Exonerated After 30 Years in Prison: Implications for the Death Penalty

The big story in criminal law last week came out of Texas, and it involved a man who served 30 years in prison, only to be proven innocent with new DNA evidence. This is one of the longest prison terms ever served by a person in the U.S., only to be exonerated.

Obviously, this raises some major questions about the criminal justice system, the death penalty, and the procedure for considering exculpatory evidence that arises post-conviction. None of these questions are easy.

First, some background. In 1980, Cornelius Dupree was sentenced to 75 years in prison for the rape and robbery of a woman in Dallas, Texas. New techniques were used to examine the 30-year old evidence, and DNA evidence clearly showed that another (as yet unidentified) person committed the crime.

Under a Texas law providing compensation for the wrongfully-convicted, Dupree is entitled to $80,000 for every year he was wrongfully imprisoned, plus a lifetime annuity. He is likely to receive it in a lump-sum payment of $2.4 million. Many states have similar laws, but the one in Texas is the most generous in the country. As you might guess, Texas passed this law in response to a huge spike in post-conviction exonerations.

While it’s certainly a good thing that the state of Texas provides such compensation, what’s disturbing is the fact that such a law was needed in the first place. Does this say something about Texas in particular, or expose broader systematic flaws in the justice system?

I’m guessing the latter. The reports covering this story note that Dallas County, the county in Texas which has been the location of about half of the state’s post-conviction exonerations, has a particularly well-funded and organized crime lab. It has the facilities to preserve biological evidence for decades, and has been doing so for quite a while now. This means that evidence in criminal cases (like Mr. Dupree’s) can be re-examined as new investigative techniques become available.

If pressed to guess, I’d say that this indicates a wider problem in how crimes are investigated, and that the Dallas County crime lab simply has a better system for catching wrongful convictions than most. This is, in a way, more disturbing than the notion that the problem is unique to Texas, since it implies that this problem might exist everywhere, and it’s going mostly undetected.

Now, to be fair, many people who are exonerated after long periods of incarceration were convicted based on the best investigative techniques available at time. DNA fingerprinting, for example, did not enter common use in forensics until the late 1980s. Furthermore, the technologies and methods used to examine biological samples for DNA are constantly improving. A small, dried blood stain, or a little bit of saliva used to seal a letter (to name a few examples) can be mined for useful DNA evidence decades after they’re created. Not too long ago, samples needed to be large, and relatively fresh, for the DNA they contain to be detectable.

Obviously, it’s a good thing that better investigative techniques are constantly becoming available. This makes it far more likely that actual criminals will be caught, and that innocent suspects will be ruled out as quickly as possible. However, what should we do about the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people who are in prison for violent crimes that occurred before these techniques are available?

If the evidence is still available, shouldn’t it be examined, as a matter of course, with the newest technology? After all, what have we got to lose? If the evidence confirms that the prisoner actually committed the crime, so be it. And if the person is found to be innocent, then they can be set free and compensated. Obviously, nothing can make up for the gross injustice, but it’s better than the alternative of letting an innocent person spend the rest of his life in prison.

I’ve blogged before about how some crime labs in the U.S. are grossly under-funded. Despite the best efforts of the dedicated and hardworking individuals who work in the labs, they’re often overwhelmed, which makes mistakes inevitable. Obviously, improved management and funding of police crime labs would mitigate these problems quite a bit.

There’s another issue, however: the criminal justice system values finality. When a person is convicted or acquitted of a crime, that is, ideally, the end of the matter. There is some value to this – if every single issue in a criminal case could be revisited ad infinitum, it would be chaos.

However, when a person’s life and freedom is at stake, I think we need to set up a uniform system that allows for the prompt review of potentially-exculpatory evidence, no matter how long ago the crime took place, and if any credible case can be made that old evidence should be reexamined with new techniques, then the evidence should be reexamined as soon as possible, without the reluctance and foot-dragging that we’ve previously seen in cases like this.

Perhaps this could be accomplished by giving state and local crime labs additional federal funding (which should make the justice system more efficient, and make wrongful convictions less likely to occur in the first place), and make that funding conditional on state governments adopting procedures that allow DNA and other evidence to be reexamined as quickly as practicable, when there’s a reasonable possibility that it could shed new light on an old case.

As we’ve seen with the nationwide drinking age, the federal government has sufficient leverage to influence state policies through the power of the purse, and if there’s ever been a way to use that power for an unambiguous good, this seems to be it.

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