Monday, March 21, 2011

Courts should consider DNA evidence whenever it is available

The following opinion by Spero Lappas was published by the Harrisburg, PA Patriot News on March 16, 2011.

On Oct. 19, 1991, police officers discovered the body of an elderly Philadelphia woman named Louise Talley. She had been brutally beaten, raped and stabbed to death in her own home. It was a terrible crime and the police immediately mounted a massive investigation that included the collection of physical and forensic evidence and the interviews of dozens of witnesses.

Quickly, their attention focused on 20-year-old Anthony Wright. He was reported to have been spending time at a nearby crack house, other residents placed him at the scene of Mrs. Talley’s murder, and there was physical evidence that connected him to the crime. The next day, detectives took Wright to the police station where, they later testified, he gave them a long and detailed written confession in which he told them how he killed Mrs. Talley and why.

Wright’s statement was nine pages long, typewritten and signed. When he came to trial, he tried to convince a judge that his confession should not be used against him. He lost. He testified that the police had forced him to confess, but no one believed him. He swore that he was innocent of the murder, but he was convicted anyway. The appeals courts upheld his conviction and when he later claimed that he deserved a new trial because his lawyers had been ineffective the judges disagreed. In 1993, he was sentenced to life. Case closed.

But in 2005, Wright filed a request under the state’s new Post Conviction DNA Testing Act. This law gives convicts the right to ask that crime scene evidence be tested for DNA if they can persuade a judge that a favorable test result will prove them innocent. There was crime scene DNA at Talley’s house and Wright’s new lawyers said it would free him from a wrongful conviction.
How can that be, asked the courts. He admitted he did it, he voluntarily confessed, what more do we need to know? Wright would not get the DNA test he asked for. The murder of Louise Talley shines a light on one of the most difficult questions in criminal law: How should we reconcile the traditional tools of the courtroom — eyewitnesses, confessions and the like — with the power of new technologies that promise to tell the truth with absolute certainty?

For centuries, criminals have been sent to prison and to their deaths based upon the words they speak. It has been conventional wisdom that confessions are trustworthy and conclusive proof of guilt: Who would confess to murder if he didn’t really do it?

Lately, however, psychological scientists have proved that false confessions account for about 25 percent of wrongful convictions. Saul Kassin, the eminent researcher at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice, has written that suspects often falsely confess to end stressful interrogations, to protect the actual perpetrator or out of a pathological need for notoriety. No matter what the cause, it is now undisputed that sometimes when a suspect says “I did it,” we shouldn’t believe him.

On Feb. 19, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted this scientific truth and sent Anthony Wright’s case back to court. We need not be reminded, the justices ruled, of the countless situations where persons confess to crimes of which they are innocent, out of desire to cover up for the guilty person or because of a psychological urge.

The Innocence Project reports that at least 10 Pennsylvanians have been freed from prison after DNA testing proved their innocence. Some of them such as Wright had confessed. There are simple and available tools that can minimize the risk of a false confession leading to a false conviction. Police interrogations can be recorded or videotaped, and jurors and judges can be better educated on the research. The Supreme Court has taken a key step toward assuring that the search for the truth will trump legal technicalities that can sometimes get in its way.
Maybe Anthony Wright killed Louise Talley, and maybe he didn’t. Maybe DNA will free him, and maybe it will confirm his guilt. Either way, it’s a good idea to find out.

Spero Lappas practices criminal defense and constitutional law in Dauphin County, PA.

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