May 18, 2009
Prosecutors Block Access to DNA Testing for Inmates
By SHAILA DEWAN
In an age of advanced forensic science, the first step toward ending Kenneth Reed’s prolonged series of legal appeals should be simple and quick: a DNA test, for which he has offered to pay, on evidence from the 1991 rape of which he was convicted.
Louisiana, where Mr. Reed is in prison, is one of 46 states that have passed laws to enable inmates like him to get such a test. But in many jurisdictions, prosecutors are using new arguments to get around the intent of those laws . . . resistance by prosecutors is causing years of delay and, in some cases, eliminating the chance to try other suspects . . .
A recent analysis of 225 DNA exonerations by Brandon L. Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, found that prosecutors opposed DNA testing in almost one out of five cases. In many of the others, they initially opposed testing but ultimately agreed to it. In 98 of those 225 cases, the DNA test identified the real culprit.
In Illinois, prosecutors have opposed a DNA test for Johnnie Lee Savory, convicted of committing a double murder when he was 14, on the grounds that a jury was convinced of his guilt without DNA and that the 175 convicts already exonerated by DNA were “statistically insignificant.”
We white Americans have substantially more access to legal redress because we can 1) best afford it and 2) almost always have a certain weight of public opinion on our side.
Minority Americans, who represent nearly 90% of prison inmates in the nation, usually have neither. What they do have (and only recently) is the most powerful antidote to being expediently hustled off to jail with only minimal representation–DNA testing.
There is no huge move on the part of victims’ families to deny those rights. Overwhelmingly, we are witnessing a move by prosecutors to keep their box-score of convictions from being upended. Never mind that the innocent are (or may be) behind bars, sometimes for their lifetime. Never mind that legislatures in 46 states have passed laws enabling inmates to get such a test.
This is not about law, this is about batting averages.
Too often prosecutors have been discovered hiding exonerating evidence. Too often they have failed to listen to uncomfortable facts relevant to minority cases under their jurisdiction. Too often they have been embarrassed by reversals. Their response has been neither repentance or regret, but refusal to uphold and follow the laws enacted by their own state legislatures.
It’s way past time for that to end, way past a time in this country when we can allow a portion of the citizenry to be designated statistically insignificant in demanding their legal right to a fair and quick trial (or retrial).