Sunday, May 01, 2011

Jeff Gerritt: Prosecutors must fess up

The following opinion by Jeff Gerritt was published by the Detroit Free Press on April 28, 2011.

The fate of Karl Vinson, wrongfully convicted of rape in 1986, now rests with the Michigan Court of Appeals, which needs to grant him a new trial. But it’s troubling that Vinson had to go there to get justice. Scientific evidence shows Vinson, 56, a former Detroiter who has spent 25 years in prison, is almost certainly innocent of the 1986 rape of which he was convicted. At least there's enough evidence to warrant a new trial. But Wayne County Circuit Judge Vera Massey Jones failed to grant him one last month and the prosecutor’s office also opposed it.

Vinson’s case shows the sometimes unreasoning resistance of law enforcement, and even judges, to acknowledge mistakes and right wrongs. When they don’t, an enormous injustice weighs on the wrongfully convicted. And something else happens, too: the person who did the crime remains free. "The reaction by authorities is to preserve a conviction at all costs,’’ David Moran, co-director of the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan, told me. “Besides the injustice to Vinson, there’s a rapist who might still be out there and no one seems to give a damn.”

Vinson was convicted of raping a 9-year-old Detroit girl, due largely to a blown forensic test; recent tests all but exonerate him. Still, in court documents opposing a new trial, an assistant Wayne County prosecutor said science does not trump the testimony of individuals. It’s a dangerously wack idea. If it were taken literally, none of the nearly 270 innocent people freed by DNA evidence would have been exonerated. Mistaken eyewitness testimony accounts for nearly 80% of those wrongful convictions. Witnesses make honest mistakes -- and occasionally lie.

In Vinson’s case, an intruder crawled though a bedroom window and raped the girl in her bed. Bed sheet tests then revealed semen and Type O blood antigens, but Vinson has AB blood. Because tests mistakenly indicated Vinson is a nonsecretor — one of a small group of people whose blood antigens don’t show up in saliva, semen and other bodily fluids — police said they couldn’t rule Vinson out as a suspect.

In 2009, Vinson got new tests showing he is a secretor: If he were guilty, his AB blood antigens would have showed up in the semen stain. Still, Jones refused last month to grant a new trial, proposing the ridiculous idea that the fresh semen stain on the girl’s sheets — probably only a few hours old — might have come from sex involving the girl’s parents, even though the prosecutor said at trial that it had come from the rapist. Does anyone believe that the mother called the police and then had sex on the same bed her daughter had just been raped on?

The Wayne County prosecutor’s office appears to almost reflexively oppose requests for new trials, even when scientific evidence shows it’s warranted. It's not tough on crime to keep innocent people locked up and enable the guilty to remain free. It just undermines the integrity of an already shaky justice system.

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