Wednesday, March 25, 2009

DNA clears men in Virginia and Washington

Two reminders today about why the arrival of reliable DNA testing is quite possibly the most important advent in the history of criminal justice. The Richmond Times-Dispatch out of Virginia is reporting that a man found guilty of a rape in 1984 was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated. DNA testing showed the true perpetrator to be one of the area's most notorious rapists, Leon Davis. Thomas Haynesworth was the man wrongfully convicted.

Reached last week by telephone at the Greensville Correctional Center, Haynesworth said of Davis, "I knew all along he was the man. I told my lawyer. I told [police]. He lived right down the street from me."

"I told them: 'This man fit the description.' But nobody ever listened to me," he complained. "Everybody said we looked alike. Only difference between me and him, he is taller and weighed more," said Haynesworth.
And cheers to the Virginia Department of Forensic Science:
The recent DNA testing was performed as part of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science's post-conviction project aimed at clearing people who may have been wrongly convicted from 1973 through 1988, before forensic DNA testing was widely available.
Similar programs should be in place in every jurisdiction throughout the country, as citizens anywhere can be victims of wrongful incarceration.

Secondly, in Washington state, a man who was arrested and held for 17 days for the rape of an 11-year-old girl in 2007 has filed a federal lawsuit against the local police department alleging wrongful imprisonment. David Lynch was released from prison, his charges dropped, after DNA tests from the rape excluded him as a possible rapist.

There are always celebrations fanfare when a person is released after serving X years behind bars for a crime they didn't commit. Sometimes we might forget that the real reason we work hard to shed light on these abuses and reform the system is to prevent wrongful convictions from happening in the first place. Though spending 17 days wrongfully in jail is certainly a harrowing experience, it is far and away a better thing than spending 27 years behind bars for a crime you didn't commit.

Update: David Lynch's story is similar to two others that were reported in Florida very recently. The first, out of Tampa, is of Kenneth Robinson, who was arrested for a burglary he did not commit and released after DNA testing proved as much. The second is of Wade Jackson in Brevard county, Florida, who was released after spending 17 months in prison as a suspect for a murder he did not commit.

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