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DNA Evidence Confirms Guilt in Texas and Kansas Rape Cases

April 15, 2009 11:30 AM
by Denis Cummings
Though cases where inmates are exonerated by DNA tests receive much media attention, there are frequently cases where DNA tests confirm an inmate’s guilt.

Inmates’ Guilt Confirmed by DNA Test

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Last month Texas inmate Charles Williams and Kansas inmate Charles Hunter, both convicted rapists who claimed to be innocent, received results from DNA tests indicating they were guilty of their crimes.

DNA testing has been used to exonerate 235 inmates in the United States, according to the Innocence Project, a New York-based advocacy group for inmates. In Dallas County, where Williams has spent almost two decades in prison, 19 men have been exonerated, more than any other county in the United States.

Williams and Hunter each asked the Innocence Project for help getting a DNA test to prove their innocence. However, neither test result could exclude the men as matches, supporting their convictions.

Cases where DNA testing confirms the conviction are common; according to the Innocence Project, 43 percent of inmates it tested were exonerated, whereas 42 percent had their guilt confirmed. Prosecutors and inmate advocacy groups are careful to give DNA tests, which cost thousands of dollars and require extra work for prosecutors and lab technicians, unless they believe there is a good chance the inmate is innocent.

“We won’t file a DNA motion for anybody without giving them a stern warning,” said Rob Warden, executive director of the Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, which has had just three of the 20 inmates it has helped proven guilty. “We say, ‘You don’t want to do this unless you are absolutely certain it will exonerate you.’”

Williams may face more time in prison after the tests indicated that that he acted alone. He has also angered the Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins for wasting time and taxpayer money in receiving his DNA test, increasing the likelihood that his incarceration will be extended.

Despite time and money wasted on DNA tests, inmate advocacy groups say that the tests are necessary to ensure that innocent people go free. “DNA evidence can prove innocence or guilt,” said Eric Ferrero, communications director at the Innocence Project, which paid for Hunter’s tests. “Our cause is to get to the truth in these cases.”

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Background: DNA testing in court

DNA testing was first used in U.S. courtrooms in the late 1980s. Since then it has proven the guilt or innocence of suspects in many high-profile cases.

The first high-profile DNA case occurred in 1989, when a DNA test showed that Virginia inmate David Vasquez, who had served five years of a 35-year sentence, was innocent of murdering a woman. The test results indicated that the crime was actually committed by serial killer Timothy Spencer, who in 1994 was the first person ever executed in the U.S. on the basis of DNA testing.

DNA testing has illuminated many flaws in the criminal justice system as it proved the innocence of many inmates who had served years in prison and even some who were on death row. In 2003, after numerous Illinois death row inmates were exonerated by DNA evidence, Gov. George Ryan declared that the Illinois system was “haunted by the demon of error,” and commuted the sentence of all death row inmates.

DNA testing has also proven the guilt of inmates in several high-profile cases. In 2006, a DNA test confirmed that convicted murderer and rapist Roger K. Coleman, who was executed in 1992, was guilty of murdering his sister-in-law. Coleman maintained his innocence for 21 years and had become the center of an anti-death penalty campaign.

The importance of DNA evidence was exhibited in a February report by the National Academy of Science, which declared that “no other crime scene evidence is dependable enough to allow police officers to testify in court … that it’s ‘a match’ to a specific person,” according to MSNBC.

Reference: Innocence Project; Center on Wrongful Convictions

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