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5 Facts About DNA and Wrongful Convictions

by Miles Dyson

In the pursuit of justice, the role of DNA evidence in criminal cases cannot be overstated. Over the years, groundbreaking advancements in DNA technology have revolutionized the criminal justice system, shedding light on cases plagued by wrongful convictions. As we strive for a more equitable and accurate legal framework, here are five pivotal facts about DNA’s impact on wrongful convictions that demand our attention.

1. Unearthing the Truth: Exonerations Through DNA Evidence

DNA analysis has become a powerful tool for uncovering wrongful convictions. Through post-conviction DNA testing, individuals who were once wrongfully imprisoned have been exonerated, their innocence finally revealed. Since the advent of DNA testing, more than 575 people in the United States alone have been exonerated, their lives forever altered by the discovery of irrefutable evidence that overturned their wrongful convictions. In addition, DNA testing has exonerated 35 prisoners on death row.

2. The Fallibility of Eyewitness Testimony

Eyewitness identification has long been considered a pillar of criminal investigations. However, DNA analysis has revealed the astonishing fallibility of human memory and perception. Countless wrongful convictions have been driven by erroneous eyewitness identifications, often influenced by factors such as stress, bias, or imperfect recollection. The introduction of DNA evidence has not only exonerated the wrongfully convicted but has also exposed the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.

3. Unmasking Flawed Forensic Science

DNA analysis has laid bare the deficiencies within certain forensic disciplines. In the pursuit of justice, various forensic techniques have been employed, such as bite mark analysis or hair microscopy, with questionable scientific validity. DNA testing has revealed the inherent unreliability of these practices, leading to the reevaluation of countless cases tainted by flawed forensic science. This critical examination has sparked calls for greater scrutiny and reform to ensure the accuracy and integrity of forensic evidence.

4. DNA Evidence Not Always Available in Wrongful Conviction Cases

While DNA evidence has the power to exonerate the innocent, it is not always available in wrongful conviction cases. This is because DNA evidence is most likely to be left behind in violent crimes, but only available in a small percentage of even these cases. In fact, attackers leave behind DNA evidence in less than 10% of murders. This means that in many cases of wrongful conviction, such as a shooting where no physical evidence is left behind, there may not be DNA evidence to test. Additionally, the ability to perform DNA testing on evidence relies on evidence being preserved (requirements for how long evidence must be preserved varies) and findable in law enforcement facilities.

5. Restrictive Post-Conviction DNA Laws Impede Justice

All 50 states have post-conviction DNA laws, but many of these laws are so restrictive or limited in scope that few people can actually access DNA testing after being convicted. This is a problem because DNA evidence has exonerated hundreds of people who were wrongfully convicted of crimes.

For example, in Alabama, a convicted person can only get DNA testing in their case if they have been charged with a capital offense. This means that people who were convicted of lesser crimes, such as rape or murder, are not eligible for DNA testing, even if they have strong evidence that they are innocent.

In Kentucky, people who plead guilty are barred from accessing DNA testing, even if they falsely confessed or were coerced. This means that people who have already admitted to crimes they did not commit are not able to use DNA evidence to prove their innocence.

Restrictive laws like these impede true justice and prevent wrongly convicted people from proving their innocence. They also allow the people who actually committed the crimes to remain undetected. This is why organizations like the Innocence Project work to amend these laws to ensure people can access DNA testing to demonstrate their innocence after they’ve been convicted.

As a result of this work, states like New Hampshire and Colorado have recently changed their laws to make DNA testing more accessible to people seeking justice. In 2021, New Hampshire changed its threshold for obtaining testing, removing a “timeliness” requirement commonly used to deny requests for testing and extending access to testing beyond currently incarcerated people to include people on parole, probation, or sex-offender registries. And this year, Colorado similarly expanded access to post-conviction testing beyond currently incarcerated individuals. The state also reduced hurdles to justice for people hoping to prove their innocence by changing its threshold for DNA testing to a “reasonable probability” that they would not have been convicted.

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