Thursday, December 29, 2011

'Beyond DNA': Innocence focus in Dallas shifting to non-DNA cases

There's an excellent piece in the Dallas Observer this week (Dec. 29) by Leslie Minora titled "Beyond DNA, Difficult Tests for the Justice System," which brings readers up to speed on a pair of non-DNA exonerations in Dallas this year and the future of innocence cases. Particularly troubling was the case of Dale Duke, who accepted a no-contest plea on a 1992 sexual assault he always denied in order to stay out of prison, but
In an Orwellian twist, prosecutors brought Duke back to court in 1997 and claimed he did not complete the treatment program. In effect, Duke violated the terms of his probation by not admitting to a crime he didn't commit. Duke took a Tuesday off work as a customer-service assistant at Eckerd to appear in court. He never returned to that job. The judge revoked his probation and saddled him with a 20-year prison sentence.
Watkins' Conviction Integrity Unit found corroborating evidence for Duke's innocence claims in their files that had never been turned over to the defense, which was the basis for overturning his case. The judge ruled that, with the evidence prosecutors concealed back in 1992, no reasonable jury would have convicted him. Though four of the 17 exonerations under DA Craig Watkins have been non-DNA cases, former public defender
Michelle Moore worries that the unit's gears are sticking and cases that could be moving forward more quickly are stalled. "I think I see the tendency now to be overly cautious and it's to the detriment of the innocent man," she says.

"I get that sometimes it's not as clear-cut as a simple DNA test, because that's a gold standard, but there are cases ... where there should be some things happening," she says, though she wouldn't mention any specifically, fearing they would take even longer. "[Russell Wilson] is a very well respected attorney; he's the nicest man on the planet. I just want to see more action," Moore says.

Granted, she concedes the system would naturally slow down as the DNA cases thin out and the question of guilt or innocence becomes thornier and more subjective. "I'll be honest with you: We took the easiest cases first, the ones we could prove definitely by DNA testing," Moore says, but she's still concerned that the Conviction Integrity Unit is simply not visiting prisoners, administering polygraphs and calling victims as expediently as it once did.
Grits has said in the past that non-DNA case are "the future of the innocence movement," and this article aptly explains why. DNA exonerees, Minora points out:
occupy a troubling time in criminal justice history. Their arrests, and the arrests of nearly all of the Dallas County exonerees, occurred from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. In this decade-long window, DNA samples were collected because blood-type testing was available, but the samples were not tested with the technological acumen that's been developed since.

Starting in the mid-1990s, the testing of DNA evidence became standard protocol, meaning the number of incarcerated people who can be exonerated by previously untested DNA evidence is finite, with few exceptions.
Tis true. In most older cases, DNA either wasn't collected or wasn't kept, and it only exists in the first place in around 10% of violent crimes. In essence, DNA provided the equivalent a statistical sampling of innocence cases and a unique window into their causes.
"Now we've shown that there are wrongful convictions, so now our conversation can be extended to eyewitness identification, investigative techniques, even prosecutorial misconduct, the culture of district attorney's offices ... and our failure to live up to the code of criminal procedure," seeking not only convictions, but justice, Watkins says.
Williamson County DA John Bradley raised his head out of his electoral foxhole long enough to put a devilish spin on the quest for non-DNA exonerations. He:
said as more DNA cases are resolved and there are fewer of them, organizations like the Innocence Project must take on new kinds of cases. "We have an Innocence Project, therefore there must be innocent people," he says, leading up to his point that "just as we sometimes wrongfully convict a person, sometimes we wrongfully exonerate a person."
Ironically, given that Mr. Bradley is commenting on it, in the near term, prosecutorial misconduct - particularly withholding exculpatory evidence, as notoriously occurred in the Michael Morton case on his predecessor's watch - may be the quickest route to exoneration. That's what got Mr. Duke out.

Besides so-called "Brady violations," though, the concern was expressed by others, IMO accurately, that "DNA evidence may have raised the bar to a level too often unattainable by cases without it." Certainly there are still categories of non-DNA cases to mine for valid innocence claims. An examination of arson cases by my employers at the Innocence Project of Texas and the state fire marshal, initiated at the recommendation of the Forensic Science Commission, could discover false convictions based on flawed forensics testimony. Nobody has thoroughly vetted (nor to my knowledge, even identified) the 2,000 or so cases where former Fort Bend Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett claimed to have used his dogs in "scent lineups." And there are other similarly discrete categories of cases to explore.

But looming over all such cases, and indeed, though unstated, over this entire article, was a decision by the hard-line wing of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this summer in Ex Parte Robbins, in which the court overtly realized fears that DNA "raised the bar" for exoneration too high. Particularly in cases centered around bad forensics, the Legislature will likely need to adjust the habeas statutes for anyone to actually make use of them in junk science cases.

So I agree, the future of the innocence movement must inevitably move "beyond DNA," and on the policy side in Texas where I work, it has, with the passage of eyewitness ID legislation and requiring corroboration for confidential informants, in particular. But those are front-end fixes. On the back end, access to DNA testing has been expanded and the Lege has provided compensation for exonerees. But after Ex Parte Robbins, there likely needs to be a separate legislative fix before the courts will be able or willing to act on significant numbers of non-DNA "actual innocence" habeas corpus claims - particularly regarding junk science, from arson cases to dog-sniffs - however valid or compelling.

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