Virginia Post-Conviction DNA Project Reveals 33 Potentially Wrongful Convictions
Like other disciplines that are dependent on the emergence of new technology to support them, the effectiveness of forensic science has grown exponentially in the past few years. Groundbreaking developments in genetic testing have enabled prosecutors to ensure they are getting their guy with a greater sense of confidence and a much better chance at accuracy. And while these new developments will likely help those who are wrongfully accused of criminal acts (particularly sexual offenses) in the future, one can't help but think how many people were unjustly sentenced to very significant jail time because their defense lacked the tools to prove their innocence. While some states are slow to review old genetic evidence, Virginia is somewhat ahead of the curve, and their findings have produced some surprising numbers.
According to the Stafford County Sun, the Commonwealth's post-conviction DNA project has uncovered 33 individuals that they believe were wrongfully convicted from 1973-1987; decisions that could in theory be reversed. Now that we can look back at genetic evidence, the wrongful conviction rate is believed to be somewhere between 8-15% generally. But this study suggests that the rate might be higher than originally believed. But before we can go out and open up the jails and free the inmates who appear to have been wrongfully convicted, there are a few people who question the way that these tests have been conducted.
The project only takes into evidence old genetic files, and while that can be a good indicator, there are dissenting voices that believe the study should take court files into account as well. There are many questions that are asked to both victims and subjects that factor in to the decision to pursue a case. If the case is being reviewed by an outside source, some believe that the court files and the questions that were asked to those parties should be taken into account as well. Genetic evidence is an important part of the justice system, but it isn't the end-all-and-be-all of a conviction, and it probably shouldn't be for a review either.
For example, of the 800 cases reviewed by the project since its inception in 2005, only three have been exonerated of their crimes. The "grand total" is only five if you consider the first two cases that were in many ways the impotence for starting this task force. That means that all 33 of the convicted sex offenders who seem to have DNA evidence supporting their exoneration will probably not eventually be cleared, but it is an important step towards that eventual goal.
While the result of this study remains to be seen, it is important that we learn a lesson from it about the criminal justice system. At the time of their conviction the "system" was thought to be largely infallible by the public as a whole. While many of the convictions during that time would stand up against modern technology and advancements, there is a significant amount that won't. We may have similar feeling about our justice system and its integrity today, but there is always a chance that down the road a new type of technology that exposes flaws in the current system that we may not even be thinking about.