Justice is a train that is nearly always late.
September 2, 2010 12:31 AM   Subscribe

Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck gave an interview today describing the complexities of DNA evidence and why it is so pivotal in many appeals. What we hear referred to as "DNA evidence" can really mean any number of things: a restriction fragment length polymorphism analysis that focuses on enzyme restriction sites; using a polymerase chain reaction to amplify a segment of DNA; or a short tandem repeat analysis, looking at small segments of repeated DNA in an individual's genome. These tests, he believes, must be done whenever possible-- because more and more, they are proving people innocent.

Scheck's goal, through the Innocence Project, is to reform the justice system. DNA evidence has already made leaps and bounds in the right direction, exonerating 258 individuals, including 17 who spent time on death row.

Many of these false convictions are due to faulty eyewitness testimony. While compelling, eyewitness testimony is often deemed unreliable, especially when it involves the identification of perpetrators of another race. (Previously). This was a contributing factor in the false conviction of Ronald Cotton, who was sentenced to life plus fifty years in prison. The victim, Jennifer Thompson, purposefully examined the face of her attacker so she might be able to identify him to the police. Ten years later, the man that she identified-- man number 5, Ronald Cotton, was proved innocent. Thompson now advocates against the use of eyewitness testimony as primary evidence, explaining that even though she was positive Cotton was her attacker, she was wrong. When he was released, she told him, "Ron, if I spent every second of every minute of every hour for the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it wouldn't come close to how my heart feels."
posted by karminai (13 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

Nothing is better at preventing the punishment of the guilty than punishing the innocent. You'd think people interested in actually fighting crime would consider it important. Police and prosecutors who convict the innocent are guilty of aiding and abetting the guilty. And they often do it intentionally.

I was once on Jury Duty in a murder case where the prosecutors KNEW their eyewitnesses had picked the wrong man, but since that wrong man was the brother of the real murderer, they put him on trial to try to force him to turn on his brother (which one of the prosecution team openly admitted in conversations after the first trial). He didn't and he was convicted (not by my jury; it was obvious to some of us and we were hopelessly hung; they retried him and found a dumber jury). The last I heard the bad brother was walking the streets of L.A. Inexcusable.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:57 AM on September 2, 2010 [6 favorites]

That's intriguing, have a news link?
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:58 AM on September 2, 2010

The two words that stick in my mind, from this lengthy and substantial FPP, are "proven innocent". Weren't we supposed to be innocent until proven guilty? The fact that convicts could be proven innocent, and had to, suggests a fundamental dysfunction in the justice system, going well beyond which kind of evidence is to be accepted. If, in a trial by jury, the judge doesn't remind the jurors of the fundamental principle of "in dubio pro reo" (perhaps because he's an elected judge who doesn't want to appear to be "soft on crime"), then the defense lawyer should. And add that, if an accused has a right of a jury "of his peers", it's because each and every member of the jury should be aware that he could himself be the accused.
posted by Skeptic at 5:16 AM on September 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

I should have saved the link to the study which showed that, as the stress of a situation increases, not only do true positives go down, but false positives and false negatives go up. It was done during Marine interrogation training - has anyone else seen that paper?

Also, they found that police lineups are the most inaccurate way to get an identification, followed by photo lineups or photo books. The most accurate way is to present the photos serially.
posted by muddgirl at 5:44 AM on September 2, 2010

have a news link?

It was in 1993, and just because it was a murder case didn't make it big enough for any L.A. media coverage. They were too busy in another courtroom down he hall... the Rick James trial.
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:10 AM on September 2, 2010

Weren't we supposed to be innocent until proven guilty?

The phrase "proven innocent" is used because the action is happening post-conviction. In other words, these people were presumed innocent, had a trial, and were convicted on the basis of some evidence such as eyewitness testimony. After conviction, they were presumed guilty and their innocence was subsequently proven using DNA.
posted by prefpara at 6:28 AM on September 2, 2010

The irony here is that even when DNA evidence is one of the dozen or so things that you would think proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that a guy like...oh let's just pick someone random here!...OJ Simpson killed Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, if you have clever lawyers like Barry Sheck, they'll simply change their tack to convincing the jury that the blood evidence was planted.
posted by contessa at 6:45 AM on September 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

The irony here is that even when DNA evidence is one of the dozen or so things that you would think proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that a guy like...oh let's just pick someone random here!...OJ Simpson killed Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, if you have clever lawyers like Barry Sheck, they'll simply change their tack to convincing the jury that the blood evidence was planted.

There's no irony here at all. DNA evidence can never prove beyond a doubt that someone is 100% guilty. It can however prove that someone who was wrongly convicted is innocent.
posted by reformedjerk at 7:01 AM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

So you're saying if she really recognized a guy, it would have been almost instantaneous?" Stahl asked.

"Quite quick, yes," Wells said.

This was so true in my experience. When I was in high school, I was walking home from an evening class in the middle of December. A naked adult man approached me. I did the same thing as Thompson in looking only at his face and nothing else. I was like, "I'm going to remember this face. I'm going to remember this face." He could have grabbed me if he wanted, but thankfully he was an exhibitionist. Oddly enough, he looked a lot like one of my classmates at school, and in my deranged, scared mind, I had to reassure myself that it wasn't this classmate because of how much he looked like the perpetrator.

