Monday, August 03, 2009

Michigan Appeals Court Ruling Raises Troubling Issues

From M Live:

A jury found [Scott Gordon] Payne guilty in the rapes of multiple women in 1989 and 2004.

In a decision released today, the three-judge panel held that two cases against Payne, which included first-degree criminal sexual conduct and third-degree criminal sexual conduct, were improper because the expert who tested the DNA used by Assistant Prosecutor Helen Brinkman to make her case did not testify -- denying the defense the ability to cross-examine.

The court also said that having a different expert describe the findings to the jury constituted unacceptable hearsay.
The reason this Michigan ruling troubles me is that experts who test DNA die and otherwise become unavailable. Many DNA samples from crime scenes have been tested and the results are sitting in a database waiting for a match. Some of these matches never happen or happen immediately but others can take decades.

If the person who did the forensic testing is unavailable and no other expert can testify about the results and there isn't additional DNA material available to be tested, this ruling has the potential to set people free who have been properly identified. That has serious public safety ramifications.

This change in law may have sounded good and was likely presented to legislators as a needed change to protect the innocent, but when changes to the law like this one have dangerous side effects it is the innocent non-defendants who pay.

Accuracy in forensic testing is important, but this ruling isn't about exposing testing errors. There was no evidence presented that the person who tested the DNA samples erred in any way.

This convicted serial rapist is claiming he is innocent of the sex crimes against 4 women he was convicted of assaulting. This ruling means that 2 of those women who thought their personal ordeal was over may be forced to go through another trial or they may see their rapist a few steps closer to freedom.

The attorney representing Payne is trying to get all of the sex crimes convictions against him overturned so that instead of life in prison, he will be set free once he finishes his federal prison term for a bank robbery in Missouri.

Convicted felons who have been released, either on a technicality unrelated to prosecution wrongdoing or because of a failure to find their DNA at the crime scene, have gone on to commit similar or more violent crimes so the issue is not merely how long someone will stay in prison.

Innocent people have been murdered as a result of court appeals which are celebrated as helping all those who are innocent.

Teresa Halbach, a photographer in Wisconsin was brutally murdered by Steven Avery who had been exonerated and recently released on rape charges. After his arrest for her murder Avery unsuccessfully claimed that all the evidence in this murder was planted. In the original rape case if there was no possibility that 2 men were involved then Avery was wrongfully convicted. He may have been a suspect in that rape because of other crimes he committed or got away with. Avery might have been a rapist convicted of the wrong rape.

Not surprising to me is that Steven Avery's attorneys are appealing his murder conviction. In statements Avery made before his conviction he claimed Halbach was still alive and the only way he could know that is if he was involved in the actions which left forensic evidence from her body. This contradicts the premise of the appeal in which Avery's attorneys want a new trial where they can accuse Avery's brothers of this murder.

In murder/rape cases the guilty party can either not leave enough DNA to be detected or can tamper with the crime scene in an attempt to make finding DNA samples impossible. This is not just a claim, it is known from the processing of these types of crimes. This means that the absence of the murderer's DNA may not be proof of the defendant's innocence. Yet too many people talk as if the absense of DNA evidence is always proof of innocence or wrongful conviction.

As other cases have shown, a convicted rapist who was guilty as charged can be very convincing in his claims that he is innocent and was wrongfully convicted. Huntley Ruff claimed he was innocent of rape for 25 years after his conviction and was championed by defense experts who were sure of his innocence, but his claims were proven false earlier this year.

He's far from being alone in falsely claiming innocence post-conviction. Forty two percent of the cases over 5 years where an inmate's DNA was tested due to the efforts of the Innocence Project out of New York those efforts resulted in the inmate's guilt confirmed. This was only 1 percentage point less than the number of cases where the DNA found was a clear mismatch. This wasn't a random sample of all inmates, this was the set of cases which met the Innocence Project's criteria for likely conviction of someone who was materially innocent.

Changes in processes within the criminal justice system are often needed and critically important. Whether a change is proposed by prosecutors or defense experts the side effects on the innocent (both crime victims and suspects) need to be considered before that change causes irreversible harm.


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posted by Marcella Chester @ 8:55 AM   0 comments links to this post


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