"Unfortunately, the current Federal and State DNA collection and analysis system suffers from a variety of problems. In many cases public crime laboratories are overwhelmed by backlogs of unanalyzed DNA samples, samples that could be used to solve violent crimes if the States had the funds to eliminate this backlog…" (U.S. Representative Sue Myrick, arguing that federal funds should be appropriated to states to assist DNA cases; Congressional Record, 2004).
The technology that has led to the use of DNA in criminal cases has opened up a new field for investigators in the United States. In fact, some scholars have explained that the DNA technology has produced nothing short of a revolutionary breakthrough in criminal justice system. DNA technology has led to the prosecution of guilty suspects and it has also led to the exoneration of those wrongfully convicted of felonies. This paper reviews cases where DNA was used to convict a rapist and murderer, and cases where a previously convicted rapist was exonerated.
How Many States Support Post-Conviction DNA Testing?
According to the Columbia Law Review (Garrett, 2008, p. 58), as of 2008, forty-three states and the District of Columbia have put legislation on the books that offers access to post-conviction DNA testing. There are six states that have founded "innocence commissions" whose task it is to investigate those cases in which a person might have been wrongfully convicted. Meantime the U.S. Congress passed the DNA Analysis Backlog Elimination Act in 2000, and this provides funds to help states involve their DNA technologies; and in 2004, Congress also passed into law the Innocence Protection Act which encourages DNA testing of those convicted of capital crimes (Garrett, 58).
Exonerations in the U.S. -- 1989 through 2003
At the beginning of this research paper it would be interesting and pertinent to know how many wrongly convicted individuals have been exonerated recently. An article in The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology reports that in the 15 years between 1989 and 2003, there have been a total of 340 exonerations in the United States criminal justice system. Of those (327 men and 13 women), 144 were cleared of wrongdoing through the application of DNA technologies and 196 were exonerated through other means (Gross, et al., 2005, p. 524).
More than half of those exonerated had served at least ten years in prison, Gross continues, and prosecutors don't always admit they were wrong in convicting a person later proven innocent through DNA analysis. For example, on page 525-26 Gross notes that Charles Fain was exonerated thanks to DNA research in 2001 in the state of Idaho. He had spent eighteen years on death row, wrongly accused of a rape murder. The prosecutor uttered this statement after Fain was released from prison: "It doesn't really change my opinion that much that Fain's guilty" (Gross, 526).
Another example of a prosecutor refusing to admit his mistake in helping convict a man took place in DuPage County, Illinois, in 1995. Alejandro Hernandez had been convicted for an abduction, a rape and a murder that he had nothing to do with. All charges were dismissed against Hernandez, who had been in prison for eleven and a half years, when DNA tests and a confession by the real killer (an imprisoned serial rapist and murderer named Brian Dugan) were brought forward. The police officer who had supplied "crucial evidence" admitted he lied about Hernandez' and moreover, DNA proved Hernandez was not guilty. Still, the prosecutor had this to say: "The action I have taken today is neither a vindication nor an acquittal of the defendant," a remarkably arrogant statement in light of the empirical DNA evidence that set Hernandez free after eleven and a half years of being wrongfully convicted (Gross, 527).
As the DNA technologies have advanced, the number of exonerations has gone up, Gross continues. Between 1989 and 1994, there was an average of 12 exonerations a year due to DNA testing; and since 2000, there have been an average of 44 exonerations as a result of DNA testing, Gross explains (527). Gross provides some interesting data in his article, including the fact that ninety-six percent of the exonerations his research has uncovered are of defendants wrongfully convicted for murder (60% - 205 of 345), or for sexual assault or rape (36% - 121 of 340). The other cases that were exonerated were related to robberies, attempted murder, kidnapping and assault.
Familial DNA Catches a Serial Killer in Los Angeles
Lonnie David Franklin Jr. is in prison today in Los Angeles, charged with murdering at least 10 women in the Los Angeles area. This is one of the most unique cases of law enforcement catching up with a serial killer (through DNA testing) in the United States. Franklin is behind bars because law enforcement officials have come up with a strategy for locating criminals called "familial DNA" investigations (Dresser, 2011, p. 11). According to Rebecca Dresser, writing in the peer-reviewed journal Hastings Center Report, in Franklin's case, the police had DNA from the ten women who had been raped and murdered in Los Angeles. But in their databases of DNA from convicted felons, there was no matching DNA from arrested individuals. Franklin had been arrested for a petty crime, but that was prior to when police were obligated to take DNA from all those who have been arrested for any crime.
But because California has a law that allows investigators to identify DNA from a "partial match" to a person already in custody, they were able to pin Franklin with these rapes and murders.
Here is how it happened. Investigators found a "partial match" to the DNA taken from the victims; the partial match was found in the database that has all DNA from all California prisoners. The partial match they found belonged to a felon in prison, and police put together a list of the family and relatives of that particular felon. They zeroed in on family members who lived close to where the imprisoned offender had lived, and who were old enough "to have committed the murders" (Dresser, 11). This led investigators to Franklin. But still, they did not have Franklin's DNA. So they carefully followed Franklin's movements, and eventually captured his DNA from food and utensils he discarded in a restaurant. An officer pretended to be a waiter in the restaurant that police knew Franklin frequented, and after Franklin finished a meal one day, the undercover officer took the unfinished food and utensils to the lab and indeed, Franklin's DNA matched the DNA of the ten women that had been raped and murdered (Dresser, 11-12).
Dresser points out, however, that there are potential harms that can be produced through the use of familial evidence vis-a-vis DNA. It raises "family privacy concerns," Dresser explains on page 11. Because many states lack well-published rules regarding familial DNA investigations, police could possibly discover, improperly, "important personal information about families" (Dresser, 11). It could also happen that innocent family members could be "targeted" simply because they happen, through no fault of their own, to be related to someone whose DNA is already in the database (Dresser, 12).
Two Cases of Convicted Rapists Exonerated by DNA Testing in Illinois
Ronnie Bullock was a 27-year-old African-American male in 1984 when he was convicted of raping and kidnapping a nine-year-old girl in Chicago. He was sentenced to sixty years in prison. A twelve-year-old girl who had been a victim of a similar attack in that south side neighborhood identified bullock in a lineup. She also identified him during his trial. He was also picked out in a lineup by a police officer, who "noticed Bullock's similarity to a composite sketch" (Garrett, 65).
After his initial trial, Bullock appealed the decision; according to Garrett, the court "dismissed as meritless" Bullock's claim that several irregularities took place, putting his case in an unfair legal jeopardy, including the following: a) the eyewitness identification was made through suggestion, not factual observation; b) there was "prosecutorial misconduct"; c) there was an "improper admission of evidence of another crime"; and d) there were "various evidentiary arguments" that were improperly presented at trial (Garrett, 65). Bullock also tried two state post-conviction petitions, but they were not "fruitful," according to Garrett. So Bullock went for a federal habeas petition, but that failed as well; that petition was dismissed in 1991 for "…failure to exhaust and procedural default" (Garrett, 65).
Bullock continued to fight for his freedom since he knew he was innocent of the rape and kidnapping charges. In 1994, the attorney that he hired after his conviction was able to locate pivotal crime scene evidence that had been lost before the trial. When that evidence (an undergarment) was located, and DNA testing was done on the underwear of the victim, Bullock was exonerated. He had spent eleven and a half years in prison for a crime he did not commit, but through the use of DNA -- not appeals and petitions to higher courts --…