Virginia's DNA Project Needs Transparency

Virginia's DNA Project was intended to serve the worthy goal of uncovering wrongful convictions.

Virginia's large-scale review was started in 2005 after the exonerations of five men who spent a total of 91 years in prison. Virginia's then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) ordered the testing, calling it the "only morally acceptable course."

The state crime lab began the project by combing through about 500,000 old files of investigations into violent crimes, such as rapes and homicides, to see whether evidence had been preserved. Any case where biological clues remained and a person was convicted was picked for testing. All results are sent to the police and prosecutor's office that handled the case years ago, said Peter M. Marone, director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.

What happens next is unclear. Police and prosecutors are getting the results, but they're resisting invitations to share them with defendants and defense attorneys. [more ...]

Although in "at least eight cases, the convicts' DNA does not match crime samples," the crime lab doesn't decide whether the new testing proves innocence or confirms guilt.

Marone said that the state crime lab is focused on the science and that it will be up to the criminal justice system to decide whether the tests confirm guilt.

Defendants are notified by certified letter that the tests will occur, but they aren't given the results.

University of Virginia associate law professor Brandon L. Garrett said he does not understand the state's rejection of the offer by about 200 private lawyers who have volunteered to help notify convicts. "It's an incredible undertaking," said Garrett, who studies wrongful convictions. "It's also a stalled undertaking, and it's a secret undertaking. This hasn't been a process so far that we can have a lot of confidence in."

It doesn't make sense to retest evidence and then keep the test results secret. Nor should it be up to the prosecutor to decide whether the new test results cast doubt on a conviction.

Christopher Amolsch, an Alexandria defense lawyer, said questions about how to interpret DNA evidence require that defense attorneys are included in the process. "Even assuming best intentions, you don't trust a prosecutor to decide whether you are guilty or innocent," Amolsch said. "It's an adversarial system, and you have to have someone looking out for your interest."
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    I've never understood (none / 0) (#1)
    by Linkmeister on Mon Aug 18, 2008 at 12:57:54 AM EST
    why prosecutors are so reluctant to admit that evidence indicates a convicted person may not be guilty.  In some instances I've even heard them insist there must be a new trial; that they don't believe (contra evidence) the convicted party is innocent.

    Is it just pride?

    Pride, often and a bunch of other things (none / 0) (#2)
    by Valhalla on Mon Aug 18, 2008 at 01:47:13 AM EST
    Folks don't tend to become prosecutors by accident -- a lot of them are very competitive, or very law & order-ish, or are hoping to use a prosecution gig as a stepping stone to other positions (usu politics).

    And even the best-intentioned people get really committed to a belief once they've involved themselves in it on one particular side.  It's a pretty common human bit of psychology.  Plus there can be a lot of pressure from higher up not to give in, or political pressure to look tough on crime, etc.

    What TChris describes though, is really problematic.  It suggests to me (ok this is a bit tinfoily, but not really) that they are afraid of finding lots of problematic results.  If the lab has been really messing up a lot, then it not only means having to reverse judgments, take a lot of bad press, etc., but it also taints their reliance on dna tests in the future.  If your case rests on dna evidence and the state expert you bring in to testify has to admit, when questioned by the defense attorney, that the lab has a 30% error rate, eg, you're scr*wed.

    Of course, you should be scr*wed if that were the case, but people have a natural tendency to circle the wagons from an outside threat regardless how just the threat.

    Anyway, those are my bloviating thoughts on the matter.

    Sounds like it was the right idea (none / 0) (#3)
    by DandyTIger on Mon Aug 18, 2008 at 02:18:35 AM EST
    but then the prosecutors got a little too much control of it and won't let it go. Did the project go south only under Kaine or was it problematic while Warner was still governor? If only Kaine, then could this be an issue for him as VP? Probably not, just wondering.

    And yes, what is the deal with prosecutors that can't deal with a mistake. Sounds like some sort of religious like belief. They've decided the person is evil and can't let go of that even when they're actually proven not guilty. Actually quite scary. And these are the sorts of people that go into politics. Ah, it's all starting to make sense.

    Very interesting. Most state's do (none / 0) (#4)
    by oculus on Mon Aug 18, 2008 at 07:12:52 AM EST
    not search for DNA evidence in each and every case of conviction of a serious crime.  But, isn't it more logical to trust the DNA results in innocence project cases as opposed to attempting to undermine the results?  It does seem logical to release the results, whatever they may be, either directly to the person who was convicted or, if he/she is currentl represented counsel, to the attorney.  

    It's widespread (none / 0) (#5)
    by 1980Ford on Mon Aug 18, 2008 at 10:39:11 AM EST
    Check this article.

    Trust issues at heart of fight over proposed DNA lab

    D.A., sheriff's crime lab director slug it out over who should operate facility that probes low-level crimes.


    A task force has been formed to sort through the arguments. Meanwhile:

    * A senior prosecutor is alleged to have pressured a sheriff's analyst to change her conclusion in a carjacking case that kept an innocent man imprisoned for 16 months.

    *A sheriff's deputy is alleged to have falsified documents in a nationally funded, DNA project, resulting in his arrest.

    *Gialamas is alleged to have sabotaged another federally funded DNA project because Rackauckas refused to use the sheriff's lab.

    "It's too bad," said Greg Thompson, head of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department crime lab. "It's hard for me to see how this kind of tug-of-war serves the public."