In the days before CSI showed us the forensic value of a piece of chewing gum, the science that led to convictions was far less error-proof. Things like blood typing and teeth marks were about as high-tech as you could get in fingering a suspect. Now, however, science has changed and because of this, the potential for wrongful convictions has likely fallen. But a look back on past cases may show just how common such mistakes were back in the days before DNA testing became so commonplace.
A unique opportunity to test DNA samples on past cases arose when a “trove” of old case files including biological evidence was uncovered in the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. The case files dated from 1973 through 1988 and hadn’t yet been put through the DNA wringer.
On a federal grant, the samples were sent to the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute for evaluation. Those samples are still being tested and compiled and the final report will likely come later in this year.
Estimates, however, show that the rate of wrongful convictions during the time period of those case files to be around 6%, a shockingly high number. “I would have guessed an error rate of 1 or 2 percent,” said Samuel R. Gross professor of University of Michigan Law School and former defense lawyer. “This is a very big surprise.”
Thirty-seven cases out of the original 638 are said to possibly support exoneration, and definitely warrant further investigation, according to John Roman, senior fellow with the researching Justice Policy Center. As of yet, nothing has been done with those cases in the way of exonerations, however.
Currently, researchers are running with those 37 cases to courthouses and sifting through old files to verify if mistakes were made and if the DNA evidence could eventually lead to exonerations in these decades-old cases. After all of the evidence is gathered, it will be presented to “an expert prosecutor, a defense lawyer, and a former judge” to for final evaluation.
The use of DNA evidence isn’t error proof, but it’s far more reliable than blood typing and could mean the difference between an innocent person spending the rest of their life in prison, or living it out normally. The time period being looked at by this study is particularly interesting because such evidence wasn’t used back then.
Though DNA isn’t available in all cases, other evidence can similarly eliminate you from a suspect pool. Discussing your case with a defense attorney is the first step in learning how the evidence in your particular situation can help or hurt you in court.
If you’ve been accused of a criminal offense in Virginia, contact our offices today to discuss your case.