Beyond DNA, Difficult Tests for the Justice System

Freeing the wrongfully convicted through science was the easy part. Now what?

Kristina Hahsler, founder of nonprofit Dallas Can Do Better, has been working for years on Spencer's behalf. "Craig Watkins could have done more to help, and he chose not to for whatever reason," she says.

Though the District Attorney's Office hasn't supported Spencer's case, Watkins says he also hasn't decided not to support Spencer's claim of innocence. "We're still looking at it," he says.

Meanwhile, Green waits and prays. "If this boy don't get home soon, I'll go crazy."


Dale Duke, one of the dozens of wrongfully convicted men freed from prison in Dallas County.
Mark Graham
Dale Duke, one of the dozens of wrongfully convicted men freed from prison in Dallas County.
Johnny Pinchback, one of the dozens of wrongfully convicted men freed from prison in Dallas County.
Mark Graham
Johnny Pinchback, one of the dozens of wrongfully convicted men freed from prison in Dallas County.

Duke, Pinchback and Spencer occupy a troubling time in criminal justice history. Their arrests, and the arrests of nearly all of the Dallas County exonerees, occurred from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. In this decade-long window, DNA samples were collected because blood-type testing was available, but the samples were not tested with the technological acumen that's been developed since.

Starting in the mid-1990s, the testing of DNA evidence became standard protocol, meaning the number of incarcerated people who can be exonerated by previously untested DNA evidence is finite, with few exceptions.

"The best hope for exoneration is going to rely on non-DNA evidence. ... I can tell you that this is the future of innocence work," says Steve Drizin, the legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions and a law professor at Northwestern University.

"Of course, DNA has given credibility to other cases of actual innocence that otherwise wouldn't have been accorded to them," says Rob Warden, the center's executive director. The passage from DNA cases to non-DNA cases, while somewhat gradual and linear in Dallas county, is an imprecise mixture at different phases throughout the country. Warden said he gave a lecture a decade ago saying that the era of DNA-based exonerations was coming to an end, but while the balances are shifting incrementally, even now there is no shortage of DNA cases nationwide.

The Innocence Project of New York, which takes on cases around the country, still focuses primarily on DNA cases. Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck says since it's a national organization and DNA is the "gold standard," the Innocence Project hasn't felt the need to venture into non-DNA cases. "Eventually, I'm sure, but not in the near future," he says.

Keith Findley, president of the Innocence Network, which comprises more than 50 innocence advocacy organizations nationwide, says that increasingly more entities are taking on non-DNA cases, while few still only take DNA-based cases.

"Now we've shown that there are wrongful convictions, so now our conversation can be extended to eyewitness identification, investigative techniques, even prosecutorial misconduct, the culture of district attorney's offices ... and our failure to live up to the code of criminal procedure," seeking not only convictions, but justice, Watkins says.

Most wrongful convictions have occurred because of faulty eyewitness identification. In this year's session of the Texas Legislature, a law was passed that tightens police photograph and live lineup procedures, requiring each law enforcement agency to create a detailed written procedural policy, outlining best practices, including the selection of people in lineups and the instructions given to witnesses.

"Nobody can claim that eyewitness testimony is infallible. But what we do know for sure is that there are a lot of people sitting in prison who were convicted on erroneous eyewitness testimony, where there's no DNA," Gary Udashen says.

A law was also passed to outline requirements for the storage of biological evidence, along with another measure that requires the testing of stored rape kits and outlines a timeline by which new rape kits must be tested.

In the previous legislative session, a law was passed that said a defendant may not be convicted solely on the testimony of someone they spoke to while in jail.

"I think it will have been a watershed time for criminal justice," says Wilson of the Conviction Integrity Unit, referring to the exonerations and all that's changed because of them.

"The front door, I think, is closing — the front door meaning people being wrongfully incarcerated," says Page of the Texas Exoneree Project. "But the back door is still closed. There are still people stuck in prison."

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20 comments
Toni Bugg
Toni Bugg

Even if someone that was Wrongly Convicted is finally Exonerated & ends up being compensated financially, where does that compensation justify all the time that was stolen from an innocent person? Texas pays out $80,000 per year of incarceration, when it should be 1 million at the least.

