innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

DNA Truth-Seeking

This editorial appeared in the Boston Globe on October 16, 2006:

DNA Truth-Seeking

DENNIS MAHER was a brutal serial rapist, until he wasn't. In 1984, the Lowell mechanic was convicted of three sexual assaults, attacking one victim at knife point and punching another into submission. Two victims identified him and two juries convicted him; his appeals failed. But in 2003, after Maher had spent 19 years in prison, the juries, victims, prosecutors, and judges were proven wrong when DNA evidence exonerated him.

With all the talk in the gubernatorial campaign decrying support of DNA testing for certain felons, Maher's story is worth remembering. It is a reminder that our justice system is not perfect, and sometimes demands that a convicted rapist get a second look (or a third or fourth look, in Maher's case).

But in Massachusetts, it is tougher for the wrongly convicted to set those wheels of justice in motion, because Massachusetts is one of just a handful of states -- along with Alabama and Mississippi -- still lacking laws giving inmates access to testing of DNA evidence. Massachusetts has seen nine convictions overturned based on DNA evidence; it cannot afford to postpone passing such a law any longer.

Three bills have been filed in the Legislature. They should be combined into legislation reflecting the best aspects of the laws in other states.

In most places, laws clear the way for prisoners with strong claims to get DNA testing of evidence in their cases, as long as the evidence was kept intact and has not already been tested using the latest techniques. The laws generally also require prosecutors to account for all biological evidence, preserve it indefinitely, and to make it available promptly, whether or not it was introduced at trial. Compelling the state to preserve evidence is crucial, because so much of the work of exonerating the wrongly convicted has involved years of tracking down misplaced or neglected evidence. Most important, the laws call for states to pick up the tab for the testing if the inmate is indigent, although some states require the inmate to reimburse the state if the results confirm guilt.

All four candidates for governor support post-conviction DNA testing, even Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, who has criticized Deval Patrick's efforts to help a convicted rapist get a DNA test that might lead to a new trial.

While Dennis Maher walked in circles in his cell, the statute of limitations on the rapes he did not commit ran out. Whoever did commit the crimes will never pay for them and may never be caught. Any governor who is interested in criminal justice should want to punish the right criminals and set free the innocent.

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