The Science of Sustainability

5 out of 9 Justices Recommend Leaving Innocent People in Jail

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In a truly awful decision reminiscent of Gore vs. Bush, the Supreme Court has decided that there should be no federal mandate for genetic testing after someone has been convicted. Even though DNA evidence can free innocent people who were wrongfully accused. How absurd is this?

It is especially hard to understand when there is ample evidence that there are plenty of innocents in prison. And when a DNA test can prove so conclusive in showing their innocence.

A case I use in a high school activity (and which will be highlighted in the new Technology Benefiting Humanity exhibition at The Tech) involves Marvin Anderson. He is an African American who was convicted of rape by an all white jury in the South.

Court TV produced a great documentary that details all of the mistakes that sent Marvin to prison. And how the Virginia state government, much like our current Supreme Court, fought the simple DNA test that eventually proved his innocence.

Marvin was a suspect because he had a white girlfriend and the rapist had said that he had a white girlfriend during the attack. In a photo line up, Marvin’s was the only picture in color. Then, in the real line up, Marvin was the only man who had been shown in the photo line up.

Marvin’s lawyer represented the man who had really committed the crime. The trial lasted one day and as I said, Marvin was sent to jail by an all white jury. And while Marvin languished in prison, the real rapist confessed but the judge threw out the confession.

This is when the Innocence Project took up the case. The Innocence Project uses genetic testing to free innocent men and women. After hearing the details of Marvin’s case, they decided to help him clear his name. And it was not easy!

First off, they had to find the evidence from the case. This is often hard to do because evidence gets thrown away after a certain amount of time.

But, by a miraculous fluke, the Virginia government found the evidence from the rape kit… it had been saved in a lab notebook. So all that needed to be done was to see if the DNA from the crime scene matched Marvin's. If it didn’t, then Marvin most likely was innocent.

But the Virginia government would not allow the evidence to be tested. Apparently, just like the Supreme Court, procedure mattered more than innocence to the bureaucrats involved.

How many people like Marvin Anderson are waiting for the justice system to do the right thing?
Finally, in 2001, after Marvin had been in jail for 15 years and spent four years on parole, Virginia passed an Innocence Project backed statute that allowed DNA evidence to be tested in some cases. Marvin’s was the first evidence tested under the new statute. He was found to be innocent and the police were able to use the evidence to catch the real rapist.

If the Virginia government had not done the right thing, the real rapist would be free to continue committing crimes. And everyone would still see Marvin as a rapist.

There are undoubtedly Marvins rotting in jail in the three states that don’t allow for genetic testing after a conviction (Alaska, Oklahoma, and Massachusetts). And other Marvins are probably in those other states that only allow genetic testing in certain situations.

The Supreme Court could have given all of these innocent people the chance that Marvin finally got after 19 years. But five justices decided against doing that.

Now I suppose there is probably some legalese reason why the Supreme Court ruled that innocent people should stay locked up. But I am not lawyer enough to understand it. And neither are the Marvins still out there, waiting for justice.

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • Charlie

    Of course you are correct in your supposition that there is some legal reason why the Supreme Ct ruled the way it did.

    It is not up to the Court to make laws. It must follow the Constitutional mandates. In this case they left it up to the states to decide on the use of DNA testing. The 10th Amendment gives this power to the states.

    It would be nice if individuals could decide for themselves what is right and best for this country without it interfering with the rights of others, but that is impossible.

    Your first statement regarding Gore vs. Bush indicates your liberal and left wing view of the United States. Just because you have the Dr. degree doesn't mean that you have a superior ability to know what is best for the people in the United States. It would be much better for you to state what your opinion is rather than state that your opinion is superior to that of the Supreme Court of the U. S.

    You'd be more believable if you did.

  • http://www.thetech.org/genetics/index.php Barry Starr

    My degree gives me no superior ability in law…I freely admit that I am not knowledgeable about constitutional law. What I do know is that there are innocent men and women in prison who could be freed with a simple DNA test.

    See http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/1852.php for more information about the legal grounds on which the Innocence Project brought their case to the Supreme Court.

    Also, Gore vs. Bush didn't bother me because of its outcome…Bush would probably have won a recount anyway. What bothered me about that ruling was that it split in a way that obviously fit with the biases of the Justices themselves. Up to that point I had the naive view that the Court was impartial and unbiased.

  • http://www.fiorentinoresearch.com John Fiorentino

    Unfortunately, this is a States' rights issue. Therein is the rub.

    Are there some innocent people in jail? You bet, just as there are guilty ones walking the streets. Both ideas are repulsive and tragedies in their own right.

    Our system of justice is far from perfect, but all in all functions as designed.

    "Charlie" is correct re: the 10th amendment.

    I think Dr. Starr's "Gore vs. Bush" analogy is simple wrong. On the other hand, I don't feel Dr. Starr was flaunting his Ph'D to indicate he has "a superior ability to know what is best for the people in the United States."

    Dr. Starr's politics are irrelevant to the issue at hand. He simply doesn't understand the law, but that is certainly not an indictment.

    I feel quite the opposite about Charlie's analysis of Dr. Starr.

    The fact is, it would be much healthier for everyone if we could get away from this "qualification" issue. Dr. Starr is entitled to his opinion, just as you are. Whether that opinion can be judged "right or wrong" is a different issue entirely.

    Personally, I'm glad to see the Dr. commenting on things with a broader scope.

  • bob

    Laws are laws. Laws are often conflicting and There is fundamental requirement of justice in constitution. It is to support standing and respect of the courts in the system. It is ironic, that through this decision the SC has put the entire judicial system into disrepute. It appears like a clown circus now.

