(MintPress) – As many as 33 Virginia residents convicted of sexual assaults could be exonerated based upon a new DNA project. After conducting an exhaustive study, the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social research center, found 33 among the ranks of Virginia’s prison population who are innocent of crimes they could not have committed. Those […]
(MintPress) – As many as 33 Virginia residents convicted of sexual assaults could be exonerated based upon a new DNA project. After conducting an exhaustive study, the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social research center, found 33 among the ranks of Virginia’s prison population who are innocent of crimes they could not have committed. Those eligible for release have been serving sentences for crimes committed between 1973-1987.
An earlier, less expansive study led to the release of two individuals in 2005. The findings led Virginia’s governor at the time, Mark R. Warner, to call for a more detailed investigation using archived DNA evidence. The problem, of course, is not one limited to Virginia as independent investigations continue to free many innocents from prisons across the U.S. The project is part of a growing movement by various groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Innocence Project, two prominent advocacy groups working for reform in the criminal justice system.
Limits on investigation
The Virginia project has collected DNA samples from inmates during the 15 years before the use of DNA evidence was widely available. While the institute claims that there are wrongful convictions in 8 to 15 percent of sexual assault cases, the startling findings have led to few exonerations.
Jon Gould, director of the Washington Institute for Public and International Affairs Research at American University, concluded that the findings were accurate, saying, “This is the most methodologically sound study that’s been done and the rate is much higher than has been shown in other studies.”
However, researchers do admit that there is one flaw that may prevent the release of more prisoners. The contract under which the research was conducted expired before DNA results could be properly compared to existing court files. Such a comparison, critics say, would have better situated the findings given previous evidence and testimony.
While there may be few exonerations in the ongoing Virginia investigation, elsewhere, the Innocence Project continues to conduct tireless research, clearing the names of hundreds.
The Innocence Project
According to their mission statement, the Innocence Project:
“Was founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. To date, 292 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row. These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.”
One of the group’s better known exonerations came in January 2011, when Cornelius Dupree Jr. was freed after spending 30 years in a Texas prison for a rape and robbery he did not commit. Dupree, who served more time in prison than any of other inmate released based on DNA evidence was ebullient at the news of his release, saying, “It is a joy to be free again.”
Barry Schenk and the staff of the Innocence Project note that unlike other counties, Dallas preserves DNA evidence, keeping it frozen for safe keeping long after a conviction. However, erroneous testimony and the unwillingness to re-examine the evidence sooner resulted in Dupree’s incarceration for so many years.
While many of the wrongful convictions stem from false testimony and lack of DNA technology, the Innocence Project maintains that there are a myriad of factors contributing to the numbers of innocent in prison. “We should learn from the system’s failures. In each case where DNA has proven innocence beyond doubt, an overlapping array of causes has emerged – from mistakes to misconduct to factors of race and class,” the group writes on its website.