Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Post-conviction DNA testing

As of January of 2009, there had been 229 exonerations through DNA testing of people convicted of very serious crimes in this country. That means that physical evidence that had been preserved from the crime scene was tested (for the presence of DNA) that established the actual innocence of the person that had been found guilty. One man who was acquitted was Dwayne Dail, who had served 18 1/2 years for the rape of a 12 year old girl. This 12 year old girl was raped, but by a man other than Dwayne Dail. On testing the sample from the crime scene, it was established that the rapist was not Dwayne Dail, but was another man about 10 years older (I think this other man was a convicted sex offender, but I'm not sure).

If you want to look at stories of two men who were wrongfully convicted and sent to prison, there are fairly detailed interviews on the internet. Just Google: "Dwayne Dail" or "Ronald Cotton."

When I went to this Post-conviction DNA conference in January, the most amazing thing I learned was that 20% of those proven innocent by DNA testing had actually confessed (and, pled guilty) to the crimes. That is really something to think about. It not only raises questions about errors in the investigative processes of law enforcement and the judical system; it raises some real concerns about real power of coercion involved in the criminal justice system. If we are concerned with justice, and if we do have respect for the right against self-incrimination; then, it should really worry us that 20% of those proven innocent by scientific testing actually confessed to crimes they didn't commit. That's what torture is supposed to produce, not a system that respects the dignity of human beings. Talking about getting it not just a little wrong, but completely wrong. It is frightening to think that this statistic about false confessions may just be "the tip of the iceberg." I hope that's not the case.

If I have a client who is on tape confessing to a crime, I think absolutely that that client is guilty. He did it if he said he did it, especially in a detailed account. But, that's what Bruce Godschalk did, in Pennsylvania v. Godschalk. He admitted to two rapes, with a fair amount of detail given. But, then insisted he was innocent. Years later after being in prison for about a decade, a lawyer convinced a Federal District Court Judge that Mr. Godschalk had a due process right to be conduct DNA testing on available samples from the evidence preserved in his case. The lawyer who convinced the judge to order DNA testing didn't think his client was innocent - nobody did. HE HAD CONFESSED IN DETAIL TO THE CRIMES. But, when the testing was done, it was proven that Mr. Godschalk was innocent of these rapes! When the whole story was told or revealed, serious law enforcement misconduct on was discovered and Mr. Godschalk and his lawyer settled for a fairly large sum, I am told.

That's the kind of worries I am talking about. Wondering about a process that can bring an innocent man to confess. It is something to wonder about. Perhaps we need to reconsider that old saying: "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Those detectives in Godschalk didn't use any "sticks or stones," only words.