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DNA Testing Holds Promise of Justice

A wrongful conviction is an event that happens in the criminal justice system more often than one may think. By utilizing the powerful science of forensic DNA testing, to date, the Innocence Project has helped exonerate 212 men and women across the United States. This quarter, DNA Diagnostics Center focuses on a 5-day series that was written in January by The Columbus Dispatch. After a yearlong investigation and with the help of The Ohio Innocence Project, The Dispatch gives an in-depth view into the lives of several convicted inmates who claim that they are innocent, and explains how DNA testing could possibly set them free. As the stories unfolded over the course of the series, The Dispatch outlined the events leading up to the convictions, the perspectives from the incarcerated and paroled individuals, and the effects that crime has on a victim’s life and that of their families. The articles also revealed problems within our judicial system, bringing to light issues such as evidence storage, eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, and the need for new and improved legislation.

DDC has offered to provide DNA testing of evidence in 30 criminal cases that The Ohio Innocence Project and The Columbus Dispatch have investigated over the past year because DDC believes that this technology should be available to everyone. Strictly driven by science and only interested in the truth, DDC has an unbiased position on all forensic DNA criminal investigations.

The following is a recap of The Dispatch series, which illustrates the power that DNA testing brings to ensuring justice.

Lost Hope
Day 1 of the series explained that in 2003, Ohio passed Senate Bill 11, the legislation that made it possible to provide DNA testing to inmates as long as they met certain requirements. These requirements include: the inmate had not entered a guilty plea, the biological evidence must still exist and can be located, there must be at least a year left of the sentence, and the inmate is not paroled nor deceased. Prosecutors and judges throughout Ohio feared that they would be inundated with requests. However, because DNA testing can prove guilt just as it proves innocence and a negative forensic report can affect an inmate’s chances of parole, only 313 prisoners have applied for testing in the past 5 years.

Because Ohio retention rules do not require police or crime labs to store criminal evidence indefinitely, The Dispatch discovered that evidence had been destroyed or lost in almost two thirds of the 313 cases, erasing any hope of an exoneration for those inmates. In the remaining third of the cases where evidence was available for analysis, inmates were either denied testing or never received a response from the courts regarding their request. More often than not, prosecutors and judges in Ohio deny DNA testing for inmates that are requesting it; the courts maintain the argument that DNA testing may not hold enough relevance within a case to supersede the other evidence that was used to convict an inmate. Prosecutors and judges are concerned that a retrial based on irrelevant DNA evidence could bring additional suffering to a victim.

The Dispatch did find 14 cases that were allowed DNA testing. Results of the testing exonerated 2 inmates, substantiated guilt of 7, and yielded inconclusive results for the remaining 5. After being interviewed by The Dispatch for this series, Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann—as well as every prosecutor interviewed— agreed that Ohio needed a law that required evidence to be saved. Dann was quoted in the article as saying “DNA is not a silver bullet for solving crimes… but when there’s a possibility that somebody has been wrongfully convicted, I think we owe it to the administration of justice to do DNA testing.”

Out of Time
Day 2 told the story of Arthur Swanson, who received a 20-year sentence from an Ohio judge on charges of robbery in 1999. After being incarcerated for 7 years, Swanson died in prison of an ongoing illness. While serving his sentence, Arthur Swanson continued to maintain his innocence and fight for biological testing of available evidence. After Swanson died, his family continued to fight for testing, but they were denied because Ohio law prevented it. Testing wasn’t denied because the evidence was destroyed or because there was a question of relevance to the case; rather, Swanson’s family was denied the DNA testing because Arthur had died, and Ohio laws state that an inmate loses the right for DNA analysis after they have been released from prison, alive or deceased, as required in 2003’s Senate Bill 11.

The article pointed out that Ohio is one of 15 states that require a person to be alive and incarcerated in order to be eligible for DNA testing. Nationally, 22 people who were already released from prison have been exonerated, including 1 deceased. Although there are many reasons for denying a DNA test, one question The Dispatch stressed is, other than the real perpetrator, who really benefits from not allowing the forensic testing? Mark Godsey, Program Director of The Ohio Innocence Project stresses, “ One of the costs of doing DNA testing on convicted persons is that there will be some inmates whose guilt is confirmed.” In a taped interview with reporters from The Dispatch, Governor Ted Strickland stated, “If the testing of these 30 cases result in even 1 exoneration, that will be a compelling reason for us taking action to [improve] our current approach. I feel passionate about this issue; no innocent person should ever be incarcerated.”

Not all stories within the series portrayed inmates as victims of a broken judicial system. On day 3, Jane Tillar, 69, of Cincinnati shared her account of the life-changing events that unfolded after she was raped in the summer of 1992. Tillar recounts how she awoke to find Joseph Elliott standing over her bed wielding a knife and demanding that she submit to his sexual assault. She tells of how Elliott raped her multiple times that evening while her husband lay asleep in a room down the hall, and how he threatened to kill her husband if she screamed. Jane Tillar ultimately escaped her attacker that evening after her husband awoke and startled her rapist.

What followed for the Tillars was anything but justice. Jane’s husband, consumed with guilt, blamed himself for the attack. Mr. Tillar had forgotten to lock the door that Joseph Elliot entered through. With pressure from a failing business, existing health issues, and the added stress from Jane’s assault, Mr. Tiller died in 1994. Two weeks after Jane buried her husband, police arrested Joseph Elliott, who was later convicted of rape and aggravated burglary and received a sentence of 15 to 50 years in prison. Eleven years passed and Jane had begun to rebuild her life, but on the morning of Sept. 2, 2006, she opened the newspaper only to read that the man that had raped her years ago was being granted a DNA test. In the article, Tillar describes how suddenly her life was turned upside down once again as she faced old memories and tough questions of Elliot’s potential innocence – and the notion that her attacker could still be at large.

