April 9, 2007
DNA tests rescue 200 wrongly convicted
BY JUDY PEET, The Star Ledger
A watershed moment in American justice is expected to arrive without fanfare
this week when the Innocence Project hits its 200th exoneration nationwide.
That means the 200th innocent person is expected to be released from prison
because re-examination of DNA taken from the original crime proved that he
was wrongly convicted, according to attorney Barry Scheck, co-founder of the
"It is a learning moment. We have a technology (DNA) that is a truth machine
that allows us to go back and get justice for the innocent," Scheck said.
"For the victims, it means another chance to find out who really committed
Since the first post-conviction DNA exoneration took place in 1989, inmates
have been proven innocent in 31 states, including four men in New Jersey.
The tally of those freed currently stands at 198, and includes 14 men who
were at one time on death row, according to Innocence Project statistics. In
43 cases, the real assailant eventually was found.
Nearly 60 percent of those exonerated have been African American. One of
them is former soldier Larry Peterson of Pemberton.
In 1989, Peterson was convicted of the rape and murder of Jacqueline
Harrison, a 25-year-old mother of two whose body was found two years
earlier, dumped in a soybean field in Pemberton in Burlington County. She
had been raped, tortured and strangled.
Forensic science was still in its infancy then. Hair, skin and body fluids
were taken from the crime but DNA testing was unavailable. Microscopic study
of the hairs did appear to link Peterson to the crime scene. Informants also
testified that he confessed to the crime.
Peterson, then 37, was sentenced to life in prison. In the early 1990s,
while working at the law library at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, he
petitioned the court for access to the DNA samples from the crime. It took
another decade and the legal muscle of the Innocence Project, however,
before he won the motion.
Testing was finally done in 2005. It showed conclusively that the sperm,
hair and skin found at the crime scene were not Peterson's. At least one of
the witnesses recanted. All charges were dropped against him last May.
In July 2006, Peterson testified before the state Death Penalty Study
Commission. He admitted he gets bitter about the 18 years he wrongfully
spent behind bars, but was grateful he lived to see the mistake corrected.
"DNA evidence allowed me to finally walk out of prison a free man," he told
the commission, which in January recommended New Jersey eliminate the death
penalty. "As long as the death penalty exists in New Jersey, the next
innocent person may not."
The Innocence Project is not the only organization advocating on behalf of
prisoners wrongfully convicted, but it is the first dedicated to using DNA
to prove the claims, Scheck said.
Started in 1992 as a law clinic by Scheck and another civil rights attorney
teaching at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, the
Innocence Project now handles about 160 cases per year and has spawned
several other local innocence organizations.
Among the people they have freed are Jerry Frank Townsend, who served more
than 21 years in a Florida prison for six murders and a rape.
Mentally retarded with an estimated mental capacity of an 8-year-old,
Townsend confessed to anything the investigators asked. He eventually was
sentenced to seven concurrent life sentences and had been in prison nearly
20 years when the mother of one of the victims convinced police to review
DNA testing not only cleared Townsend, but implicated another man, Eddie Lee
Mosley, who was already in prison on other rape and murder charges.
The DNA tests also exonerated another Florida inmate, Frank Lee Smith, who
was on death row for the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl. The tests
implicated Mosley in that crime, too.
Smith served 14 years on Florida's death row. He died of cancer in 2000
before he was officially exonerated of the murder.
Scheck stressed the limitations of DNA, however. Biological forensics are
present in only about 10 percent of criminal cases, he noted, and in at
least 50 percent of cases, the evidence has been lost or destroyed. Other
states, particularly New Jersey, have such massive backlogs on current DNA
cases that old convictions are at the back of the pack.
"The single greatest cause of false convictions is mistaken eyewitness
identification, not bad science," Scheck said. "There is a huge need for
reform and the real significance of the 200 cases is that we are convincing
states that it is the right thing to do."
A majority of states, including New Jersey, now have laws permitting
post-conviction DNA testing. States are standardizing evidence-gathering
procedures, requiring video-taping of interrogations and providing
compensation to exonerated inmates.
Scheck's hope is that the DNA exoneration movement will feed justice reform
on a major scale. Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) agrees.
"We've seen enough innocent people convicted that there is no longer any
reason to take a chance on the death penalty," said Lesniak, who has been
pushing a bill to abolish the death penalty in New Jersey for the past three
years. "We can't afford to be wrong."
Source : The Star Ledger