No Comment — January 5, 2011, 4:18 pm

In Texas, 41 Exonerations from DNA Evidence in 9 Years

In a Dallas courtroom yesterday Cornelius Dupree, who had spent thirty years in prison on a conviction for rape, robbery, and abduction, was told that he had been exonerated. DNA evidence had shown unequivocally that he was not the man who had committed the crime in question. The judgment came too late for Dupree, who had already served his full sentence; the court was merely terminating his parole status. The Dallas Morning News reports:

With 21 DNA exonerations in Dallas County – more than any county in the nation since 2001 – it was believed there were few wrongly incarcerated people left who could be cleared by DNA evidence. Authorities thought that evidence with DNA had only been preserved by the county’s lab since 1981.

But the county’s crime lab discovered DNA to test in pubic hair cuttings of the rape victim while searching for evidence in the Dupree case at the request of the district attorney’s office. Previously, those who worked on DNA exoneration cases believed there would be no DNA to test because swabs that would have collected DNA with rape kits were not preserved at the time.

The Dallas County district attorney’s office says it will now examine two new groups of cases: those that were previously discounted because they were so old that no testable evidence was believed to exist, and more recent cases that the office had already reviewed and rejected as potential exonerations because prosecutors thought no testable evidence existed.

The Dupree case reveals some other weaknesses of the criminal justice system. Dupree’s three appeals, focusing on procedural failings of the trial and the inherent weakness of the evidence on which he was convicted, went nowhere. His requests to be pardoned or paroled, or to have his sentence reduced, were all turned down. At the core of the pardons and clemency system is the firm requirement that a convicted person acknowledge his guilt—a requirement designed both to bolster faith in the fairness of the criminal justice system and to establish that the prisoner had reformed. But Dupree stubbornly maintained his innocence. Even though he had been a model prisoner, parole was therefore unavailable to him. The Dupree case demonstrates once more the enormous power the state has to secure false convictions and to pressure the accused to accept unjust charges. In the meantime, of course, the actual perpetrator of the crime could escape unpunished.

To its credit, the Texas legislature, taking note of the 41 exonerations produced by modern evidence since 2001, passed an act to compensate those who had been wrongfully imprisoned. Dupree will be eligible to receive $80,000 for each year he was imprisoned, plus an annuity, with a tax-free cash value of about $2.4 million.

The string of exonerations in Dallas are possible because of the personal commitment of Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, who announced after he was elected in 2007 that he would take a serious look at DNA evidence in cases in which prosecutors had achieved convictions. Watkins’s decision has not been popular with prosecutors, but it’s a simple fact that even conscientious prosecutors make errors in the rush to secure convictions, particularly for heinous crimes. And many prosecutors are more interested in building a career than in doing justice. Watkins can stand as a model for prosecutors across the country, and particularly in the Department of Justice in Washington.

Some prosecutors argue that the reputation of the criminal justice system and our interest in keeping costs down require a policy that avoids looking back. They say that once a defendant has had his pass through the system, flawed though it may be, he has gotten all the law promises. But the integrity of the criminal justice system depends first on its ability to dispense justice, and that must include a recognition that prosecutors, judges, and juries make mistakes. By exposing their past injustices, courts and prosecutors in Dallas are revealing their own reinvigorated commitment to do justice and are converting a tarnished record into a beacon for the rest of the country.

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