The following editorial was originally published in the print edition of The Economist on July 30, 2009.
DNA is changing the way America fights crime, not its policies towards convicts
A JUDGE can tell prospective jurors that in a criminal trial, unlike an episode of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”, scientific evidence is not necessary to secure a conviction, an appeals court in Baltimore ruled on July 7th. Quite right, too. The evidence submitted in real courts is often not as cut-and-dried as it seems on television. Yet the use of DNA to secure convictions is growing fast. The people not benefiting from this are those who may have been wrongfully convicted before DNA was routinely examined, and who are being denied access to evidence that could set them free.
Much is being made of a recent Supreme Court ruling that William Osborne, a prisoner in Alaska, has no constitutional right to DNA testing to prove his innocence of the 1994 rape for which he was convicted and jailed. Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project, a New York-based non-profit legal outfit that represents Mr Osborne, fears the decision could lead to many innocent prisoners remaining in jail—or even facing execution.
Since Congress passed the DNA Fingerprint Act in 2005, federal authorities have been collecting DNA samples from everyone they arrest or detain. The FBI’s national DNA database (NDIS) gets more than 1m DNA profiles a year. By last May CODIS, an FBI index that compares forensic evidence at local, state and national level, resulted in 90,900 “cold hits”, where biological evidence from an unsolved crime matches a profile in the database. This has led to many arrests and convictions.
But three states (Alaska, Massachusetts and Oklahoma) give prisoners no statutory rights to a DNA test, even though such a test might exonerate them. Though exonerations have occurred in Massachusetts and Oklahoma by way of appeals from defence attorneys, access to testing is still hard to get. Many other states allow testing only in limited circumstances. Kentucky, for instance, restricts its DNA testing to death-row inmates. Someone serving a life sentence is not eligible.
Texas and Illinois, whose laws do permit simple post-conviction access to testing, boast the highest number of convictions that have been overturned thanks to DNA evidence: 38 and 29 respectively, says the Innocence Project. Texas, which accounts for half of all executions in America, passed a bill in May establishing the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, named after a man posthumously exonerated through DNA testing. A team set up to study the causes of wrongful convictions and to devise ways of preventing them is to report to the governor no later than 2011.
Prosecutors can use their state’s statutes of limitations (which set time limits for the introduction of new evidence after sentencing) to decline prisoners’ requests for DNA testing. They argue that cases could be strung along endlessly and expensively by frivolous appeals if there are no such limits. Yet this seems a weak argument when it comes to DNA, which might establish innocence or guilt without much scope for prolonged debate.
Many prisoners might be cleared were DNA testing more routinely available. The American legal system encourages plea bargains, whereby accused people accept a much lower sentence than would be imposed if they were found guilty. In the absence of the DNA evidence that would clear them, even innocent people may conclude that a plea bargain is the safer option. More than 90% of convictions in the United States result from such bargains.
Steven Benjamin of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers contends that the restrictions on post-conviction testing amount to a fear of the truth. He may be right.