Just the DNA, Ma'am

May 3rd, 2007
Five days before his scheduled execution, a Michigan science teacher was freed when DNA evidence proved him innocent of a horrendous crime. His story is not unique: DNA testing has exonerated more than sixty U.S. inmates convicted of rape or rape and murder – thirty-seven of them through the Innocence Project, established in 1992 by O.J. Simpson lawyer Barry Scheck and his colleague Peter Neufeld.

The two lawyers, along with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jim Dwyer, spoke on campus in March to promote their new book, Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted.

The trio’s research shows that innocent people usually end up in prison because of mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions, sloppy forensic science, police and prosecutor misconduct, and defense lawyers who are "asleep at the switch," Neufeld said.

The Innocence Project uncovered another disturbing statistic: while white women are generally raped by white men and black women by black men, said Dwyer, more than half of the sixty-four wrongful convictions involved black men charged with raping white women.

Scheck and his colleagues propose five solutions. First, when somone is wrongly imprisoned, a state commission should analyze why. Second, eyewitnesses should identify suspects not in police lineups but individually, while supervised by an outsider. In addition, interrogations should be videotaped, crime labs should be accredited, and the law should allow for post-conviction DNA testing.

Students in the audience asked Scheck whether his latest project is inconsistent with his work in the O.J. Simpson case, in which the defense argued to exclude DNA evidence from trial. Scheck replied that in the Simpson trial, the defense attacked not the reliability of the DNA tests, but the way in which police collected the evidence. The "silver lining" of the "O.J. circus," Scheck told the audience, is that police now realize they need better training in DNA collection.

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Related Issue
January / February 2005