Wednesday, September 08, 2004
Editorial: Truth and justice lie in testing old DNA
Gov. Warner's proposal could help correct wrongs inflicted by tough evidence rules.
From the RoundTable blog
Read the latest entries
That sure sounds like an open-and-shut case. The state can rectify grievous injustices, and so it should. Gov. Mark Warner's plan to randomly test the state's store of crime scene DNA should not only be pursued, but also considered just the first step. It really is that simple.
As many as five state serologists may have saved DNA samples from cases they worked on. So far, that evidence has freed three men whose appeals would have been impossible before a 2001 reform allowed a DNA exception to the 21-day rule. Eight people statewide have been cleared of rape or murder charges by DNA tests.
However, even with rules somewhat relaxed, almost insurmountable obstacles to justice remain. Despite the exonerations, no one has determined yet what the state's DNA stores even hold. Policies on preserving DNA evidence vary widely among jurisdictions. And with little legal help and some prosecutors routinely opposing testing, most inmates' petitions are denied.
Virginia has much to gain and little to lose from testing the DNA stores. New technology could detect and help rectify wrongful convictions and appellate injustices and reveal the extent of the system's flaws. The courts would remain gatekeepers against frivolous appeals. Criminals who went free because others were wrongly convicted could finally be targeted for prosecution.
Tests might be expensive, especially if Warner's initial sampling exonerates more than a few. However, the innocent cost as much to incarcerate as the guilty - $20,000-plus a year - and any restitution for the wrongly incarcerated would be decided by the General Assembly.
The ultimate consideration, of course, should be justice. Warner's plan would take the first step in that direction.