November 25, 2008
The Innocence Project-New York, NY
Innocence Project client Steven Barnes was released from prison this morning, nearly two decades after he was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in Oneida County. New DNA test results support Barnes’ longstanding claim of innocence in the 1985 rape and murder of a high school student for which he was convicted in 1989.
Barnes’ conviction highlights the pressing need for national standards in forensic science, the Innocence Project said. Eyewitness testimony at his trial was shaky, but forensic testimony linked him to the crime. The forensic evidence included testimony that soil on Barnes’ truck tires was similar to soil at the crime scene and testimony that an imprint on the outside of Barnes’ truck matched the fabric pattern on a particular brand of jeans the victim wore when she was killed. Neither soil comparison nor jean pattern imprinting is scientifically valid, and they should not be relied on in court without proper bounds and/or experts testifying for both parties, the Innocence Project said.
The Innocence Project began representing Barnes in 1993 and the Oneida County District Attorney agreed to conduct DNA tests on evidence from the crime scene. Those tests were inconclusive because the DNA technology at the time could not yield a profile. In 2007, the Innocence Project reopened the case, and Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara agreed to conduct more advanced DNA testing (not available in the 1990s). New DNA test results on material collected from the victim’s body and clothing do not match Barnes, leading to today’s joint motion to throw out his conviction and release him from custody.
“Unvalidated and exaggerated science convicted Steven Barnes and cost him nearly two decades, but real science finally secured his freedom,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “This is the latest in a long line of wrongful convictions based on improper or invalid forensic science that were ultimately overturned through DNA testing. Until there are clear national standards about what kind of forensic science can be allowed in court, more people like Steven Barnes will be wrongfully convicted while the actual perpetrators of violent crime remain at large.”
Although Barnes’ conviction has been vacated and he is free, the indictment against him will not be dismissed (fully exonerating him) until additional investigation is conducted to identify the actual perpetrator(s) in the case. The Innocence Project said it will cooperate with the District Attorney’s Office on that investigation.
“Steven Barnes has a long road ahead to begin rebuilding his life. He will need community support, financial assistance and employment leads,” said Innocence Project Staff Attorney Alba Morales. “Thankfully, his family has been tremendously supportive through this long ordeal, and they are planning a Thanksgiving homecoming that’s been two decades in the making.”
Barnes was 19 years old when 16-year-old Kimberly Simon’s body was found near the Mohawk River in Whitestown, New York. She had been raped and strangled. Four years later, when Barnes was 23 years old, he was tried and convicted for the crime. Eyewitnesses testified that they saw Barnes in town on the evening of the murder, and that they may have seen Barnes and Simon together – but no witnesses could say with certainty that Barnes ever met Simon, let alone that they saw him with her on the night of the murder.
The lack of other evidence put particular weight on the forensic testimony. A criminalist testified that an impression on Barnes’ truck was similar to the fabric pattern and fibers in the jeans the victim wore when she was attacked. She testified that she compared the evidence to other brands of jeans, and determined that they were not similar. The victim wore black Zena brand jeans, which were called “tuxedo jeans” because of their style. Testifying about photos of Zena tuxedo jeans and a slide with the imprint from Barnes’ truck the criminalist testified, “[Y]ou can hold it up to the light and the high contrast will help you to see that the patterns are similar.” Another prosecution witness worked as a salesman for manufacturers, including Zena jeans, and he testified that 24 to 36 pairs of the Zena tuxedo jeans were sold to stores in Oneida County 1985. He claimed that the jeans were “a very unique kind of garment.”
Analysis of jean patterns and comparison of soil have not been tested to determine their scientific validity; as a result, it is impossible to know how many other soil samples might be similar to soil from the crime scene or the likelihood that other jeans have the same pattern (assuming the marks on the truck were from jeans). “Even though these disciplines are not rooted in solid science, they could be used in courtrooms across New York and the country to this day. Much more research is needed to validate the probative value of pattern and impression evidence like bite marks, toolmarks and fabric comparison,” Scheck said. At the request of Congress, the National Academy of Sciences is preparing to release a major report on forensic science nationwide. A blue-ribbon commission has spent 18 months closely examining forensic disciplines that are used in courtrooms nationwide, and the unprecedented report will outline their findings and recommendations for how to ensure that the criminal justice system relies on sound science. Among wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide, more than half involved invalid or improper forensic science, according to the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.
In New York, 23 people have been exonerated through DNA testing, and 10 of those wrongful convictions involved invalid or improper forensic science. In a report released last year, the Innocence Project concluded that New York State leads the nation in wrongful convictions overturned with DNA testing but lags behind other states in enacting policy reforms to make the criminal justice system more fair and effective. The New York State Bar Association Task Force on Wrongful Convictions is studying this issue, and will issue its report to the NYSBA House of Delegates in January. “Steven Barnes’ case is a reminder that wrongful convictions are very much a reality in New York State, and that very few of the reforms that prevent wrongful convictions – and simultaneously help catch real perpetrators – have been implemented in New York,” Scheck said.