April 19th, 2010
Earlier this month legislators in Ohio passed Senate Bill 77, a groundbreaking reform package that the Innocence Project calls a “National Model” for other states working on reforms to existing laws that govern lineup procedures, police interrogations, evidence preservation and methods for parolees to apply for DNA testing.
The Innocence Project, a national organization headquartered in New York City at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, worked closely with the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) for the last two years to help pass these critical reforms. Locally, lawyers and law students at the OIP worked diligently to research and draft the legislation that has now been signed into law by Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. The impact of the law, which brings new protections for avoiding wrongful convictions and easier access to DNA testing to innocent prisoners, is summed up by the sponsor of the bill in the Ohio House, Rep. Tyrone Yates, D-Cincinnati. He declared, “This is one of the most important pieces of criminal justice legislation in this state in a century.”
A joint project between the Ohio Innocence Project and the Columbus Dispatch was integral to the reform’s momentum, and assured that the findings of the OIP research were well-documented. Dispatch reporters Mike Wagner and Geoff Dutton used their investigative reporting acumen to assist the OIP in researching case files, searching evidence facilities, and interviewing prisoners and victims alike in many of the nearly 300 applications for post-conviction DNA testing that the OIP received. The result was The Dispatch’s weeklong series, “Test of Convictions.” The articles outlined flaws in Ohio that could only be remedied by dramatic changes to law enforcement policies on evidence preservation, interrogations, suspect lineups and eyewitness photo identification, and access to post-conviction DNA testing. Mark Godsey, Director of the Ohio Innocence Project, provided the leadership and supervision to the group that built legislative support for the bill, including meeting with key legislators and providing information on the social science research and effectiveness of reforms in other states. DNA Diagnostics Center-Forensics provided pro bono DNA testing on many of the cases identified by the OIP as having legitimate claims of innocence, minimizing the state of Ohio’s cost for testing. Robert McClendon and Joseph Fears, both of Columbus, were exonerated as a result of the OIP/Dispatch joint project. McClendon and other Ohio exonerees served as a powerful spokespersons for the need for legislative reform.
The Senate Bill 77 changes to police practices are so comprehensive that Ohio has become a “model state” concerning reforms to protect the innocent from wrongful conviction. While states across the US are adopting some of these changes, none other than Ohio has implemented an omnibus bill of this magnitude.
December 18th, 2009
DNA tests performed by DNA Diagnostic Center’s Forensic Division led to the exoneration of James Bain, who will be celebrating his first Christmas with his family after 35 years of incarceration. DDC Forensics was approached by the Florida Innocence Project to work on the case, for the laboratory’s expertise in analyzing DNA from aged DNA samples typical of post-conviction cases. Mr. Bain’s DNA was compared with the perpetrator’s biological material obtained from the crime scene, and the analysis showed no match between his DNA profile and the evidence.
Of the 246 DNA exonerees to date, Bain has served the longest prison term as an innocent man. Dr. Ellen Moscovitz, President and CEO of DNA Diagnostics Center stated, ““This is a very profound moment for all of us at DNA Diagnostics Center. It underscores the importance and impact of the DNA testing we provide every day and reminds us that there is a precious human life attached to every specimen. We are so pleased to have been able to play a part in achieving justice and freedom for Mr. Bain.”
DDC’s Forensics Division serves as an independent DNA testing resource to defense lawyers and government prosecutors and works with many Innocence Projects across the country. Seth Miller, Director of the Innocence Project of Florida, commented, “We’ve worked with DNA Diagnostics Center on a number of cases now for over a year. Not only do their analysts do diligent work, but their customer service is top notch. There’s no other lab that we would have wanted to put this case in the hands of, especially with the age of the case and the type of sample that we had. We knew that DDC would take great care with it. We’re so thankful to DDC that they were able to help us find the truth and help with the release of Jamie Bain.”
December 18th, 2009
This past June, Ohio Senator David Goodman, R-New Albany, sponsored Ohio Senate Bill 77 which proposed changes to laws governing retention of DNA evidence and procedures for suspect lineups. The bill passed the Senate by a 32-1 vote, and now the House is close to passing the bill, after nearly a dozen amendments were adopted by the House Criminal Justice Committee.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, opposition to the bill comes from law-enforcement groups and prosecutors who are concerned about the bill’s requirements and the costs to implement them. Specifically, the legislation would require law enforcement to retain biological evidence for up to 30 years in cases of murder and sexual assault. Suspect lineups would now be blind: the officer conducting the lineup would not know the identity of the true suspect, or the officer would conduct a photo-lineup so that only the witness can see the pictures. Other changes to the law would make DNA testing open to parolees and require anyone charged with a felony to submit a DNA sample.
