Friday, April 11, 2008

DNA and Forensics I

The Innocence Project
On the night of April 19, 1989, a woman jogger was viciously assaulted and raped in Central Park and left for dead. Five Black and Hispanic teenagers between the ages of 16-18 had been arrested in another part of the park for harassing people, so-called "wilding." The police immediately suspected them of the attack and rape of the jogger, separated them and using the usual technique of telling each of them that their friends had ratted on them and blamed them for the rape/murder, and keeping them in isolation for many hours, the police obtained confessions from all of them, an "open and shut case"! They were each convicted and served terms of in prison, for example Anton McCray, a black defendant, because the woman did not die, received a 10 year sentence. While in prison the five teenagers continued to proclaim their innocence.
In 1992, two lawyers, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, at The Benjamin Cardozo Law School of Temple University in Philadelphia established "The Innocence Project." With their interns they investigate cases pro bono where the person found guilty of the crime and serving a jail term claims that they are in fact innocent (most do) and there is compelling reason to consider their story reasonable (e.g. they were convicted primarily on single witness testimony, which is notoriously unreliable) and there is good remaining biological evidence allowing for DNA analysis.
By analyzing the sperm collected from the Central Park victim, the Innocence Project was able to show that not only was it not a mixture, but that it came from a single individual who was not one of the five youths. Not only that, the DNA matched that of a man, Matias Reyes, who had been arrested in Central Park a week before this incident, after being identified by another rape victim! During the period of the second rape he was out on bail prior to his trial for the earlier offense. He later confessed to the later rape and attack on the jogger. However, although the teenagers had their guilty verdicts quashed, the police did not pursue Reyes for the second crime because he was already serving a life sentence for his previous crime (in other he got away with it!). Anton McCray and the others had served 6 years in New York State prison for a crime that he did not commit, and he was released in 2002.
By 2008, the Innocence Project had obtained the release of 215 previously convicted individuals, some of whom had served many years behind bars. For example, Dennis Williams, a black mentally retarded man, had served 18 years in jail in Illinois for a crime he did not commit. In some cases the District Attorney refuses to consider the "new" evidence, but generally they are cooperative. It should be noted that in most such cases tested, where the individual proclaims his innocence, DNA analysis actually proves his guilt. But, the amazingly large number of false convictions, including many (ca. 30%) where "confessions" were obtained, shows that something is terribly wrong with the US legal system, and by extension with all other criminal justice systems in the world.

This is taken from a seminar that I have given several times. Part 2 soon.


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