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Birmingham News, OUR VIEW: Another reason to be a little less confident about the outcomes at criminal trials: A new study suggests it's more common than once thought for people to be wrongly convicted of homicide and sexual assault

OUR VIEW: Another reason to be a little less confident about the outcomes at criminal trials: A new study suggests it's more common than once thought for people to be wrongly convicted of homicide and sexual assault
Published: Wednesday, June 20, 2012, 5:45 AM
 By Birmingham News editorial board The Birmingham News

Those in the legal profession tell us juries get it right more often than not. And more often than not, they do.

But sometimes, they don't, a fact driven home in a new study released this week. Specifically, the findings suggest wrongful convictions in cases involving homicide and sexual assault are more common than many assumed. Past estimates were that the rate of wrongful convictions was 3 percent or even less. But in this new study, researchers studying old homicide and sexual assault cases found DNA exonerated a convicted offender 5 percent of the time. When the sexual assault cases were singled out, the DNA tested did not match 8 percent to 15 percent of convicted offenders.

The study was carried out by the nonpartisan Urban Institute with funding from the U.S. Justice Department's National Institute of Justice. It was based on a review of 634 cases in Virginia between 1973 and 1987 in which convictions occurred and physical evidence had been preserved. The DNA Post-Conviction and Actual Innocence study has its strengths and weaknesses, as all research does. But the outcome offers a fresh reminder that the same can be said for criminal prosecutions and jury verdicts. They may be generally reliable, but they are not infallible.

That is an especially important point as it relates to the most serious of crimes that carry a sentence of death. It's bad enough when innocent people are convicted of crimes; there's really no good way to make up for years of wrongful imprisonment, separation from family and tarnished reputations. But there's no way at all to fix it when a person is put to death for a crime he didn't commit.

Nowadays, DNA evidence is used on the front end to eliminate suspects in some criminal cases. But it is not a cure-all for miscarriages of justice. Most crimes -- present and past -- can't be solved with DNA tests because there is no biological evidence to examine. The Urban Institute research reinforced the fact that DNA testing is far more valuable in sexual assault cases than other kinds of cases.

But looking at old cases where DNA can be used to re-examine the guilt of a convicted defendant at least gives us something to go on in trying to evaluate the chances for mistakes to occur across the board. It stands to reason that if wrongful convictions occur in cases where DNA can be used to set the record straight, they also occur in cases where DNA science is of no use whatsoever.

That's especially a concern given the fact that the other kinds of scientific techniques used to convict people of crimes in the absence of DNA evidence have been found to be far less than solid. The National Academy of Sciences issued a report in 2009 that raised serious questions about the scientific value of old standbys such as ballistics tests, hair analysis and fingerprint comparisons.

These methods have been linked to wrongful convictions in past studies. A University of Virginia law professor studied cases where DNA tests had led to exonerations and found faulty forensics tests were the No. 2 cause of wrongful convictions. (Mistaken eyewitnesses were the No. 1 cause.)

Researchers in the Urban Institute study found some common ground and some areas of disagreement with past research in this area. But the study by the institute's Justice Policy Center -- which the authors said was the first to test DNA for a large and unbiased sample of serious crime convictions -- provides additional reason to worry about the fallibility of criminal trials.

"These findings are important not only because they highlight the scale of wrongful convictions, but also because there are hundreds of victims in Virginia -- and potentially thousands throughout the United States -- for whom justice was not served," lead researcher John Roman said in a press release.

Yes, that is the sometimes-overlooked flipside to the question of erroneous convictions. What's at stake isn't just making sure innocent people aren't convicted of crimes but making sure guilty people don't get away.

If this new study is any indication, that happens more than most of us wanted to think.

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