John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, felt the amendments to the bill made “vast improvements.” A key change was giving law-enforcement agencies the ability to discard biological evidence after 5 years if a defendant pleads guilty or no contest.
“This is about not just being tough on crime, but being smart on crime,” said Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project. “These are recognized as best practices around the country, and Ohio hasn’t been doing them, by and large.”
If the bill passes after next week’s vote, Ohio residents can look forward to improved practices that should help assure justice.
December 14th, 2009
Last week the New York State Commission on Forensic Science, which includes 12 representatives from law enforcement, criminal defense, the judiciary the NY State Dept of Health and forensic laboratories, approved modifications to DNA regulations to allow disclosure of “near matches” that are observed in NY’s databank searches. Under current regulations, when crime scene evidence is tested and a DNA sample is a close partial match to an individual’s profile in the database, the scientists are not permitted to report an inadvertent near hit that is observed.
Deputy Secretary for Public Safety Denise E. O’Donnell chairs the Commission of Forensic Science and stated, “The Commission has taken an important step to address the serious and valid concerns expressed by forensic scientists, who feared that they are currently placed in an untenable ethical bind: right now they have no authority to share information, discovered inadvertently, that may provide vital evidence in a criminal investigation. That is entirely unreasonable, and contrary to the concept of public interest, to ask our laboratories to withhold information that they know may be the key to stopping a serial rapist or murderer, or exonerating an innocent individual.”
While the proposed amendment is similar to statutes in California and Colorado which allows “familial searching,” or singling out particular families, NY’s regulation will only address the rare case where a routine search of the DNA database results in a near hit, which when used in as an investigative tool, could greatly limit the collection of potential suspects.
With a close eye on constitutional safeguards and accepted scientific procedures, the NY DNA Subcommittee must still review the implementation plan and submit final recommendations to the full Commission. The Governor’s Office of Regulatory Reform will make its publication and public comment. If adopted, the new regulations will assure that partial-match cases reviewed by the scientists on the DNA subcommittee adhere to the new standards.
New York currently collects DNA samples from only about 46% of people convicted of crimes. Governor Paterson has proposed an all-crimes DNA bill that would require anyone convicted of a penal law crime to provide a DNA sample.
September 29th, 2009
Strengthening Forensic Science: An Update
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee reacted to the National Academies of Sciences report released earlier this year with a Committee Hearing focusing on ways to address the problems in crime labs such as inadequate resources and support, fragmented regulations of the labs and practicioners, and the lack of strong scientific research. In this report, DNA typing analytical methods were presented as scientifically validated before even being used for criminal investigation.
The Chairman of the Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), opened the hearing by acknowledging the importance of the scientific advancements developed through forensics, including the ability to demonstrate criminal guilt or exonerate those who are innocent of crimes. “We need to do all we can to ensure that forensic science rises to the highest scientific standards and has the maximum possible reliability,” Senator Leahy said.
The Senator demonstrated the current severity of the problems in the field by referring to the Cameron Todd Willingham case—a Texas man put to death in 2004 based on forensic evidence and interpretation of alleged arson indicators that have since been found to be without merit. Leahy also referenced the recent Supreme Court decision of Melendez-Diaz vs. MA, which found that forensic analysts must be subject to cross-examination in court, instead of just submitting the reports as evidence. The suggestion is that cross-examination of the forensic examiners may bring to light any practices that do not meet strict standards.
Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) explained that many flaws in forensic science have been exposed by DNA testing, the gold standard of forensic tests. Feingold further stated that despite the defects in other scientific disciplines, jurors still place unwarranted trust in forensic evidence in the courtroom, even when not reliable. This phenomenon is often referred to as the “CSI effect,” based on the television series whose characters solve crimes in less than an hour with science presented as infallible.
While the Senate Judiciary Committee works to investigate the recommendations of the NAS report and determine next steps, the members agreed that at the least, standardization of methods, protocols and reporting should be made a national priority.