A question about rape cases and dna

I was watching Forensic files where they covered a story about a man who had been in Jail for 16 years for the rape of his wife. He didn’t do it, and DNA testing proved it was someone else who was guilty. My question is When dna testing became available was anyone retested to make sure that they had indeed convicted the right people? I am not sure how old I was when this stuff was happening, prob 11 or 12 so I can’t remember. Could inmates that were convicted before the technology existed ask for it to be retested?

I can’t give you a definitive answer, but, IIRC, Bary Sheck of O.J. fame has a group called The Innocence Project that deals with those exact questions.

The ability to be retested, of course, depends on state laws and the nature of the evidence. But maybe the link can help.

There hasn’t been widespread testing in the US. One problem is that many times the material isn’t there - before DNA testing, there wasn’t much use to keep it. Blood may ahve been kept for a time (for typing), but I doubt semen was.

If there is reason to believe (actual reason - not just the “everyone’s innocent” BS) that the convict was improperly incarcerated, then they could appeal to be tested. They would have to show cause though, it wouldn’t be automatic.

Thanks for the replies, however it seems to me that there could be some people sitting in jail for rapes they did not commit, one would think that they would make this testing more available.

It depends on the jurisdiction.

All states have rules about how the appeals process works, and what burden the convicted person must surmount in order to get DNA testing or a new trial.

If you have a particular state in mind, a much more detailed answer can be provided.

  • Rick

I don’t want to steer this toward GD, but I can’t help wondering who “they” are in that statement.

What you have to understand is that the legal system wasn’t set up to handle this sort of scenario – long after conviction, a new technology develops that may shed light on the accuracy of questionable convictions. It’s not “new” evidence; it’s old evidence, but re-tested with newer technology. Indeed, in the more recent cases (e.g., early-90s), there was DNA testing done at the original trial, but now there are more advanced techniques available that can get glean more information from the same semen stain.

As such, it’s difficult to get this sort of evidence in front of a court. Most legal systems – state and federal – try to limit appealing convicts to “one bite at the apple.” And in the contentious cases where the defendant has been maintaining his innocence all along, it’s likely that he’s already brought – and lost – his appeal before the new DNA tests are around. It becomes a difficult trade-off for courts: finality vs. accuracy. If they start willy-nilly granting evidentiary hearings for the new crop of DNA techniques, they’ll set a difficult precedent for the next time a new technique is developed. Are we really going to permit endless appeals?

Plus, in the federal system, in order to get a new trial, just showing that you’re innocent isn’t enough. There has to be some procedural irregularity in your original trial. There’s a very limited exception – called the Herrera exception, based on the case it was announced in – where a defendant can show that he’s got new evidence that more likely than not would have created a reasonable doubt about his guilt had it been present at the original trial. In other words, you basically have to have done the testing on your own, proving your innocence (or at least making your guilt exceedingly unlikely), before you even can get through the courthouse door.

Rather than drastically altering the established legal rules for new trials and the like, the better move would be for legislatures to pass special DNA testing laws – Innocence Protection Acts. They could deal with this special case without casting the entire crimnal justice system in doubt. At least a few states have done just that. Unfortunately, the one passed by the Texas Legislature was subsequently gutted by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, making the whole enterprise worthless. Of course, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals isn’t exactly a model of how a judicial tribunal is supposed to operate. One DNA case in particular proves the point: Roy Criner. Criner had been sentenced to something like 99 years for rape-murder. He always maintained his innocence. A church paid for a DNA test years after his conviction. The test resuls exonerated Criner. Nevertheless, the Tex Ct of Crim App refused to give him a new trial, inventing a new argument never advanced by the prosecution to explain the evidence: there could have been an unindicted co-ejaculator who left the tested stain, but Criner also committed the rape. There was a huge furor over the case when the opinion was handed down. The presiding judge of the Tex Ct of Crim App was on 60 minutes trying to explain her decision. They lambasted her. [/hijack]

Deadly Nightshade, sorry that I never really answered your question. And I can’t really; maybe no one can until historians come back and look at this slice of time. But until then, I can recommend a good book: Barry Sheck’s, Peter Neufeld’s, and Jim Dwyer’s Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution, and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted. It’s probably in your local bookstore. Maybe look it over while sipping a cup of coffee?

Honestly I am not sure who the they is either now that I think about it, I was just floored when i saw that forensic files, they matched it to him by blood type and by his wifes testimony, even though she was wrong he still ended up in jail for 16 years.

maybe I am a little naive, but if there is the technology available that could prove that someone was innocent, why should prisioners not have the chance to prove that they are indeed not guilty? I know alot of people are in Jail because they did it, but there are the few that didn’t.

