April 21, 2008
Charlottesville Daily Progress- Charlottesville, VA
Despite no easy “successes” in the past two-plus years, Virginia was right to start — and continue — a massive DNA project retesting old samples for new evidence in violent crimes.
The project began under Gov. Mark Warner, following a handful of exonerations based on review of DNA evidence.
The first was that of a Hanover County man who had spent 15 years in prison for a rape he insisted he did not commit. His case was pursued by the New York-based Innocence Project.
Sure enough, old evidence — given new review with more precise DNA testing procedures — confirmed his innocence.
That review also revealed that one of the state’s forensic analysts, Mary Jane Burton, had meticulously preserved thousands of samples in the cases she had worked on over the years. Common practice at the time was to throw away samples after an inmate’s appeal had run out.
Ms. Burton turned out to be an unintentional heroine. Review of two more cases in which she had preserved evidence proved that two other men were innocent of the crimes for which they had been convicted.
After that, Gov. Warner ordered a routine review of every case handled by the state crime lab during the roughly 15 years that Ms. Burton was on staff. Relatively quickly, two more exonerations were announced.
Since then, more than two years ago, no further findings of innocence have been discovered.
“This isn’t easy,” said state crime lab director Peter M. Marone. “This isn’t a TV show like ‘CSI.’ ”
Cases can’t be wrapped up in the 47 minutes allotted to a plot line on television. The task of review has been tougher than anticipated, due to size and complexity of the project. There are 534,000 files to go through. All victims and felons are required to be notified of the review, and prosecutors and defense attorneys are also involved.
Whether any more exonerations result from the review does not mean the project is not still a success.
For Virginia to continue to make the effort, painstakingly reviewing hundreds of thousands of cases, is simply the right thing to do. It would be unconscionable to give the effort short shrift, considering the stakes.
There may still be errors to uncover; the lives and liberty of wrongly convicted people may yet be at issue.
But even if no further exonerations are revealed, the effort still should be considered a success.
Such results would show that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, and to the best of its abilities, the justice system worked as intended. The lack of exonerations could be interpreted as evidence that other innocent people were not deprived of life and liberty by the less sophisticated DNA review procedures of 20 to 30 years ago.
The review of evidence is a complex process; the preservation of justice is a sacred responsibility. The first is the practical expression of the second. Virginia is right to utilize the best methods now available to ensure that justice is done.