8.29.2016 / By Benjamin Siele
The Innocence Project and other advocacy groups are relying on forensics to challenge the politics of punishment in Louisiana and to present relief to communities of color.
Every time an innocent person is falsely accused and convicted, a criminal escapes justice. Thanks to DNA testing, the criminal justice system is now getting it right more often than not. However, much work needs to be done to address a staggering backlog of wrongful convictions, some of which don’t involve DNA samples—and many of which disproportionately involve people of color.
The US Department of Justice estimates that as many as 100 000 inmates in the US may be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Another related statistic, this one from the Bureau of Justice, states that one in three black males born in the US will go to jail or prison in their lifetime. In Louisiana, which has the highest imprisonment rate of any state, or country, blacks make up 66% of the prison and jail populations, even though they account for just 32% of the general population.
It turns out that some of those prisoners have been wrongfully convicted: 63% of those imprisoned in Louisiana who have been proven innocent through DNA testing were African American, thanks to efforts by the nonprofit legal aid group, The Innocence Project. Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) has used DNA evidence to clear several wrongfully convicted people, many of whom were sentenced to life without parole. IPNO has won the freedom of 27 wrongfully convicted prisoners.
Henry James (see image below) was exonerated and released from prison in 2011 after serving 30 years in Angola Farm, the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He had been sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1982 after he had been convicted for raping his neighbor, largely based on her eyewitness testimony.
Caption: James with his attorney Paul Killebrew [Credit: Innocence Project New Orleans]
Fortunately for James, Louisiana law provides that evidence should be preserved for the duration of the offender’s sentence and allows for post-conviction DNA testing—which is what helped to set him free three decades later.
But for every case that involves DNA, there are dozens that do not. Only about 10% of criminal cases have any biological evidence such as blood, semen, skin cells, or hair. The same system failures in DNA cases also lead to wrongful convictions in non-DNA cases. The Innocence Project and other advocacy groups are beginning to rely on more than DNA samples. Alternative techniques, such as powerful, high-tech microscopes, are being utilized in non-DNA cases. For example, a comparison microscope can analyze different hair samples and an electron microscope can identify illegal drugs. In such cases, the new forensic lab at Southern University at New Orleans will play a key role; in doing so, it will also join the effort to overturn more wrongful convictions and expose more perpetrators.
Benjamin Siele is a senior Forensic Science major at Southern University – New Orleans and a 2016 HBSciU fellow.
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