Beyond DNA exonerations

We’re all familiar with the way the Dallas DA’s office has handled using DNA to review cases in which a defendant’s guilt may have been in question. Now that most of the cases in which DNA evidence still exists have been reviewed, they are moving on to other kinds.

The emphasis of the conviction integrity unit established by District Attorney Craig Watkins in 2007 is shifting toward challenging cases where there is no DNA to test, but where questions remain about an inmate’s guilt or innocence.

Without DNA evidence, these cases require more time and can mean investigating a crime that occurred years ago as though it just happened: tracking down witnesses, comparing fingerprints to see if there is a match when one didn’t exist before, seeking new evidence.

Watkins says he hopes his office can use lessons learned during years of DNA testing to improve police work. Bad witness identification, for example, has been a factor in most of Dallas’ DNA exonerations. There are also several cases where prosecutors or police withheld evidence that could have prevented a conviction.

Watkins said his perspective has changed since the unit began. He’s realized that it can do much more than free the innocent.

“At the time, I started out looking at legitimate claims of innocence, and obviously we still do,” said Watkins. “But now, it’s how can we improve prosecutor and police techniques. It’s about the ability to argue for changes in the law.”

This is the future of overturning wrongful convictions in Dallas County.

Grits has more about this. The key point is that DNA evidence only exists in a small number of cases, and it’s relevant in an even smaller number, but the same kind of evidence and procedures that made the DNA-available cases worthy of review – eyewitness identifications, bad arson science, “scent lineups”, etc – exist universally, and should be looked at as earnestly. It may be harder to show anything definitive, but if they do nothing but codify their best practices to avoid arresting and convicting people in the future based on this stuff, it’s well worth it. Now if only other DAs would follow Dallas’ lead on this.

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