New Report on Wrongful Convictions in Virginia

From the Associated Press:

RICHMOND, Va. – New DNA testing in hundreds of old Virginia homicide and sexual assault cases supports the exoneration of at least 38 suspects, according to a study released Monday by a national policy group that examined the test results.

The Urban Institute’s study is the first to say how many exonerations are likely from Virginia’s stash of archived, decades-old biological samples that so far have cleared at least five men who were convicted of sexual assaults. Officials with the state Department of Forensic Science, which is conducting the testing project, have said their job is not to suggest who should be exonerated, but to test the samples and deliver the results to law enforcement officials who determine whether they believe someone is innocent.

The institute’s researchers found that in 5 percent of homicide and sexual assault cases, DNA testing ruled out the convicted person. If the scope is narrowed to just the sexual assault convictions, DNA testing eliminated between 8 percent and 15 percent of convicted offenders. The wrongful conviction rate previously had been estimated at 3 percent or less.

Although all of these tests were done on Virginia cases, a lead researcher said the results likely could be applied elsewhere.

“I believe that there’s nothing about the Virginia situation that is much different from what was going on across much of the United States at that time,” said John Roman of the Urban Institute. “I think that states have a responsibility to take these findings seriously in other places and investigate other cases that they have where they have retained evidence, because chances are they’re going to find far more wrongfully convicted people than they would have anticipated before this study.”

Researchers analyzed the results of new testing of DNA samples archived from 635 murder, sexual assault and non-negligent manslaughter cases that led to convictions. The cases stemmed from 715 offenses in Virginia between 1973 and 1987.

Virginia was able to do the testing because a state serologist and those she had trained had retained cotton swabs and clothing swatches. The samples mainly contained semen and blood samples from the cases during an era when DNA analysis wasn’t widely used as an investigative tool. After two men were exonerated following the discovery of the old evidence, the state in 2005 ordered each of the samples tested.

The report acknowledged certain limitations. For instance, it said that in two- thirds of the cases the samples didn’t have enough DNA for testing. Roman said that may mean the number of false convictions is much higher.

Roman said there likely are “dozens, if not hundreds, of people who were convicted erroneously; dozens, if not hundreds, of people who were not convicted of a crime they committed who may have gone on to commit new crimes; and there were dozens, if not hundreds, of people who thought they had justice as a victim of a horrible crime who didn’t.”