Grace Means
Grace Means

There was no DNA in the case of my son, (1981) he, a friend and a white girl was in the Black area smoking marijuna. The cops stopped him and told her to say that they raped her (twice each) or she would go to jail for drugs. Of course, she said that they raped her; they did take her to Parkland where the doctor (white doctor) from the hospital came to trial and said that the person had no secretion, no scratches, no foreign hairs, and no sign of sex...still one white juror hung the jury. The DA promised the other boy (who had no record and visiting here from Detroit) to roll over on my son and he could go back to Detroit on probation, where my son had misdemeanors. After 7 months being held downtown with no release he decided to say that they had; with the help of his lawyer, he plea bargained. I have tried so hard to get help from the Innocent Project and without DNA, they closed the case. I need help and after all these years we are still fighting this case...He was 18 then and now he is 52...Nothing is ever done to the Eye Witness or the Police that made the original charges on any of the Proven Innocent.

Bruse Wane
Bruse Wane

I am currently working with a highly respected Private Investigator on a NON-DNA related Exoneration Case similar to some of the findings in the article. A very compelling case that need some immediate attention. Could someone point me in the right direction? my email is antong_lucky@yahoo.com Thanks in advance!

Grace Means
Grace Means

Bruce exactly what are you trying to do? I also need help with a NON-DNA case of Exoneration...Michelle Moore admitted clearing the easier cases with DNA...those that were just set up and left out there with a terrible record and no options of freedom.

Guest
Guest

Hard to believe that a guy like Bradley, who helped a murderer stay free for six years by opposing DNA testing in the Morton case, would talk about non-DNA cases being open to manipulation.

Given that he had evidence in his files for over twenty years (Bradley joined the Williamson Co DA's office in 1990, at which time he began opposing Morton's release. He had access to exculpatory evidence that was never turned over by his then-boss, but he made no attempt to correct the record until over 20 years later when he couldn't hide anymore) that should have been turned over at Morton's trial and he expressly worked to protect a man who murdered at least two people from having to face justice, he's very clearly a master manipulator himself.

I don't know why John Bradley worked so hard to make sure Mark Alan Norwood stayed free. You'd think a DA would rather put a murderer in prison, but I guess that's not how Bradley rolls.

Texasdave60
Texasdave60

congrats on the cover, Leslie....I am scared to death to tell my story of how Im being screwed by the TDCJ Parole folks, yet I'd like to talk with you about it since you have the guts to explore. Thanks. email for phone number.

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ralphost
ralphost

You wanted you got a police state. All those cleared with dna show the percentage of wrong convictions. both with and without dna. Locked up for brownie points by the cops and the DA.

Show me one DA who will admit he has ever been wrong. Then think how many times you have had to change your mind on your job.

It a bad driver damn it was the hard drive failing. Except someone gos to jail life forever ruined.Even when fixed not one day can be returned. The hardest thing in life to do should be to put a man in jail.

Not the easiest like it is now.

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TDKS FBT
TDKS FBT

Don't they usually get tons of money once freed?

Sheila Berry
Sheila Berry

No, they don't get tons of money. Only 27 states have compensation for the wrongly convicted; most of them have caps on how much a person can get and place numerous roadblocks in the process. Most exonerees cannot sue because the prosecutors who put them in prison are immune from civil lawsuits.

MM
MM

What price do you place on not being able to watch your children grow up, never spending another day with your mother, or facing the fear of being shanked or raped every day in prison when you are an innocent man?

hdmi
hdmi

There will be more and more cases like this throughout the country. I hope DNA finally frees those that are innocent. I feel for these men because they have to rebuild their lives again at no fault of their own.

Justice before glory
Justice before glory

Toby Shook was one of those 'win at all costs' prosecutors. His only interest was getting featured on another episode of American Justice. His cases should be examined closely for examples of prosecutorial misconduct.

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james
james

prosecutors are required to turn over ...evidence but they don't always....those prosecutors are guilty of crimes and they should do the time they caused to be done.if you were my prosecutor and i was wrongly convicted and did 20 years being brutalised and raped...do you think i might think you owed me...everything....

 
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