Why do people keep getting exonerated in Texas?

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Image by rcbodden via Flickr

What’s happening in the Lone Star State?

By Rina Palta

Every few weeks, there seems to be news out of Texas: another prison inmate has been exonerated after spending years, even decades behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. There’s Cornelious Dupree, who spent 30 years in a Texas prison, protesting his conviction on rape and armed robbery, until he was exonerated and released earlier this month. And then there are the forty other people who have been cleared of crimes and released from Texas prisons since 2001. Why so many exonerations in Texas? Are police conspiring to send innocent people to prison? Are prosecutors tampering with evidence? What’s going on in this tough-on-crime state that’s landing so many innocent people in jail?

It turns out Texas is unique not for its penchant for imprisoning innocent people, but for its willingness to reopen these cases–and its success in preserving the necessary DNA evidence. Dallas in particular, seems to have encountered an opportune confluence of interest and ability to tackle these old cases. The district attorney there, Craig Watkins, has welcomed the scrutiny and the DNA evidence, previously (virtually) untapped, is there for the perusing.


Elsewhere in the country, it’s a mixed bag–even where officials seem ready to reexamine old cases, the evidence may simply not be there anymore. And it works the other way, too. The New York Post yesterday featured a story about a Brooklyn man whose brother was murdered in 1983. The case was never closed, but the brother would check in on it every six to eight months for updates. Recently, he learned crime-scene evidence, including “a bloody hat, a partial fingerprint sample, a knife and a cigarette butt,” was tossed out 15 years ago. In New York, apparently, preserving crime scene evidence has been a problem. The Innocence Project there (which works to help exonerate convicted inmates) requested DNA evidence in 46 cases from 2004-2009 and was told that in 27 cases, it couldn’t be located.

California went through its own DNA renaissance in the past decade after language was inserted into the state’s penal code allowing inmates to contest their convictions (with, for indigent inmates, the help of a provided attorney). Now, there are fewer cases cropping up that contain untested DNA evidence. And though there’s a statute on the books requiring police departments to preserve evidence now and into the future, Jeff Chinn of the California Innocence Project says, many are not complying. Many, he says, simply do not have the space to keep it, and there’s no punishment for throwing evidence away.

Now, Chinn says, the group is turning more towards other forms of scientific evidence used in trials to determine if an inmate has been wrongfully convicted. From fingerprinting, to eyewitness identifications, to confessions, to matching bite marks–all these forms of evidence are coming under stricter scrutiny. Particularly after a 2009 study by the National Research Council found that forensic science is generally “badly fragmented” and in need of overhaul.

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