Our criminal justice system is best described as a search for the truth. Increasingly, the forensic use of DNA technology is an important ally in that search. The development of DNA technology furthers the search for truth by helping police and prosecutors in the fight against violent crime. Through the use of DNA evidence, prosecutors are often able to conclusively establish the guilt of a defendant. DNA evidence offers prosecutors important new tools for the identification and apprehension of some of the most violent perpetrators, particularly in cases of sexual assault. DNA aids the search for exonerating the innocent. Let’s take Dennis Fritz for instance. As mentioned in the article, Innocent, After Proven Guilty by Adam Cohen in TIME magazine, Fritz was an average father from Oklahoma who led a normal life as a single parent raising his thirteen-year-old daughter. He made a living teaching science to Junior High School students at the time he was convicted of raping and murdering his neighbour, twenty-one-year-old Debra Sue Carter.
The evidence against Fritz was vague. “He had no eyewitnesses, no evidence linking him to the victim and no credible evidence linking him to the crime scene.” But he was misjudged by the odds. What he didn’t realize is there were other players working against him and found himself in a situation where he had everything to lose, “…a convicted criminal, wasting away in jail with little hope of ever proving his innocence.” Ron Williamson, Fritz co-defendant, was days away from being executed and put to death. He was retired due to a small technicality. Prosecutors then decided to do a DNA test on both Fritz and Williamson of semen and hair found at the crime scene. As a result, the DNA proved them both innocent. Stupidity is not a capital offence in the American justice system. So why are they making so many mistakes? This is when it should work to separate the innocent from the real dangers to society. When it failed for Fritz and Williamson what they got was twelve-years of punishment for someone else ignorance. Also mentioned in the article, a man by the name of Vincent Jenkins was wrongfully convicted of the rape of a Buffalo, N.Y. woman and served seventeen years in prison was just released after a DNA test had proven him otherwise.
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Tim Durham, convicted for the rape of an eleven-year-old girl, spent six years in prison until a DNA test had given him a second chance. His case, almost identical to Fritz, had no linking evidence to prove him of this crime. Yet, he paid the price for it. Sixty-five people have been released, including eight on death row, after having been found wrongly convicted of capital crimes due to the diligent efforts of students, attorneys, and organizations such as the Innocence Project, who were dedicated to maintaining the integrity of our Constitution. These are just the case we know about. The people lucky enough to attract the attention of a lawyer with spare time, a group of law students looking for a project, or families with enough money to afford competent representation. The actual numbers of lives this issue affects is multiplied many times by their families. They struggle and grieve along with the families of the actual crime victims. The ripple effect is staggering. Whether you advocate capital punishment or oppose it, clearly it’s too easy to execute the innocent with our system. Some go as far to say that some irreversible mistakes are worth it.
Whatever it takes to keep our kids safe. One journalist recently printed her opinion that the occasional innocent put in jail is a “small matter” when you consider the “larger issue.” The obvious question here is: What if your kid pays the price- your husband, brother, sister, wife? Our Constitution, respected by most of the world, was written to protect the rights of the individual. It makes no exception for the District Attorney’s career advancement, Judges’ ineptitude or politicians agendas. Many have given their lives to protect it. This is no “small matter.” The importance and utility of DNA evidence present challenges to the scientific and justice communities. Among the tasks are maintaining the highest standards for the collection and preservation of DNA evidence; ensuring that the DNA testing methodology meets scientific criteria for reliability and accuracy. What people don’t realize is that DNA testing is the most accurate and reliable means of identification. DNA testing can prove 99.9% certainty.
Normally, when a court amicable is accomplished, 99% or greater is accepted by most courts. Criminal justice practitioners must learn to understand and make appropriate use of the rapidly advancing and increasingly available technology. The criminal justice system is not infallible, and these documents report cases in which the search for truth took a tortuous path. The individuals whose stories are told were convicted after jury trials and were sentenced to long prison terms. They successfully challenged their conviction, using DNA test on existing evidence. I think that these cases deserve serious attention as a miscarriage of justice. In the case of an innocent person wrongfully convicted, at the very least, some alternatives buy time to prove innocence in a system that moves too slowly. The cases documented here are testimony to the power and potential of DNA evidence. I hope that these commentaries spur a border debate about the value of DNA technology and the role of science in the criminal justice system’s search for truth.
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