The aim of the American justice system is, in essence, a search for the truth, to ensure the guilty pay for their crimes and the innocent go free.
The Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office seems to have forgotten that, and is rightly being forced in court to justify itself in the face of its refusal to test newly rediscovered DNA evidence that could exonerate a convicted man. A court hearing scheduled Monday before Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Reisner to force the county to do the testing has been postponed until February 27.
Dion Harrell, 48, of Long Branch, who was convicted in 1992 of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl there, has always maintained his innocence. Although he has been out of prison for about 17 years after serving four years of an eight-year sentence, he still wants to clear his name. But the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office is blocking Harrell's attempt to have DNA from the 1988 crime analyzed to prove one way or another whether he is the man who committed the sexual assault.
The prosecutor's reason for not agreeing to have the DNA tested is based on a peculiar reading of a state law that allows for DNA testing on evidence in the cases of convicted defendants currently imprisoned who are seeking exoneration. Since Harrell is out of jail, the prosecutor says, he is out of luck.
Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor Mary Juliano stated in court papers that the testing would prolong the final disposition of the case, writing that "The State believes the conviction is entitled to finality."
That is an outrageous statement: "The conviction is entitled to finality?" Shouldn't Harrell's desire for justice trump the prosecution's desire for the conviction to be put to bed once and for all. There is always a public interest in finding the truth.
If Harrell is innocent, that means the perpetrator of the Long Branch rape may still be at large. The conviction rested on a couple of thin reeds to begin with: the victim's eyewitness identification of him and expert testimony that he could not be excluded as the rapist because of his blood type.
Any reasonable person would have to agree that Harrell has yet to get free from the shadow his possibly wrong conviction has cast over his life. His address is readily displayed on the Internet on the state's sex offender registry, which has led to trouble finding housing and employment.
According to the New York-based Innocence Project, which provides free representation to convicts seeking to prove their innocence and is working on behalf of Harrell, there have been 325 exonerations nationwide as a result of DNA testing. There have been eight exonerations in New Jersey.
With its ongoing battle to refuse to test the DNA, the Monmouth Prosecutor's Office is thwarting justice in two ways. It isn't allowing Harrell to clear his name and it could be allowing the true perpetrator to escape justice. It's a double black eye for the office.