The following editorial was originally published in the Newark, NJ Star-Ledger.
by John Holdridge
DNA testing has produced its 205th exoneration nationwide of an innocent prisoner, a number that includes 15 inmates imprisoned on death row. The "lucky" prisoner is Byron Halsey, who was proven innocent by DNA after allegedly confessing to the sexual assault and murders of two young children in Plainfield, narrowly avoiding the death penalty and spending some 20 years in state prison for crimes he did not commit. Halsey is the fifth New Jersey prisoner exonerated through DNA.
But while we all breathe a sigh of relief when we hear that an innocent person has been prevented from spending one more unjust day behind bars, it is critical to remember that DNA evidence is available in only a small percentage of criminal cases. It is a serious mistake to believe that DNA testing is adequate protection for the wrongly accused or convicted, including those sentenced to die.
The 205 exonerations throughout the country reveal serious and widespread problems with our nation's criminal justice system. The Innocence Project, the group primarily responsible for the exonerations, has discovered in its cases abysmal legal representation, including overburdened and underfunded defense attorneys; faulty eyewitness identification, the greatest cause of wrongful convictions, playing a role in more than 75 percent of convictions overturned through DNA testing; bogus "scientific" forensic identification, including hair analysis, bite mark evidence, ballistics, blood typing and others; prosecutorial misconduct, including failing to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense; lying informants and jailhouse snitches, who were involved in more than 15 percent of the DNA exoneration cases, and false confessions.
These deficiencies exist in equal percentages in all criminal cases. They are not any more prevalent in cases with DNA evidence than without. Yet in the vast majority of criminal cases, there is no DNA evidence to test and possibly exonerate innocent prisoners. The best estimate is that DNA evidence exists in only 10 to 15 percent of all murder cases.
The high number of wrongly convicted prisoners exonerated by DNA testing is just the tip of the iceberg of innocent lives being spent behind bars and even sent to death chambers. These stories must serve as a stark reminder of additional measures we must take to increase the accuracy of our criminal justice system across the nation. To name just some of the most important, it is critical that we:
Improve the poor quality of legal representation received by criminal defendants, including by reducing the caseloads of public defenders and providing them with sufficient resources.
Insist upon fair eyewitness identification procedures to reduce the number of misidentifications. In 2001, New Jersey became the first state to require fairer eyewitness identification procedures. It is now one of only three states to do so, having been joined by North Carolina and Wisconsin.
Have courts require that all "scientific" evidence introduced at a trial meet the demanding requirements of true science.
Severely sanction prosecutors who engage in misconduct. The disbarment of Durham, N.C., prosecutor Mike Nifong because he failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to the wealthy, white Duke lacrosse players was a notable - and exceedingly rare - example of such sanctioning.
Either bar the testimony of jailhouse snitches, particularly those who are granted "favors" in exchange for the testimony, or instruct jurors to view such testimony with great caution.
Require that confessions be recorded and allow defendants to present to their juries testimony by experts in false confessions. The New Jersey Supreme Court has ordered that interrogations be recorded in all homicide cases beginning in 2006 - too late for Halsey and virtually all other prisoners incarcerated in the state. New Jersey is one of only seven states that require recordings of interrogations.
DNA testing alone does not - and cannot - protect the innocent. Our criminal justice system is in serious need of repair. We are morally obliged to apply the lessons learned from DNA and repair the system.