Day 827: Riding The Double Helix To Sweet Freedom

originally published April 6, 2014

It’s almost a little frightening how far we have progressed over the past 30 years. And I’m not just talking about the rampant availability of online pornography or that I can watch any episode of Quantum Leap at a moment’s notice (should the need arise); the mid-80’s world of forensic science was shockingly primitive by today’s standards. Since the advent of online databases, DNA profiling and David Caruso’s sunglasses, forensics has never been the same.

The down-side is that you’ll probably never get the chance to figure out whether or not your plan for the perfect heist would work. Who wants to take the chance, now that we know that an inadvertent cough is going to leave DNA juice all over the crime scene? On the plus-side, you aren’t likely to be hauled in for a crime you didn’t commit – or you’re less likely anyway.

When DNA profiling swooped onto the justice system’s radar it was clearly destined to be a game-changer from the very start. For some, like the vile and violent rapist/murderer Colin Pitchfork, DNA evidence was the veritable ink upon his one-way ticket to life in lock-up. For others, like the 17-year-old kid who almost took the fall for one of Colin’s most dastardly crimes, it was a life-raft of hope.

In a grim but historically significant tale from England, Colin Pitchfork raped and murdered two 15-year-old girls – one in 1983 and another in 1986. A married father of two in the Leicestershire area, his only previous indiscretion was a fine for indecent exposure. He was not a suspect in the murders. 17-year-old Richard Buckland was – he knew more about the second murder victim’s body than he should have, and after intense grilling, he confessed to the crime. But not to the first one.

This was the tricky part – both girls had been killed in the same way, and semen samples from both bodies revealed the same blood type, including an enzyme profile that narrowed the scope of potential killers to about 10% of the male population. Fortunately, a group of researchers at the University of Leicester had recently figured out how to incorporate our relatively new information about DNA with forensics. A sample of Buckland’s DNA conclusively eliminated any possibility that he had committed either crime, and samples from both victims also confirmed that the cops were on the hunt for just one perpetrator.

Richard Buckland was the first person to be exonerated due to DNA profiling – after working with the Leicestershire police, researcher Alec Jeffreys was convinced that Buckland would have been found guilty for the second murder, and likely tied to the first if it weren’t for this masterful stroke of science. Now with no suspects, the police sought to acquire voluntary blood or saliva samples from 5000 men in hopes of linking someone to the DNA they had on file. Not surprisingly, Colin Pitchfork was not among those who stepped up to donate some spit.

During the summer of 1987, a co-worker donated some saliva under Colin’s name, allegedly because Colin didn’t want any hassle relating to his earlier arrest for indecent exposure, or as the British call it, “waving about a wayward willie.” As one might expect, this co-worker then went to a pub and, as one might also expect, after a few pints he was telling a mate about what he’d done, no doubt having a chuckle at Colin’s willie-waving debacle. A woman overheard the conversation and reported it to the police, which led to Pitchfork’s arrest and – thanks to DNA forensics – his conviction.

Meanwhile in the United States, legal activists Barry Scheck, who was teaching law at Yeshiva University in New York at the time, and Peter Neufeld were eager to put DNA profiling to the task of liberating the wrongly-convicted. Marion Coakley was their first project. Somehow Marion had been convicted of a Bronx-area robbery, kidnapping and rape. I say “somehow” because the story is almost too fantastic to be true: the victim had described a dark-skinned man with an afro and a Jamaican accent, whereas Marion was light-skinned, no afro and no accent. Also he had seventeen witnesses (including a priest) who could place him at a church meeting miles away when the crime occurred. Again, “somehow” he was found guilty.

Scheck and Neufeld were eager for Marion’s case to be the first overturned conviction based on DNA evidence, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough DNA available on file to make that happen. The good news is that they found another snippet of evidence to guarantee Marion’s freedom, and they had also learned a tremendous amount about this emerging technology and its applications in a criminal case.

Gary Dotson earned the distinction of being that first wrongful conviction to get righted thanks to DNA. Dotson had been locked up for raping 16-year-old Cathleen Crowell one night in 1976. Again, he didn’t fit the description nor did he possess the fingernail scratches Crowell claimed she left on her attacker, but somehow a jury decided that Dotson was the guy. In May 1979 he was handed 25-50 years, and a subsequent appeal provided no relief. Dotson was rightfully without hope.

Even in 1985, when Crowell recanted her testimony and declared that she had had sex with her boyfriend on that fateful night, and simply concocted the rape story so that she would not be in trouble from her parents, it didn’t help. A judge concluded that Crowell’s testimony at the trial appeared more credible than her subsequent recantation. It was only when DNA evidence conclusively linked the semen evidence to Crowell’s then-boyfriend that Dotson saw the outside of a prison. It was 1989, and a decade of his life had been wiped out.

As Scheck and Neufeld continued to lobby for DNA testing on potentially reversible cases, the letters from desperate inmates and their families began rolling in. The two men made use of Barry Scheck’s law students. Under the banner of a notion they called The Innocence Project, the students sifted through the scribbled pleas to determine which cases could be potentially reversible if the biological evidence came up negative, and which of those actually still had physical evidence in storage somewhere from which a sample could be snagged. It was a tough fight – most prosecutors didn’t want these cases reexamined, but the Project prevailed.

The Innocence Project has ballooned into an international phenomenon. Since its foundation in 1992, 312 people have been exonerated when the DNA evidence shattered the legitimacy of their conviction, roughly half of those through the direct involvement of the Project. That includes 18 people who had been on death row, staring down the prospect of death at the hands of the state for something they clearly did not do.

It’s comforting to know people like this are out there, defying the tired cliché stereotypes usually ascribed to those in the legal profession and actively looking to right the upturned tables of injustice. Also, it’s heartwarming to know the science is there to back them up. Even if it means I’ll never pull off that perfect heist.

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