out to have been wrongly imprisoned then you may not be eligible for what little there is. That will be linked to parole conditions and our guys aren't on parole."

Wolff is a lawyer turned social worker. Amel is a career social worker, previously employed on a youth homelessness project in New York City. "There were more 'f*** yous' than 'thank yous' in that job compared to this," she says. "I guess our guys had to be perseverers in jail to stick with their campaign for release for year after year. So they understand they have to persevere again when they get out, usually with just the clothes they stand up in."

More than half the American states have no system of compensation for wrongful convictions. The others grind extremely slowly. "An exoneree needs support the day he gets out," says Wolff. "Three years later is too late."

Their first task is to give the exoneree an identity. "With no bank account or driving licence or credit record for 20 years, they are invisible to day-to-day society."

The Innocence Project now boasts a panel of celebrity supporters, and prolific author John Grisham is on the board of directors. His "faction", The Innocent Man, told the story from wrongful conviction to derelict death of exoneree No 59, Ron Williamson.

Optimists might have hoped the project would be beginning to run out of cases to investigate after 17 years.

Alas not, according to Scheck. "When we founded the project, our intention was to exonerate as many innocent people from prison as possible, identify the causes of those wrongful convictions, and use them to reform the criminal justice system.

"DNA exonerations are just the tip of the iceberg of issues within our system. Over the past two decades, the exonerations we have secured have led to sweeping reforms in how line-ups and interrogations are conducted, how evidence is collected, and how our system of justice handles claims of innocence.

"We still have a great deal of work to do, but we've made more progress already than anyone thought possible."


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