    Further there is doctrine of "beyond reasonable doubt". The cases highlight that judicial system failed to analyze cases properly. Punishing innocent is the worst which can happen. The real offender avoids punishment, while somebody looses their life. Instead of correcting the failures to restore justice, it appears the system tries to keep lid on the discovery of the true scope and extent of the problem.

  • Stephan

    I'm usually more willing to believe that the majority of people in prison don't belong there. In many states people who belong locked up in mental institutions on medication are locked behind bars. The prison system is then required to deal with those people. Another issue is that most guilty people know they're guilty, and take precautions. They depend on their legal representation to either get them off or reduce what sentences they might have. Innocent people are often naive enough to believe that their Innocence will protect them. This is an extreme absurdity. Prosecutors care less about protecting the public from criminals than padding their conviction record. Politicians and judges want to appear tough on crime, so they throw the book at whomever they can in an attempt to become re-elected. The public picks its witch hunt of the season (robbery, drugs, sex crimes, ect) and our politicians in general hunt people down to burn at the stake for the public amusement.

    Consider for a second that America has 25% of the worlds prison population, and only 5% of its total population. American courts are more likely to throw someone in jail, and for longer sentences than anywhere else in the world. Do you have more rights on paper than other parts of the world? Hell yes. Are those rights observed? Hell no. Avoid the American Justice system at all costs. Never assume innocence is form of protection, and know who you're voting in as judges and State's Attorney. Also, I suggest assuming your local police are crooked (even if you know the person), and avoiding dealing with them as much as possible. Buy a gun, protect yourself, and for God's sake know your rights. Message brought to you by a Conservative.

  • http://www.thetech.org/genetics/ Barry Starr

    This response is why I like writing a blog…it is a take on the story that I hadn't considered. I never thought of myself as Marvin (although maybe I should have since I used to be hassled by the police a lot when I was younger).

  • http://www.thetech.org/genetics/ Barry Starr
  • Barry

    Another happy ending thanks to DNA testing: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110104/ap_on_re_us/us_dna_exoneration_texas Of course it is a happy ending after 31 years in prison…

  • derodhot@hotmail.com

    Please do sometihg about this I was 43 got a dwi with my very abusive husband and I had assualt deferred I did not want to take charge, The same officer whohurt me killed a black gut but oh he was on drugs so it was o.k. I had six months to go and my Dr. Violent husband had me stopped in a town where he works I gave blood to prove but telling them Iwas uncomfortable where he worked as I had talked about family violence and I watched them break chain of custody . they then planted things in the car and I ws accused of inhalants my husband texted son and told me what to do I got drug test before I knew what I was being accused of and David my husband knew all of this and had been threatening me big time I will be going to prison and I am 50 and ave no one I know Jesus went but I am not that strong I am a woman and scared and wanted to kill myself , I cant imagine being accused of murder or something.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1632956569 Chantelle Rogers Rodriguez

    What the hell is wrong with them , It should outrage any and every American that any innocent person is incarcerated !!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/sherry.quannlincoln Sherry Quann Lincoln

    This is an OUTRAGE!! There is absolutely NO reason for DNA testing to be denied to anyone thought or suspected to be innocent!!! NONE! If you have ever had a loved one wrongfully convicted, you know the hell!! To have your life stolen from you and be thrown in prison to rot, while the real purpertrator remains free to continue their rein of terror, is misjustice to the very core!! Something needs to be done! The fact that almost everyday, we are hearing about another innocent man or women being exonerated, or having their DNA exclude them from the crime, we know this is a HUGE problem that we MUST deal with NOW!!! PLEASE don't let these innocent people rot in prison for something they didn't do!!! Anyday, it could be someone you love, or even YOU!!!

  • Guest

    I sure hope that any of the Supreme Court Justices never have any family members convicted of a crime in which DNA may exonerate them. This country is SO broken.

  • http://twitter.com/LoriHoward16 Lori Howard

    I sure do hope that no Supreme Court Justice ever has a family member convicted of a crime in which DNA can exonerate them. This judicial system in this country is SO broken.

  • Ezechiele

    One such innocent inmate – who found two non-matching DNA results in his legal files, both with his name on – has written his own story. Check out 'Survivor on Death Row' ebook on Amazon, by Ohio Death Row inmate Romell Broom. He has been there 27 years and survived a failed execution in Sept 2009. Makes thought-provoking reading ….

  • tanyaisa paye

    un-American an unreal…….we need a new criminal justice system in the usa

  • Barry

    I'm so glad to see people reading this blog and being as outraged as I was. Since I wrote this, the cost of these genetic tests has dropped so much that there is no economic reason not to do these tests. They have become cheap and reliable. I am not a lawyer and so don't have a great understanding of the law but it seems to me that if we are interested in figuring out whether someone did a crime or not, then we should use every available tool to do that.

  • melly

    This is outrageous to be certain. I suppose it is possible that they are concerned about the ramifications if people are found innocent and start suing the government for wrongful incarceration. It still is not right!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ray.hill1 Ray Hill

    Votes on the United States Supreme Court have names Who voted how in this case. Or give us the cite and we can look it up…

  • MEKKAH WEAVER

    THIS IS CRAZY THEY NEED TO BE REMOVED AND THROWN IN JAIL.MY HUSBAND HAS BEEN IN JAIL 14 YEARS FOR A MURDER HE DIDNT COMMIT, WITNESSES KNOW AND WONT COME FORWARD..

  • Byron Case

    who exactly where the 5 out of 9?

  • Byron Case

    and non-DNA cases will they get a chance? How many cases has the supreme court laying on their desks, that DON"T EVEN GET LOOKED @ by the high and mighty.