Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Exonerating the innocent: Ohio’s attorney general must start tracking, and learning from, DNA exonerations

The following editorial was published by the Toledo Blade on September 14, 2014.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine started calling for old DNA evidence in late 2011, encouraging Ohio’s 800 law enforcement agencies to clear their testable sexual assault evidence shelves.

It was a prudent and long overdue move. Over the past two decades, DNA technology has become an invaluable tool for law enforcement. It was shameful that so many vital rape kits were gathering dust in police property and storage rooms.

Since then, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation has tested more than 4,700 previously untested rape kits — many 10 to 20 years old. Of those, more than 3,100 have been tested since Oct. 1.

Mr. DeWine has touted the fact — and rightfully so — that, thanks to his initiative and follow-up work by local law enforcement, more than 200 people have been charged for sexual assaults they allegedly committed years ago. Arresting people who otherwise would not have been caught for horrific crimes is something the attorney general’s office ought to be proud of.

But DNA evidence doesn’t just catch the guilty. It also exonerates the innocent. This month, for example, North Carolina’s longest-serving death row inmate, Henry McCollum, and his younger half brother walked out as free men, three decades after they were convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl.

A judge overturned the convictions after another man’s DNA, found on a cigarette butt left near the body of the slain girl, contradicted the case put forth by prosecutors. No physical evidence ever connected the convicted men to the crime, but police had coerced confessions from the two when they were scared teenagers.

Mr. McCollum likely would have been put to death years ago, if not for lawsuits that have blocked executions in North Carolina since 2006.

Such horrific miscarriages of justice occur more often than most people realize. When they are righted, they are another cause to celebrate the technology that made it possible. They are also an occasion to learn what went wrong in the case and correct flawed policies and procedures.

Unlike new evidence that results in convictions and arrests, however, the attorney general’s office does not track cases in which DNA evidence exonerated suspects or freed prisoners.

The Ohio Innocence Project has helped free 17 people, largely with DNA evidence. This year in Ohio, for example, Dewey Jones was exonerated after DNA evidence proved his innocence. A Summit County judge dismissed aggravated murder and robbery charges against Mr. Jones, who spent 20 years in prison.

Such DNA exonerations are as important as those cases that result in arrests and convictions. In fact, they are more important, given the underlying principles that gird the U.S. criminal justice system. They include the presumption of innocence until judged guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Those principles are based on the idea that convicting the innocent is an even greater travesty than absolving the guilty.

Even so, despite those precious safeguards, inept indigent defense systems, faulty eyewitness identifications, false coerced confessions, and numerous other flaws continue to put innocent people in prison, sometimes for life.

When righted by DNA evidence, such cases can provide the attorney general’s office, and law enforcement agencies across the state, with textbook examples of what can go wrong during a suspect’s arrest, trial, and conviction. Likewise, they can suggest ways to improve the system. That’s why it’s imperative that the Ohio Attorney General’s office start to track and study DNA exonerations.

Law enforcement agencies are often notoriously reluctant to acknowledge mistakes, partly because they believe they undermine public confidence in the system. But such mistakes are too important to ignore, and learning from them would only increase the people’s faith in the criminal justice system.

Police and prosecutors must acknowledge and use the enormous benefits of DNA technology, either way they tip the scales of justice.

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