I met with a detective a few weeks after the incident and after I saw the guy afar from a second time. I worked with the detective on a composite sketch. Apparently this guy had been going around for some time in several locations because another girl from my high school had seen him, too, in the parking lot of where she worked. About a week and a half after developing the composite sketch, I was called out of class to the social worker's office. The detective was there and said he had some pictures for me to look at. I think there were about 12. I looked at them all together, and instantly I saw the guy who approached me. He was number 3. I remember to this day that there was instant recognition. I mean, it was less than a second that I looked at the pictures before identifying him. I took no time to think. I took no time puzzling out a "Maybe." It really was instantaneous and almost involuntary when I cried out, "That's him!" I wasn't asked to look at the pictures again. The detective didn't ask if I was sure or certain. He didn't ask if there were any doubts. He said thank you, and then I went back to class. The entire meeting was less than 5 minutes.

Turns out the guy I picked was the right guy, and the same guy that two witnesses from two incidents separate from mine picked. The guy plead guilty to counts of minor sexual aggression or something else less than assault and was sentenced to a heavy fine, parole, and some type of therapy program. But I'll never forget how fast those words of "That's him!" were out of my mouth before I even had time to think.
posted by zizzle at 8:39 AM on September 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

DNA cannot "prove that someone who was wrongly convicted is innocent." But it can inject reasonable doubt, and that's usually enough to overturn a conviction. DNA doesn't prove any event 100%, good or bad, in the same way I can't prove there isn't a wombat in my crisper bin without opening it. And reasonable doubt is what the U.S. jury trial system is all about: When someone is exonerated due to DNA evidence, they're released not because science has found them innocent beyond all possible doubt, but because there is now enough exonerating evidence for the DA to decide not to re-try them. (There have been instances where prosecutors were pretty sure they still had the right person, despite the new DNA evidence, but the reasonable doubt created by the new evidence would have made a retrial a bad bet, and a waste of public funds.)

The scary/interesting thing about all this is that, as the science of DNA progresses, not only can innocent people be exonerated, decades of evidence locked away in police departments and district attorneys' offices can be re-examined, and new suspects arrested. The only thing preventing a real renaissance of forensic science is... money.

onefellswoop, that's a pretty interesting story, and I know some people in L.A. who would be very interested to hear the details. Are you saying that an innocent man was convicted of murder in 1993 in Los Angeles, and the prosecutor at the time admitted publicly that they put the wrong guy on trial? Many of the DAs working then are still in the office. Please let us know some names -- of the convicted man and the lead prosecutor, to start. (Sorry for the derail, karminal.)
posted by turducken at 9:30 AM on September 2, 2010

North Carolina's Corrupted Crime Lab: A damning state report finds systematic abuse, including in death penalty cases.
posted by homunculus at 9:46 AM on September 2, 2010

I didn't see it show up in the links--they have a DVD out called "After Innocence" which coincidentally I just saw. It turned out to be riveting, focusing on about a dozen of the freed and the specifics of their case, and what had to be done in Florida to get one guy out even after the DNA evidence came in. And the story of a cop, no less, who was wrongfully accused and convicted. As he said, he found out what the justice system does when it targets the wrong man. Strangest to me was the look that most of these men had in their eyes all the time. The same look--not the look a guilty man might have, but like a little kid abandoned and alone and scared.
posted by lphoenix at 11:52 AM on September 2, 2010

Thanks for the great FPP, karminei.

A little more clarification: the RFLP method was an early method of DNA fingerprinting, and is no longer in use in the forensic arena. To be successful this method requires relatively large amounts of source material (compared to current PCR/amplification based methods) and also relatively fresh/undegraded samples--both are important limitations.

Current PCR-based methods used by law enforcement in the US amplify DNA from thirteen well-characterized STR loci, which is to say, thirteen areas in the human genome where population studies have shown significant variation in the number of short tandem repeats at those sites. Because scientifically valid results can be obtained from old/degraded samples, this method can be used to (re-)examine cold case evidence, and because even very miniscule amounts of biological material can give sufficient DNA for analysis, there are virtually no sample limitations.

Forensic scientists I knew on the Washington State Patrol had gotten excellent DNA profiles from objects like cigarette butts, beer bottles...my favorite example was a half-eaten ham sandwich.

The profile data is entered into the state and federal CODIS database. Generally suspect profiles are compared against evidence profiles within a state first, then the suspect profiles are kicked out to the national level and compared to evidence profiles from across all 50 states.

There are many examples of cold cases where suspects have been identified via CODIS. For instance, the murder of Seattle singer Mia Zapata was solved nearly 10 years after her death when her murderer (who had been in Seattle at the time of her death) was arrested nearly 10 years later in Florida for burglary and domestic abuse.

The only characteristic that can be inferred through the results returned from CODIS DNA analysis is whether the DNA donor is male or female. No other physical traits (height, coloration, etc) are derived from those profiles. Analysis of the statistics (i.e., relative occurrance of different numbers of STRs at the different loci, and so the likelihood that a given profile could occur) is very slightly affected by racial background, but not enough to undermine the overal statistical validity and power of individualization through this type of DNA analysis.
posted by Sublimity at 5:59 PM on September 2, 2010

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