Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Editorial: Justice restored by university volunteers

The following editorial was published by the Dallas Morning News on October 27, 2009.

DNA speaks an unshakeable truth. It seals the fate of the guilty and, most profoundly, gives liberating testimony for those who suffer injustice.

But who speaks the truth about injustice when DNA evidence is nowhere to be found?

For two innocent Dallas men who entered prison 12 years ago, freedom came only through the commitment of volunteer, university-affiliated investigators who followed their instincts.

Newly freed Chris Scott and Claude Simmons said last week that their faith in God sustained them in the face of their hideously unfair life sentences for a robbery-murder they did not commit.

The UT-Arlington Innocence Network and the UT-Austin Actual Innocence Clinic were the answer to their prayers. Both deserve the sense of satisfaction and fulfillment they enjoy today.

At UTA, the effort spanned three years and involved a half-dozen students enrolled in classes taught by Dr. John Stickels. They are titled, appropriately, Innocence 1 and Innocence 2.

The volunteers comb through written claims of innocence to find cases worth pursuing. Their senses told them that things weren't right with the Scott-Simmons cases, and the trail led them through stacks of documents and into prison interview rooms. Finally they had a presentation for the Dallas County district attorney's office, which agreed to reopen the case, as did the Dallas Police Department.

It's a credit to both prosecutors and cops that they allowed for the possibility of grave error in the matter, then invested resources in an effort that might lay bare their own inadequacies. But that's how people and organizations improve. Certainly, DNA technology has proved the criminal justice system far from fail-safe and, at times, even incompetent.

It's noteworthy that this latest reversal revealed faulty witness identification procedures by Dallas police. Most of Texas' nation-leading DNA exonerations involve cases with that same flaw. Every such revelation casts more shame on state lawmakers for failing to pass legislation to clean up slipshod police practices across the state.

Last week's release of Scott and Simmons means that two other suspects, now implicated, have escaped justice in the case for years.

It also leads to the disquieting question of what might have happened if Scott and Simmons had been sent to death row instead of prison for life. The crime for which they were convicted was a capital offense and could have resulted in executions.

Think of how easy it might have been. It took six minutes for a jury to decide Anderson's guilt at his trial in 1997. No biological material was available as evidence in the case, so DNA technology could provide no immunity to injustice. That is the case with the vast majority of crimes.

Based on the incidence of DNA exonerations, criminologists have devised formulas to estimate the number of unjust convictions in American courts. In Texas, which confines 150,000-plus prisoners, some educated guesses would put the number at several thousand people.

The numbers are debatable. The fact of widespread error is not.

Credit goes to those who are most troubled by intolerable flaws and who, for little or no personal gain, devote themselves to doing something about it.

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