Blame It On DNA

After 24 years of prison, David Lee Wiggins walked out.  Yet again, Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project employed DNA to prove a convicted man innocent, although this time the Tarrant County, Texas, District Attorney was fully cooperative in the effort. 

The Tarrant County District Attorney’s office fully cooperated with the Innocence Project, consented to testing and opened their files to reinvestigate the crime. Wiggins always maintained his innocence and even filed an unsuccessful pro se motion seeking DNA testing before his trial, though DNA technology had just been introduced in criminal cases at that time. Although earlier rounds of testing were inconclusive, the Innocence Project was able to secure testing earlier this month that definitively excludes Wiggins as the source of sperm found on clothing the defendant was wearing at the time of the attack.

Wiggins stood convicted of a 1989 rape based on mistaken identification, which is one of the primary factors in wrongful convictions.  Back then, no one gave much thought to eyewitness identifications, which were the gold standard for ascertaining the guilty.  Wiggins told the AP :

Wiggins said he agreed to be in a police lineup in 1988 because he knew that he didn’t commit the crime and thought he had nothing to worry about. Instead, it led to a 24-year nightmare that ended Friday.

“I always believed the truth would come out,” he said.

Belief in the truth sounds like such a wonderful thing. Who doesn’t believe? Who doesn’t love the truth? Well, perhaps the guilty guy, but then, nobody loves the guilty guy, so who cares about him.

Except Wiggins was the guilty guy.  His misfortune was eventually what saved him, that his conviction was for rape.  As it happens, rape often provides the evidence that can be DNA tested for identification.  Murder sometimes. Armed robbery, not too much. Drugs, almost never.

Yet the same identification, the same methods and the same blind belief that “I will never forget that face” that juries always find so compelling, nail down the conviction. 

To those on the outside looking in to the criminal justice system, the shocking revelations of wrongful convictions, conclusively proven by the efforts of the Innocence Project and others, seems incredible.  They find it impossible to believe that the system can be so wrong with such frequency.  And yet the thread between them is DNA, as the kismet of having scientific evidence of innocence distinguishes the guilty people we hate from the wrongfully convicted.

There is no question that Americans, with the exception of certain Texas prosecutors and judges, applaud the identification and release of the wrongfully convicted, but they remain largely hung up on proof.  The Innocence Project recognizes the problem, that not every wrongfully convicted defendant has the good fortune of having DNA evidence available to prove their innocence.

The Innocence Project provides pro bono legal representation on behalf of people seeking to prove their innocence post-conviction. Since its inception in 1992, the Innocence Project has only taken cases where DNA testing can prove innocence.

In some rare circumstances, however, the Innocence Project has helped exonerate clients through evidence other than DNA testing. We often have to close cases because the biological evidence is missing or destroyed, making DNA testing impossible. In some of those cases, strong evidence of innocence is discovered during the search for biological evidence, and we are able to secure our clients’ freedom without DNA testing. In other cases, DNA test results alone are not enough to free our clients, but can help exonerate people when coupled with other evidence of innocence. In all of these cases, new evidence of innocence resulted in our clients’ convictions being vacated and indictments against them being dismissed, fully exonerating them.

These cases underscore a critical point: DNA testing alone cannot overturn most wrongful convictions. In fact, experts estimate that DNA testing is possible in just 5-10% of all criminal cases. That is why a growing number of organizations in the Innocence Network handle cases regardless of whether DNA testing is possible.

Thus far, they have exonerated a total of five non-DNA cases.  While it matters a great deal to the five men who walked free, it’s statistically insignificant.  Tens of thousands will never be exonerated, though they are every bit as innocent as David Wiggins.

And this is said without touching the larger pool of people who are not quite innocent but hardly as guilty as their convictions say. The difference between two and twenty years is monumental to them, though outsiders to the system don’t lose a minute’s sleep over them.

While the conspiracy theorists and zealots are certain this is all the product of nefarious cops and hateful prosecutors, whose evil cheating schemes subjugate the citizenry, they are not merely misguided but distract from the real problems.

For the most part, no cop, prosecutor or judge wants to convict an innocent person. When you talk to them, you learn that they sincerely believe in what they’re doing, that they are protecting the public from harm, that the people they prosecute are guilty and deserve to be prosecuted. They may overstep the bounds in the process, though most don’t see it and will absolutely deny it ever happened, but they believe with all the righteousness they can muster that when they convicted an innocent person, they believed him guilty.  And of the many people convicted, they are often right. We can never forget that there are bad people out there who harm others, and from whom society truly needs protecting.

The problem is that David Lee Wiggins was exactly such a man. Until, one day, he wasn’t. The same is true of each of the wrongfully convicted. The same is true of the wrongfully convicted who will never be exonerated, and who will serve out there complete sentences, or perhaps die in prison.  The same is true for the defendants for whom no DNA is available or involved, and who have no hope of ever having their innocence proven.

We used to be able to sleep well at night, knowing that the men and women who filled out prisons to capacity and more were guilty.  Perhaps one or two were innocent, but like Justice Scalia, we could live with that as long as it wasn’t us.  No more.  No longer can we pretend that it’s just one or two, or take comfort in the myth of cops having a sixth sense for the guilty, or the righteousness of prosecutors and judges. 

The steady stream of exonerations have shaken our faith that the system works well enough.  Twenty years ago, they were all guilty. Today, we can no longer pretend that the system works well enough that a man can voluntarily walk into a line-up, knowing that he’s innocent, and believe that the truth will come out.

Blame it on DNA.  But DNA barely scratches the surface, for it only addresses the proof of innocence.  The systemic failures that result in wrongful convictions are beginning to change, with double blind identification procedures and video-recorded confessions, but they are barely palliative, just a start and (despite their advocates) hardly the grand solution to the problem.  Until DNA, we could pretend there was no real problem.  We can never go back there again.

5 thoughts on “Blame It On DNA

  1. A Voice of Sanity

    “… with the exception of certain Texas prosecutors and judges …”

    Just Texas?

    “A federal magistrate ordered Daniel Larsen to be released from prison in 2010. Two years after the court agreed that he had been denied the right to a fair trial, though, the 45-year-old man remains behind bars in California.

    The California Innocence Project claims that the Larsen’s inability to prove his innocence on time yields a technicality that could, in theory, keep him in prison for life.”

  2. John David Galt

    Am I right in thinking you meant

    …that definitively excludes Wiggins as the source of sperm found on clothing the victim was wearing at the time of the attack.

    If third party DNA had been found on the defendant’s own clothing, it would probably not have been relevant here.

  3. SHG

    That’s my choice of what to write. If you had a blog, you could write your choice, such as Daniel Larsen in California.  There though. Not here. Because this is my blog and only I get a choice. Got it?

  4. SHG

    You are not right. That’s a quote. In lawyer-land, we don’t get to change quotes, even if we think something else would make more sense.

  5. Thomas R. Griffith

    Sir, not certain who said this –
    “That is why a growing number of organizations in the Innocence Network handle cases regardless of whether DNA testing is possible.”

    In the great state of confusion aka: Texas, the only ones that claim not to cherry pick for justice is our friends at the IPOT. The sad part is that they utilize a step stool vs. the IP’s mega ladder to weed out claims. You must exhaust all appeals prior to contacting them & they won’t answer Why?

    When a probationer is arrested on a new charge and is tricked into plea bargaining he /she isn’t appealing squat. And the thus cherry picking is reborn in another format & the blame game goes on. Thanks.

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