Thursday, September 4, 2008
Victoria Howell Daily Mississippian Oxford, MS
The state of Mississippi is underfunded when it comes to DNA testing, according to Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood.
To that end, a state task force convened during August 2008 to examine how to improve the state’s handling of DNA evidence.
“We established the task force to make sure the state of Mississippi could properly collect DNA,” Hood said.
The problem of DNA collection and preservation came to light after the exoneration of Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, two Noxubee County men who were convicted for the separate murders of two young children. Brewer was exonerated largely through the efforts of the Mississippi Innocence Project, a state version of the National Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to freeing innocent inmates who are wrongly incarcerated on death row.
Hood said a much bigger budget is required for there to be competent crime labs in Mississippi.
“We need roughly $16 million,” Hood said. “We don’t just need proper facilities, though. We need properly qualified personnel to run them. That means you are talking about people with at least a master’s degree.”
Both the Mississippi Innocence Project and the attorney general’s office are lobbying for an increase in funding, Hood said.
“There are people in the Legislature who are beginning to realize that this is a serious problem,” Hood said.
Eric Ferrero, director of communications for the Innocence Project, said litigation work was an often overlooked part of what the project and collaborating organizations and departments did.
“Our department would teach Corrections how to properly take DNA samples,” Hood said. “Soon, we are going to tour crime lab facilities in Montgomery, Ala., and Arkansas to get a better idea of what we need. We are going to other sources of funding.
“We want the criminals who get swabbed to have to pay a fee. In other words, the people who committed the crime will be funding the crime lab. We just recently added two more DNA examples to the computer database, and the week after that, the FBI sent out a report that positively matched one person in Mississippi and they located the other two people in other states,” Hood said.
“The more cases we (the Innocence Project) won, the more flaws in the criminal justice system were exposed and reformed,” Ferrero said. “There have been 220 post-conviction exonorations since 1989.”
According to the project’s Web site, www.innocenceproject.org, there have been 156 exonerations since 2000. Of these exonerations, 17 of the 220 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row.
“To collect DNA, we usually swab the person’s mouth,” Hood said. “We then make sure it is properly preserved and put it in the computer system.”
Hood said DNA testing was very imprecise in the beginning.
“They could identify who did not commit the crime through blood type,” he said. “Say that there was evidence that someone committed the crime who had type O blood, the suspect who had type A was cleared.”
Ferrero said faulty and imperfectly preserved DNA evidence was not the only reason innocent people are convicted.
“There are multiple contributions to wrongful convictions.” Ferrero said.
“Some can be attributed to wrongful confessions. Experts have been looking at this for a long time and have found a number of reasons for this.”
These wrongful confessions could be due to mental issues, he said.
“Sometimes, the defendant doesn’t understand anything due to mental retardation or an extremely low IQ,” Ferrero said. “Some people are perfectly normal but are told that if they confess, the penalty will be much easier.”
In the case of younger people and teens, people might confess because they might be put under stress to do so, such as answering questions for a long period of time without supervision or support of a parent or guardian.
“Another thing we see a lot of is people just telling the authorities what they want to hear, hoping that it will get the process over with as soon as possible,” Ferrero said.
“What caused a majority of the wrong evidence in most cases can be contributed to eyewitnesses identifying the wrong person,” Ferrero said.
According to Ferrero there is a long process that needs to be undertaken before the Innocence Project revisits a case.
“We track every DNA case in the U.S.,” Ferrero said. “While we are involved in a vast majority of the cases, we do not have a direct hand in all of them.”
Ferrero said that cases can only be submitted through mail.
“DNA is the defining criteria, of course,” Ferrero said. “We ask for as much detail as possible to be included in the letter. We receive thousands of letters a year, some from prisoners and some from families. If the letter is accepted, we present what we know to the directors, and we decide if we can pursue it.
“We then go through an extensive research process that could take anywhere from months to years. We try to develop an alternate theory for the crime. Once we are finished with that, we then finally decide if we can take the case or not.
“We are extremely thorough,” he said. “The process is helped through technology since you can (know) much more out (of) a much smaller sample of DNA.”
According to the Innocence Project Web site, the average length of time served by those who are exonerated is 12 years. Since 1989, there have been many cases where prime suspects were identified and pursued until DNA testing (prior to conviction) proved they were wrongly accused, and while the true suspects and/or perpetrators have been identified in 85 of the 220 DNA exoneration cases, the Innocence Project had to close 33 percent of their accepted cases because of lost or missing evidence.
Hood said it wasn’t just the lack of DNA evidence that was a problem for Mississippi, but gathering it as well.
“One thing we have found out is that the state of Mississippi has only been swabbing criminals who have been incarcerated, not people who are on probation,” Hood said. “That could make the difference between arrest and conviction. We have a duty to protect the innocent.”