For almost six months, Tillar waited for the forensic report that would confirm whether the wrong man was convicted of her rape. Finally, the prosecutor’s office phoned Tillar and informed her that DNA test results confirmed that Joseph Elliot had indeed raped her. According to The Dispatch, “Elliott wanted to roll the scientific dice, hoping for a DNA miracle that would cover up his crime. Elliott declined to be interviewed with The Dispatch reporters. ”

The article aptly noted that, “DNA tests offer hope to some prisoners. But for crime victims, the examination of biological evidence can rip open old fears, old wounds and old doubts.”

High cost of freedom
Arthur Whitfield, 52, told The Dispatch that every day he is not in prison is a good day. But some may ask at what cost did his freedom come? Whitfield served 23 years in a Virginia prison after being convicted of 2 rapes before DNA testing showed he was innocent. Examination of the DNA evidence in the Whitfield case also identified the real perpetrator, who was already labeled a serial rapist and serving a life sentence.

Although Whitfield was no longer incarcerated, it seems that he wasn’t entirely free either. Whitfield was actually on parole and was required to register as a sex offender even though his innocence was proven. The State paroled Whitfield because it was an immediate way to get him released from prison once the DNA test cleared him. After his attorney filed a writ of actual innocence, the judge denied Whitfield based on a technicality: Virginia law clearly stated that a person must be in prison to be considered for a writ of actual innocence.

Even though the local prosecutor and the crime lab both agreed Whitfield was innocent, Whitfield was still legally denied his innocence because of this loophole in the law. Whitfield and his attorney appealed the decision all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court. After a split decision in 2005, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Whitfield had no legal standing because he was out of prison and therefore, his only avenue for true legal exoneration would be in the form of a legal pardon issued by Virginia’s governor. Whittfield’s situation worsened when one of the victims that accused him of sexual assault wrote a seven-page letter to the Governor requesting that his request for pardon be denied. Despite the results of the DNA testing, she was still convinced that Whitfield was her attacker.

While the odds seemed to be stacked against Whitfield, he stated in the article that his situation could be much worse. Because his wrongful incarceration took place in Virginia, he was eligible for DNA testing even though he had previously entered a plea bargain, which prevents such testing in many states. At that time, had this incident occurred in Ohio, Whitfield would not have been eligible for DNA testing in the first place and would have continued to serve the 63-year sentence outlined in his plea bargain. In accepting the plea deal, Whitfield explained that he was determined to see his family again and so he gambled on the fact that he would be paroled before he died instead of risking a possible life sentence without parole if convicted by a jury. However, because Whitfield was innocent and was therefore unable to admit his guilt or apologize to the parole board for what he was accused of, Whitfield was denied parole 14 times over his 23-year incarceration.

Arthur Whitfield, like so many other exonerated men and women, has begun to rebuild his life. He continues to visit his parole officer, maintains his a job at a produce warehouse and has recently leased a home with his girlfriend, all while waiting to hear from the governor about his pardon. To date, 779 days – over 2 years— have passed since Whitfield submitted his request for pardon.

Pursuit of justice
The final article in the series features the story of Robert Caulley, 43, of Grove City, an Ohio State University graduate who worked as an aeronautical engineer. After 12 continuous hours of being vigorously interrogated, threatened with the death penalty, and forced to view pictures of his murdered parents, Caulley says he finally snapped. With the promise that he could return home to his family if he confessed, Caulley told police investigators that he murdered his parents. Caulley was consequently sentenced to life in prison on little more than what he now says was a false confession. Caulley continues to claim his innocence and stated that he loved his parents and would have never killed them.

Before Robert’s confession, investigators originally believed that Caulley’s parents were killed when they interrupted a burglary at their home. After serving 10 years of a life sentence, Caulley now wants a chance to prove his innocence with a DNA test. Unfortunately, a hair found at the crime scene, which was considered key evidence that may have proved his innocence, has been lost. While there is some remaining evidence that can be tested, Caulley is afraid that he missed his chance for freedom when the evidence went missing. Robert Caulley’s case, and others described in this series, often represent some type of systematic flaw in the judicial system. These stories and the information gathered by The Dispatch and The Ohio Innocence project will hopefully inspire the necessary legislation and create reform within the criminal justice system.

When asked by The Dispatch, Dr. Richard Lee, owner of DDC, said that these cases are all about getting to the truth. He stated, “A lot of people sitting in jail right now may be innocent and we should make this technology available to those who may not be able to afford it and use it to do something for society.“

It took over a year of investigation by both The Columbus Dispatch and The Ohio Innocence project to complete this 5-day news series. There were over 150 public records requests filed in 51 counties. Dozens of inmates, prosecutors, judges and victims were interviewed. In the end, after being presented with the investigative findings, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland agreed to support changes to reduce the chances of wrongful convictions. He agreed that preserving evidence, changing police lineup methods, recording interrogations, and forming an innocence commission could make it easier to identify, prevent, and correct wrongful convictions. Gov. Strickland urged prosecutors and judges to support the initiative.

Ray Smith, a Lorain man serving a life sentence for murder, best described the sum of these articles. “Being accused of a crime you didn’t do can happen to anyone, and sooner or later, this is going to happen to you or someone you know. The justice system is broken, and there are guys like me who are paying with their lives for it.”

Links to the entire Columbus Dispatch article series:

Lost hope

Out of time


High cost of freedom

Pursuit of justice