DNA and justice

We know from painful local experience that there are Americans languishing in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

How many?

Impossible to say because lawmakers have been reluctant to establish commissions tasked with ferreting out cases of wrongful imprisonment. But few people would disagree with the notion that one person serving time unjustly is one too many.

To date, more than 300 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 18 who served time on death row. These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release, according to the Innocence Project, a group dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions through DNA evidence and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustices.

Colorado was among the few states to have some kind of investigative mechanism in place to assess cases for wrongful conviction. Unfortunately, Colorado’s Justice Review Project, which helped overturn the Mesa County murder conviction of Robert “Rider” Dewey, has been suspended because it ran out of money. The program, operated by the state Attorney General’s office since 2010, was funded by a $2.6 million grant from the National Institute of Justice.

As the Sentinel’s Paul Shockley reported in Thursday’s paper, the Colorado Justice Review Project examined hundreds of cases, but only one earned a recommendation for new DNA testing: Dewey’s.

That’s a sobering statistic. The only case in Colorado to use post-conviction DNA testing proved a man’s innocence. If nothing else, Dewey’s experience underscores the need for continued funding of the Colorado Justice Review Project.

DNA testing has shown that our system convicts and sentences innocent people. Whether these are isolated events can only be established with a system of review in place.

More importantly, DNA testing has exposed deficiences in the criminal justice system that lead to wrongful convictions. If we understand the causes, we can propose remedies to minimize the chances that another person will spend 17 years behind bars, as Dewey did, for a crime he didn’t commit.

The Attorney General’s office declined to pay for modern DNA testing in the case of James Genrich, who was convicted of murder in a pair of pipe-bomb killings in Grand Junction in 1991.

Former prosecutor Steve ErkenBrack said he continues to believe “justice was done in this case.” That is almost certainly correct, and DNA testing would very likely prove him right.

But there are bound to be other cases, like Dewey’s, in which new DNA testing could right an atrocious societal wrong.


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