Prosecutors must not resist when DNA tests confirm innocenceProsecutors frequently place great emphasis on DNA evidence in winning criminal convictions. They usually are justified in considering such evidence conclusive in establishing sexual contact in rape cases, and showing a defendant's presence at a crime scene in other instances.
What could be more compelling than finding someone's unique genetic signature? So long as tests are expertly conducted and crime scenes are expertly managed, DNA is a nearly perfect "smoking gun." Many thousands of felons are behind bars on the strength of such evidence.
But now there is a growing trend among prosecutors to hamper the use of DNA evidence to establish innocence, which smacks of hypocrisy on a truly troubling scale.
This situation comes up most frequently following conviction. In many highly publicized cases, prisoners have been released after DNA tests show they could not have committed the crimes for which they were convicted. Men who have spent years on death row have been returned to freedom, often thanks to volunteer efforts by New York's Innocence Project and others.
More than anyone else, good prosecutors are key to ensuring justice. Their determinations about whom to prosecute and what penalties to seek are fundamental in our system. Good prosecutors care far less about winning than about ensuring the right person is convicted and pays the right penalty.
It is disappointing and disillusioning to hear of prosecutors sprinkled around the nation who obviously care more about their "score" than about justice, and this is transparently what is going on when they propose limiting inmates' ability to use DNA tests to exonerate themselves.
"What we're seeing is a double standard," said the attorney for one inmate caught up in a prosecutor's ego battle. "Evidence will be considered more than sufficient by prosecutors if it establishes guilt, and questionable or insufficient if it establishes innocence."
Some prosecutors argue the state's interest in finality or the victim's feelings justify cutting off efforts to prove innocence. This is unconscionable. This is to say to defendants, "We don't care if you committed the crime. You're convicted. End of story. Quit whining."
False justice, phony justice, corrupt justice: These are lies and assaults on the basic fabric of American life.
Prosecutors unwilling to go wherever the evidence takes them, even if it means overturning convictions, should be drummed out of the legal profession.