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Dead Men Walking: The Case for DNA Testing

A new bill giving states grants to analyze DNA samples collected from crime scenes may soon result in thousands of exonerations, including from death row.
 
 
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May 12, 1978: It was a grisly scene in Chicago's Ford Heights neighborhood. A white suburban couple was found dead after being kidnaped and shot at point blank range. Over the next few days, police arrested four young black men after receiving an anonymous phone tip.

"The day of my arrest is something that's unforgettable," said Dennis Williams, one of the accused, in a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey. "The officer said, 'Nigger, you gonna fry.'"

Although prosecutors had no real physical evidence, they charged the "Ford Heights Four" with murder. Williams maintained his innocence, but within a year, the suspects were tried and convicted. For the next 18 years, Williams lived on death row, 25 feet away from the electric chair.

"I had never been in the room, but officers had told me when they walked in the room, it was like they could smell death," he said. "I'd jump up sometimes in the middle of the night sweatin'."

Student Detectives

In 1987, he was again sentenced to death after a second trial and a second lawyer failed him. Williams lost all faith in the legal system, but refused to give up. Meanwhile, miles across town at Northwestern University, journalism professor David Protess assigned his students the task of uncovering the truth.

After spending only a month on the investigation, the students found the key piece of evidence at the bottom of a box. They uncovered a street file showing that within one week of the crime, the police knew who the real killers were and had buried it. A few months later, a DNA test exonerated Williams and the other men. The real killers later confessed to the journalism students on tape and were brought to trial.

On June 14, 1996, Williams was finally set free. "I felt good, but I couldn't express it because I had stopped believing in justice," he said. "So this is what's scary about the death penalty. A journalism professor got more justice in this case than anybody in law enforcement had the courage to get."

Today, Williams never leaves home without calling someone so that he has an alibi. "With time, I think there will be a degree of healing, but to what extent, I don't know."

Freed From Death Row

Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated, 87 men and women have been taken off death row and freed because they were proven innocent. Racial bias, legal incompetence and DNA testing have all had an impact on these cases.

One of the most famous was Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, depicted in the movie "The Hurricane." In 1985, the former middleweight boxer -- convicted twice of a triple murder in 1966 -- was released from Rahway State Prison after 19 years. A judge ruled that Carter had been denied his civil rights by prosecutors during trials in 1967 and 1976.

Then there's Randall Dale Adams, whose life inspired the documentary, "The Thin Blue Line." The state of Texas sentenced him to death for killing a police officer in 1976. Adams was released in 1989 after DNA testing proved he did not commit the crime -- just 72 hours before his scheduled execution.

It's important to note that the majority of death row prisoners are guilty. But one study suggests that for every six people executed, one is set free on the grounds of newly-discovered evidence of innocence.

Horrible Odds

"How can anyone say these are anything but horrible odds?" said attorney Barry Scheck, DNA evidence expert and co-founder of The Innocence Project, in a recent Associated Press report. "Almost one in six times, we are dead wrong. If you got the wrong results at a hospital one in six times, you'd have no faith in the system. You'd demand the hospital be shut down."

Founded in 1992, The Innocence Project provides pro bono legal assistance to inmates who are challenging their convictions based on DNA testing of evidence.

According to records held by the project, 63 people -- most of whom were incarcerated for murder or rape -- have been exonerated with the help of DNA testing, which became available in the 1980's. The Innocence Project has assisted with 36 of those cases. They are currently handling 200 cases, with another 1000 pending evaluation.

With current techniques, it is possible for a single person to be differentiated from all the people that have ever lived using DNA from a single hair root. But it only works when all the circumstances come together. Many states do not allow DNA testing, and if they do, DNA evidence is often not available.

Also, police and prosecutors are often resistant to re-open cases, whether it be for political reasons or for the sake of finality of conviction. For the innocent person in jail, it is an almost insurmountable, but familiar, obstacle.

DNA Legislation

On October 2, 2000, the U.S. House approved legislation that will give states grants to analyze backlogged DNA samples collected from crime scenes and convicted sex offenders. The legislation also gives the FBI authority to collect and analyze DNA samples as part of its own investigations.

Congressman Bart Stupak, who introduced similar legislation last year, said the bill will greatly benefit states like Michigan, which has collected 15,000 blood samples from sex offenders since 1991, but has only been able to analyze and catalogue 500 of them.

"Right now, state and local police departments cannot deal with the number of DNA samples from convicted offenders and unsolved crimes," said Stupak. "States simply do not have enough time, money, or resources to test and record these samples."

"They Didn't Do the Right Thing"

Had DNA testing not been available in his case, Kirk Bloodsworth would be dead today. In 1984, the ex-marine with no criminal history was arrested for the brutal rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl in Maryland.

"Obviously, I was shocked," said Bloodsworth, interviewed on the same Oprah Winfrey Show as Dennis Williams. "What is the world doing here? They've got this all wrong...this hell- ish nightmare that just snowballed into a really big mess."

Bloodsworth's nightmare began with a widely-publicized sketch of the killer and subsequent finger-pointing by his neighbor. He said the police and prosecutors were so determined to solve the case that they refused to listen. "They not only totally ruined my life at the time, but the memory of the little girl they totally crushed by the fact that they didn't do the right thing. And that was, go for the truth."

From the beginning, Bloodsworth maintained his innocence. But in March of 1985, he listened in horror as a judge sentenced him to death. The courtroom erupted in applause. "Everything went into a tunnel for me from that point on," he said. "I was in shock."

He spent the next two years on death row in a cell under the gas chamber. "My first night there, I could close my eyes and see it, the paint peeling off the cell walls and the hollering, the screaming, the smell. I just sat down on my bunk and cried."

"It Can Happen to Anybody"

Somehow, Bloodsworth found the inner strength to move past anger and keep battling to prove his innocence. "I knew I was right. I wrote letters, I called people on the phone, I did anything and everything I could do to get people to listen."

In 1986, he won a new trial, but was sentenced to life without parole. Reading became his only comfort, and the book, "The Blooding" by Joseph Wambaugh, provided the key to his release in 1993. He learned about DNA testing in the crime story, then fought to be tested himself. The results proved he could not have committed that murder. After spending 8 years, 11 months, and 19 days in a maximum security prison, Bloodsworth walked free on July 28, 1993.

Since his release, he has dedicated his life to ending the death penalty. "If it had been anywhere else, in Florida or Texas, I'd be a dead man," he said. "The scary thing is, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody."