September 18, 2008
Dena Potter WVEC.Com Norfolk, VA
Virginia will begin mailing out letters to notify felons that old biological evidence exists in their cases on Wednesday, a state Department of Forensic Science official said.
The first batch of about 400 letters will be sent by regular and certified mail to those who committed certain felonies decades ago in which DNA evidence was preserved to notify them that it exists and may be suitable for retesting, department spokesman Tom Gasparoli said.
"DNA testing of the physical material may provide evidence that is relevant to your guilt or innocence of the crime," the letter reads.
Virginia's one-of-a-kind DNA testing project began in 2005 when then-Gov. Mark Warner ordered examination of all case files from 1973 through 1988 after five men were cleared of rape charges from biological evidence preserved in their files long before DNA testing got under way in the early 1990s.
Since then, the Department of Forensic Science has scoured more than 500,000 case files and identified nearly 1,000 defendants with old DNA evidence in their cases.
In March, the General Assembly ordered the state Forensic Science Board to notify each person that the evidence was found.
After some back and forth as to whether private lawyers should be brought in to help locate those who should get the letters, the board decided instead to work with Virginia State Police to find the best addresses for those who may have served their time decades ago.
The board continues to try to locate addresses for the more than 500 other felons.
The department agreed to pay for the mailings.
"The mailing is a very important step in this process, and DFS is glad to be able to assist the Forensic Science Board in sending out the letters," Gasparoli said.
The letters direct those who are interested in pursuing DNA testing to the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which offers free legal help to those who have been wrongfully convicted.
"We really don't know whether it's going to be the flood gates opening or the equivalent of a woman sitting at home waiting for a boy to call," said the group's executive director, Shawn Armbrust.
Like several board members, she believed bringing volunteer attorneys in to track down the felons would have produced better results than relying on state police files. The board rejected that plan because they did not want to give the felons' private information to those not classified to receive it.
Board members acknowledged the letters would not reach everyone who needed to be notified, but they said they would revisit the plan until they felt that each person who possibly could be exonerated by the evidence knew that it existed.
"Even though this first step isn't what I hoped it would be, I'm confident that the board will, in the end, make sure they track down as many people as they feasibly can," Armbrust said. "Whether that's 100 percent or 98 percent, I'm confident they're going to make a good faith effort."
Also on Tuesday, the Department of Justice announced that it had approved a $4.5 million grant to help the forensic science department finish the review.
"The grant also comes at a time when budgets across the Commonwealth are very tight, so this money will certainly help defray some significant costs on this very valuable effort," Gasparoli said. "It is certainly welcome news, and the department's diligent work on the DNA program will continue."
The department has sent nearly 800 cases to an outside lab for testing. The results are reviewed by the department's scientists and sent to the originating law enforcement agency and the local commonwealth's attorney.
So far, no additional convicts have been exonerated, Gasparoli said.