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“Beyond DNA”

The Dallas Observer has a good story about the state of the exoneration business now that most of the cases involving DNA have been handled.

Since Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins took office in 2007, incidents of wrongfully convicted men being released from Texas prisons have become almost commonplace. Dramatic scenes of innocent men finally walking free from county courtrooms are like nectar to reporters, who churn out stories praising Watkins’ creation of his office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, established in 2007 to review potential wrongful convictions. While most of these stories mention DNA testing and the fact that, unlike most counties, Dallas stored DNA evidence indefinitely, Duke’s case was different. Out of 17 exonerations in Dallas since 2007, his was one of only four cases without biological evidence, according to data from the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

When Watkins became the county’s top prosecutor, he faced a backlog of about 500 cases involving DNA evidence that had previously been denied testing and that would, in many cases, prove guilt or innocence. In the first couple years of the Conviction Integrity Unit’s existence, DNA-based exonerations rolled out every few months. Most were old sexual assault cases in which semen from a rape kit was still available for modern-day tests. “The classic ‘DNA case’ is a stranger-on-stranger sexual assault. Nothing connects the defendant to the crime except for eyewitness ID obtained through questionable procedures, and the sexual assault kit is preserved years later,” says Mike Ware, who led the Conviction Integrity Unit from its inception until this summer.

After Ware resigned to return to private practice in Fort Worth, Russell Wilson, another long-time criminal defense attorney, took his place. Watkins’ first assistant, Terri Moore, also resigned this summer, and Michelle Moore, the public defender who worked with Watkins’ office on exonerations, left in October to help open a public defender’s office in Burnet County. Duke’s case was the first exoneration under the unit’s new leadership.

With all of the changes, 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.

In the meantime, the sheer number of DNA exonerations — and the efforts to uncover how the courts failed so miserably — have revealed troubling gaps in the criminal justice system: Eyewitnesses are more fallible than jurors might think; forensic evidence isn’t always reliable or interpreted correctly; the way police run lineups can lead to wrongful convictions. The trouble is, those problems may just as easily plague cases in which no DNA exists. Modern science has shown the justice system the tip of the iceberg, but how many innocent men and women are suffering in prison and likely to stay there because they have no evidence to test? Where do law enforcement and innocence advocates, faced with sorting out the guilty and innocent, go from here?

“There’s been a strong shift,” Wilson says. DNA-based cases are still filtering through his office, but for the most part, he says, “the newer cases are non-DNA. … It’s a lot more fact-intensive.”

The good news about DNA exonerations is that they have freed a bunch of innocent men from prison, and that they have forced people to recognize the fact that there are unjustly convicted people in prison. The bad news is that DNA is a factor in only a small number of cases, and it was preserved as evidence in a small share of those cases, so if DNA evidence has become the de facto standard for triggering the exoneration process, a whole lot of other innocent people will be left behind. As Grits points out, there are still many arson cases that need review, and an untold number of people whose convictions were due in part to the no-discredited “scent lineups” of former Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Deputy Keith Pikett. On top of that, as the Michael Morton case has so clearly shown us, prosecutorial misconduct is another potentially large and under-explored factor in unjust convictions. Local defense attorney Robert Fickman wrote an op-ed on that topic, but did not include any actual policy prescriptions for how to deal with it. Clearly, depending on the State Bar won’t do much, so it’s up to the Lege, and they will need good guidance. There’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure justice for those who have been wrongly convicted and those who could be in the future if nothing is done, and that work gets harder from here.

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