Friday, October 23, 2009

Criminal Defense Lawyers Cast Doubt On Old DNA Evidence

From the New York Times:

Nearly 10 years had passed since a college student was raped on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and with no known suspect in the 1993 case, the police were not close to an arrest. But what they did have was nearly as critical: the rapist’s DNA profile.

Prosecutors in Manhattan — aware that the legal clock for bringing a case was running out — devised the novel strategy of indicting the rapist’s DNA. Four years later, the sample was connected to a man, Victor Rondon; he was eventually convicted and sentenced to 44 to 107 years in prison.

While there have been many celebrated cases in which DNA evidence has been used to overturn wrongful convictions, often many years after the trial, such evidence has become essential in solving cold cases.
Because of advances in forensic science and because of laboratory backlogs I believe that the statute of limitations needs to be eliminated for rape with no conditions related to DNA. The problem with conditional statute of limitations is that they can exclude cases which were clearly meant to be included in the conditions but aren't because of rape kit backlogs or clerical errors.

I've read many opinion pieces for why rape should not have the statute of limitations removed in all US states, but the reasons often incorrectly overlook the fact that the prosecution, not the defense, has the burden of proof.

The perspective of these opinions often are limited to how laws impact defendants and don't address how laws, including the statute of limitations, impact public safety or they gloss over this public safety impact by incorrectly assuming that all serial rapists have been caught and are in prison or on sex offender registries.

This latest article adds an objection to DNA warrants I haven't seen before.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, in a resolution against John Doe DNA indictments, said DNA samples can degrade over time and said that errors in the “collection, handling and storage of DNA samples” can lead to wrongful prosecutions.
If the allegation in this NACDL resolution is true then this undermines the validity of all DNA exonerations which use evidence older than the NY statute of limitations for rape which is 10 years. It certainly undermines any call to process all old DNA evidence for all prison inmates and to have any mismatch of that old DNA evidence used to overturn the conviction.

When exonerations based on decades old DNA evidence are announced they are not announced as actions which merely cast doubt on the original conviction. They are announced as proving the defendant's innocence. Because of this, states have paid out large sums of money. If this resolution is correct then some of these payouts may have been made to the guilty.

If these errors cannot be detected by defense attorney experts then they can't be detected, period.

If old DNA evidence is unreliable enough to leave a reasonable doubt then it alone cannot be used to exonerate anyone. There would need to be corroborating evidence of innocence if this group is correct. There have been exonerations where other evidence besides the newly processed DNA evidence supports the convict's innocence. For example, Timothy Cole was a non-smoker while the real rapist was a chain smoker who waited until after the statute of limitations expired to confess.

Steven Avery was exonerated on rape charges after 18 years in prison and 2 years after he was released he murdered Teresa Halbach. He was convicted of murder but is hoping his lawyers can get him out of prison again.

This NACDL statement supports the credibility of the claims of a rape survivor who refused to believe old DNA results were accurate because she is still sure she IDed the correct man. This statement undermines the credibility of all those who declared her to be a proven liar.

The same standards related to DNA evidence must apply whether lawyers are trying to prove a defendant guilty or whether lawyers are trying to prove a convict innocent. Yet the NACDL group seems to be supporting a dangerous double standard.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 10:29 AM   0 comments links to this post

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