Better funding urged for DNA testing

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Published: January 19,2009

Justice under the law means the fair and equal administration of the law. And one of the best tools modern technology has come up with to do that is DNA testing of evidence at the crime scene.

Take, for example, the case of Cedric Willis. He spent 12 years in prison for murder before he was exonerated by DNA evidence.

“In many cases, including that of Cedric Willis, innocent people would continue to rot in prison if the DNA evidence hadn’t been preserved and tested,” said Robert McDuff, the criminal defense attorney in Jackson who helped Willis gain his freedom. “Now, in Cedric’s case, there was DNA evidence that proved he was innocent that was available and could have been presented to the jury. But the prosecutors, Ed Peters and Bobby DeLaughter, convinced Judge Breland Hilburn to keep it from the jury. It was just outrageous.”

In other cases, the DNA is not tested until further down the road, perhaps years after someone has been convicted when new evidence is unearthed. And while experience has shown eyewitness accounts can be highly flawed, DNA evidence is considered rock solid.

“It is a powerful tool for convicting the guilty and for exonerating the innocent,” McDuff said. “The Legislature needs to pass a bill requiring preservation of DNA evidence, and appropriating money to the Mississippi Crime Lab to do all the sorts of analysis that they do including DNA testing.”

Sen. David Blount, who served on a legislative DNA task force, said there are two components to improving the Mississippi Crime Lab and DNA evidence.

“We need to make sure that no one is wrongly convincted,” Blount said. “If people can prove their innocence using DNA, they need to have that opportunity so the innocent can be released from prison. The other component of this is, of course, to help catch criminals. We have an existing database at the crime lab that is coordinated with the FBI and all the other states. We need to expand the amount of DNA collected so we can catch folks and more easily incarcerate people who may already be in custody. It is a tremendous tool for prosecutors and for law enforcement to catch criminals. That is a very important part of this.”

Blount said even once is too much for someone to be falsely imprisoned when DNA evidence could have proven innocence.

According to the Innocence Project, a nationwide organization with a branch at the University of Mississippi Law School, there have been 220 post-conviction exonerations in the country since 1989. The average length of time served by those who are exonerated is 12 years.

In addition to the Willis case, two others in Mississippi involved Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer. Both men were convicted of separate but very similar murders of children in rural Noxubee County in the 1990s.

“The apparent perpetrator of these crimes, Justin Albert Johnson, evaded justice for more than 15 years, while two innocent men were in prison (one on death row),” said W. Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project.

Brewer was sentenced to death, and Brooks was sentenced to life in prison before they were released when DNA evidence proved their innocence.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has appealed to the Mississippi Legislature to address the lack of adequate funding to the Mississippi State Crime Lab and Medical Examiner’s office, as well as the state’s system for gathering and processing DNA samples. Mississippi does not have a full-time medical examiner to conduct autopsies and the crime lab has no handwriting analyst.

Hood proposes two tiers of funding, one of which focuses on a continuous revenue source and one which provides the necessary money for a much needed new facility. Funding would include a $13 increase on every ticket in Mississippi to fund the crime lab, and defendants convicted of felonies would pay a $300 crime lab fund fee.

He also supports a general fund appropriation of $40 million for the construction of a new crime lab, medical examiner’s office and DNA processing facility between 90,000-100,000 square feet in size.

“These suggestions are from the very people in the law enforcement community who directly feel the impact of inadequate funding,” Hood said. “We studied our crime lab operation here, and we traveled to our neighboring states to see how they compared. We know we need a larger space in which to operate, and we know we need to generate more funds. What we are offering are reasonable short-term solutions.”

Michael Guest, district attorney for Madison and Rankin counties and a member of an Attorney General Office task force formed to study the issue, said the criminal justice system would be better served by fully funding our crime lab.

“We would no longer see delays in indictments being handed down by the Grand Jury or in cases going to trial,” Guest said. “What we are proposing will help increase the lengths of sentences for those who are found guilty and will help exonerate those that are innocent.”

The task force consisted of representatives from the Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Public Safety, the State Crime Lab, the Department of Corrections, police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, coroners and pathologists.

Innocence Project has had to close 33 percent of their accepted cases nationwide because of lost or missing evidence. Better funding would help alleviate that problem in Mississippi.

The preservation of DNA samples is a very important aspect of forensics, said Deedra Hughes, DNA technical leader for the Mississippi Crime Lab.

“The success of the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) proves this importance,” Hughes said. “The CODIS database allows the crime lab to search forensic unknown profiles against known convicted offender profiles in our state and the entire U.S. We currently have over 28,000 profiles in the Mississippi database. With our database we have assisted in solving 65 cases where a suspect was not known. So it is very important to preserve forensic samples so that they can be entered into CODIS. The power of solving a cold case is increased with the CODIS database.”

DNA testing requires several different processes. Each process has a dedicated piece of equipment. The equipment needed to perform the testing done at the Mississippi Crime Lab ranges from $40,000 for an extraction machine to $110,000 for a genetic analyzer.

Hughes said there have been great improvements in DNA technology in recent years.

“When testing on DNA first began, you needed a large amount of sample to obtain a profile,” Hughes said. “With the advancements of technology today, it only requires a small amount of sample to obtain a DNA profile. We have also started obtaining profiles from ‘touch DNA.’ The testing procedures have also been improved by automation. This allows for a more efficient testing process.”

Touch DNA can detect DNA from just a very small sample.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

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