innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Get It RIght

This Editorial originally ran in the Harrisburg Patriot News:

Monday, June 26, 2006

Nearly 200 major criminal convictions have been over turned through the use of DNA testing nationally, and at least three midstate people serving time for murder either have been released from prison or have strong grounds for a new trial as a result of this science.

The statistics alone bear out the majority in a 5-3 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that expands the ability of death row inmates to challenge their convictions based on DNA evidence produced after their trials.

The high court's ruling -- its first in a post-conviction appeal involving DNA analysis -- came in the case of a Tennessee man denied a new trial for a 20-year-old murder/rape conviction even though new DNA evidence raised serious ques tions about both his in volvement and motive. A U.S. District Court judge ruled the man hadn't demonstrated that the new findings probably resulted in the "conviction of one who is actually innocent."

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the Supreme Court majority, said the lower court placed too great a burden on the defendant. Kennedy said it wasn't the court's role in such appeals to determine guilt or innocence, but rather to weigh whether the evidence might have raised reasonable doubt in a jury's mind.

That reasoning seems so eminently in line with basic tenets of the judicial system and the Constitution as to lead us to some head-scratching on the thinking of the lower court in dismissing the DNA findings. Likewise for the three dissenting justices -- John G. Roberts Jr., Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas (Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. hadn't yet joined the court when arguments were heard).

This ruling and the overall issue of post-conviction DNA evidence particularly resonates in central Pennsylvania, where an investigation by Patriot-News reporter Pete Shellem helped produce DNA evidence that led to the release of Barry Laughman of Hanover after 16 years behind bars for murder. DNA testing is also among efforts by lawyers to gain a new trial for David Gladden of Harrisburg, whose 1995 conviction for murder of a city woman is now in serious question.

Statewide, nine inmates who spent a total of 110 years in Pennsylvania prisons have been cleared through the post-conviction use of DNA, according to state Sen. Stuart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery. He chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and has been a forceful advocate of allowing convicts to seek DNA testing.

Of course, the number of convictions being overturned through DNA analysis also raises the question of what went wrong during original investigations. Greenleaf is pushing legislation that could create a commission -- composed of lawyers, judges, police and others involved in the criminal justice system -- to examine these cases with an eye toward correcting whatever errors led to these wrongful prosecutions.

That legislation passed the Senate earlier this year and is before the House Judiciary Committee. We continue to support creation of such a commission, not for punitive reasons but to eliminate future miscarriages of justice.

Toward that end, we applaud the Supreme Court ruling. The American judicial process is a sound one, but it's not perfect. In the end, the overriding principle is to get it right, particularly when lives hang in the balance.

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