DNA Evidence Is Not Always Perfect
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin’s office plans to do something about a backlog of unexamined DNA evidence related to alleged sex crimes in Oklahoma. She has appointed a task force to study the situation.
Lawmakers do not know exactly how much sexual assault evidence is stored in various evidence rooms. Only about one in four Oklahoma rape kits are submitted to forensic laboratories for testing, the governor’s office estimated.
Rape kits typically comprise a collection of documents, materials for gathering sexual assault evidence and any evidence collected when the kit is used – including DNA evidence.
Reasons a rape kit was put into storage without a full laboratory examination can range from police doubts about the allegations to backlogs in forensic laboratories. A person might recant an allegation of rape, or police might set an investigation aside while they investigate other crimes.
From a Tulsa sex-crimes defense attorney’s perspective, a runaway task force has the potential to push Oklahoma prosecutors beyond the pure interests of justice. Driven by funding opportunities and publicity, prosecutors could overlook investigators’ doubts. Oklahoma courts could become flooded with new rape charges against innocent people based on trivial DNA evidence and contrived theories of a crime.
We do not know why so many rape kits in Oklahoma go unexamined. The task force might answer that question, but it will not be filing any charges. The governor’s task force is not impaneled as a sort of cold case squad to give new life to dormant rape investigations in Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma rape kit task force’s job will be to examine the scope of the backlog, and perhaps find ways to systematically advance idled investigations. The task force includes police, prosecutors, sexual assault victims advocates, a grant writer, lawmakers and an attorney from a public defender’s office.
While the task force will not be filing charges, the process could lead to a wave of new rape cases in Oklahoma. For some victims, that could bring relief and closure. Sexual predators might be taken off the streets. On the other hand, innocent people could be swept up by a judicial system that often gets it wrong.
DNA Evidence Can Be a Fool’s Gold Standard
Many people believe DNA evidence is the gold standard of criminal prosecution. It is not.
Prosecutors might use so-called touch DNA to file charges against someone who was only casually in contact with a victim of a sex crime, or whose DNA was introduced to a crime seen by inadvertent transfer of tiny amounts of human DNA.
Like any other evidence, forensic testimony about DNA tests can be tainted by mishandling of evidence, overzealous claims about what the test mean and even outright fraud by forensic laboratory staff that has a motive to win cases.
In Oklahoma, crime labs are funded in part by fees levied against defendants upon conviction. The six crime labs in Oklahoma are all part of various police agencies – the OSBI, Tulsa Police Department and Oklahoma City Police Department. It is not a system that implies impartiality.
Beyond systematic conflicts of interest, lab employees in Oklahoma and elsewhere have been caught lying. The reason can be anybody’s guess. It could be simple team dynamics, which can be prone to group think. In a system where the lab employees work for police or investigative agencies, employees might enjoy greater job satisfaction when their work helps close cases with a conviction.
A 21-year Oklahoma City crime lab employee was dismissed in 2001 for flawed analysis and mismanagement in the lab. Nicknamed “black magic” for her ability to pry DNA matches from samples other examiners found unconvincing, Joyce Gilchrist (now deceased) was notorious for her ability to persuade juries.
Prior to her dismissal, she had worked on cases that sent 23 people to death row. After 11 of those defendants were executed, a federal appeals court overturned the death sentence of a man who was accused of rape and murder. A federal appeals court said the jury might not have imposed capital punishment if without a rape conviction. Gilchrist maintained her innocence and was never convicted of falsifying evidence.
In Massachusetts, crime lab employee Annie Dookhan was sentenced to prison after she admitted to falsifying evidence at a grime laboratory. Doohkan’s convictions included a charge of lying about her academic achievements. She had not taken masters level classes as she claimed. She had worked on more than 34,000 criminal cases.
In Texas, forensic labs were persuaded to adjust way they ask juries to consider DNA evidence. Where lab employees had previously testified DNA evidence pointed to a one-in-a-million chance anybody but the suspect could have produced a particular DNA sample, the actual chances were the DNA could have come from one of any 30 or 40 people.
DNA Can Exonerate Those Wrongfully Convicted of Rape
Another reason police might not test DNA evidence could be they think they do not need it. For a wrongly convicted person sitting in prison on a rape conviction, the governor’s task force could be a ray of hope. Police and prosecutors are obligated before a criminal trial to tell defense attorneys about evidence that could clear a suspect, but that does not always happen.
Defense attorneys have long argued the obligation under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) to disclose exculpatory evidence applies even after a conviction. In a more recent case, District Attorney’s Office for Third Judicial Dist. v. Osborne, 557 U.S. 52 (U.S. 2009) , the US Supreme Court declared to the contrary. The court agreed that defendants enjoy some due process rights after conviction, but Brady is the “wrong framework” to define those rights, which it found to be diminished somewhat after a conviction.
However, in an early case, Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 427 n. 25 (1976), the Supreme Court established that a prosecutors ethical obligations require appropriate disclosure of evidence or information that “casts doubt on the correctness of a conviction.”
Prosecutors sometimes rush a defendant to plea bargain when a trial might have exonerated the person. Prosecutors might not tell defense attorneys the whole story before they threaten to take a plea bargain off the table. Federal courts have rendered split opinions about prosecutors’ obligation to disclose evidence favorable to a defendant before a plea bargain.
A move to revisit stored DNA evidence could also give crime victims new reasons to speak up if police or prosecutors got it wrong. A rape victim who thinks the wrong person was convicted could insist that investigators test DNA, even after a person has been convicted. DNA evidence can even substantiate death-row confessions related to wrongful convictions.
In one notorious case, a Tustin, Calif. man was freed by new DNA evidence after spending 16 years in prison for the assault of his then wife and the death of their unborn child After a long period of amnesia, she had identified her then husband as the man looming in a bedroom door before her brutal attack.
Using forensic technology of the time to match blood types, and the victims statement that she did not have consensual intercourse with her husband that night, investigators suspected the husband has sexually assaulted his wife while attacking her at their home in 1979. He was facing 15-years to life in prison.
In 1996, another man was sentenced to death for a spree of rape-murder attacks. He confessed to those attacks, and to the 1979 attack in Tustin, Calif. Evidence stored in a rape kit since the time of the attack matched DNA of the convicted killer. The woman’s former husband was set free and received $620,000 in compensation from the State of California for his time in prison after a wrongful conviction.
Free Consultation: Tulsa Sex Crimes Attorneys
To be charged with a sex crime in Oklahoma is one of the most difficult situations a person can encounter with the state’s criminal justice system. Alleged sex offenders may be treated with particular moral scorn by prosecutors, investigators, jailers and, if incarcerated, other inmates.
It is urgent that a person charged with an Oklahoma sex crime in Tulsa retain the services of a Tulsa sex crimes attorney. Likewise, even for those already convicted of sex crimes, a new look at DNA evidence may result in wrongful convictions being overturned, even after long periods of incarceration.
If you are charged with a sex crime in Oklahoma, contact a sexual assault attorney in Tulsa by calling Wirth Law Office at 918-0879-1681. Wirth Law Office offers free initial consultations. You may also request a no-cost consultation using the email form at the top of this page.