Deadly Nightlight, remember that justice comes with a price tag. Assume that the average DNA test, even with a hefty discount for volume, costs $5000. There are over 1,000,000 people incarcerated in the United States. Even if only 1 in 10 have evidence from trial that would be susceptible to DNA testing, and only 10% of that group proclaims their innocence (though we can speculate for a variety of reasons why that assumption is conservative), we’re talking about $50,000,000, which is a hefty chunk of change – especially since it’s local municipalities rather than the larger state or federal governments that will end up footing the bill. Sure, $50M isn’t all that much money, but that’s only the cost of the tests alone. The cost in terms of judicial resources and attorney fees would be much higher. You can imagine how that price tag might grow by several orders of magnitude. So we have to look at the opportunity cost of the however many millions it would take to provide the DNA tests – housing for the homeless, food for the starving, extra pork for corrupt politicians’ home districts. Some economists have even come up with figures for the cost in human lives of government spending. Since “richer is healthier,” you can fathom how taking more money in taxes and spending it on government programs such as DNA tests for prisoners might lead on the margin to the loss of life. One estimate I’ve seen for this is $7.5M per statistical life; i.e., for every extra $7.5M in government spending, one more person dies.

But more than the price tag, we also have to look at the opportunity cost of this massive diversion of DNA testing resources. There are a finite number of forensic labs; we’d have to shift a substantial portion of them from processing current cases and solving current crimes to detecting past miscarriages of justice. This part of the calculation doesn’t involve monetized costs or benefits; we can measure this one in terms of lives saved or lost. Perhaps you’ve heard the expression that it’s better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be punished. That gives us a ratio of 10:1. Are you really comfortable with that ratio? Would you like to raise that ratio? Would you be fine with letting 100 guilty men go free to prevent one innocent man from being punished? Because when we divert resources from catching current criminals, that’s what we’re doing: lowering the ratio of innocents we’ll sacrifice to catch the guilty. It becomes a matter of who gets justice: people wrongfully imprisoned, or the victims of new crimes hoping for the state to punish their assailant – not to mention the people who get victimized because offenders don’t get caught, or aren’t deterred.

So imagine a total monetized cost of $1 followed by 7, 8, 9, or even 10 zeros. And then there’s the possibility that we’ll have to do this all over again five or ten years down the line, when a new batch of tests are invented. Do we spend again? I guess it depends on how much you trust the accuracy of the criminal justice system – your estimate of the gains. Thus far, slightly more than 100 inmates have been exonerated by DNA evidence across the United States. I don’t even pretend to know how to estimate how many more wrongful convictions we’d catch. I suspect a lot – some death penalty work in Texas has convinced me that it’s all too easy for these erroneous convictions to come to pass.

It’s a contentious issue. I can’t help but feel that it’s disingenuously simplistic just to say, “it’s wrong to let people rot in jail who shouldn’t be there in the first place; let’s identify them and free them, whatever the cost.” I mean, why don’t we do the same thing about homeless people? Why didn’t we do the same thing for the Vietnam-era POWs? This is a classic guns or butter scenario – except that the recipients of the public largesse in your proposal are a particularly unattractive bunch to voters: people who have been convicted of violent crimes. Rape-murderers and the like.

I have my own personal opinion: I think that something needs to be done: a national innocence protection act. That the wrongfully convicted languish in jail – or worse, are executed – is simply appalling. Not only because it’s a horrible fate, but also because the distribution of wrongful convictions is not fair, but rather concentrated upon the poor and minorities. I think a program could be devised that would be cost-benefit justified. But I’m not quite sure how I’d do it. I’d have to dig a little deeper, think a little harder.

I have tried googleing this and come up empty. Does anyone know if a DNA test is always valid when using old genetic material. Surely it degrades, and the test works only by matching. I would think that if you took my DNA, stuck it in a microwave for a little while, and then tested it it would show that it didn’t come from me. What proof is there that DNA from a case 16 years old is still useable?

Ok, I don’t have the frickin CITE, but I heard that there are currently 50,000 rape test kits (the ones they administer to rape victims at hospitals to collect DNA evidence) sitting UNTESTED on shelves, because there is no money available. I think I’d trade one less Patriot missile to solve 50,000 rapes.

[hijack] DNA tests aren’t always valid even with new samples. E.g., the false positive rate is about 1 out of 100. There is a good chapter on DNA fingerprinting in Calculated Risks by Gerd Gigerenzer. Check it out. [/hijack]

Actually, DNA is remarkably durable. They have extracted identifiable DNA from fire victims who were almost completely destroyed by fire and from very old samples.

As long as the samples are properly stored, they can be usable for a very long time. And with advances in the science, it gets better all the time. We recently had a case rape/murder case solved here in Washington 30 years after the crime. With the latest technology, they were able to extract DNA from a semen stain on the victims clothes and match it to her nephew. DNA results are expressed in terms of how often that particular profile would appear in the population. In this 30-year-old case, the result was unique to one person in a population of 17 trillion (yes, over 2,800 times the current population of the Earth). That’s pretty unique!