Johnnie Earl Lindsey spent twenty-six years in prison for a rape he did not commit. He was convicted based on the victim’s misidentification of him from a photograph shown to her a year after the crime occurred. The jury found her perception more credible than the word of Lindsey’s supervisor, who had testified that Lindsey had been at work at the time of the assault.
Today’s extremely precise technologies for analyzing DNA were not dreamed of two decades ago, when Lindsey was arrested and tried. By ordinary measures, therefore, he had had his day in court. The victim asserted his guilt; he asserted his innocence; a jury of their peers believed that her story was true beyond any reasonable doubt. As a formal matter, the conviction withstands the requirements of due process, no reason to look back.
Luckily, Johnnie Earl Lindsey’s case fell within the jurisdiction of Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. Watkins, who in 2008 became Dallas’s first black district attorney, inaugurated a unit within his office in conjunction with the Innocence Project of Texas to re-examine the forensic material in closed cases using improved methods of DNA analysis. The results have been nothing short of stunning: of forty cases reviewed, almost half have ended with complete exoneration of the men originally convicted–nineteen men who lost an average of twenty years each while wrongly imprisoned.
Nationwide, the Innocence Project has facilitated 240 post-conviction exonerations, seventeen of which were of death row inmates. Perhaps the most famous reversal was that of the young men so noisily and ultimately wrongly convicted in the Central Park Jogger case. But outside Dallas County, most of these successes have been the result of individual convicts mounting numerous appeals to have the evidence against them reopened. Craig Watkins’s program in Dallas suggests that the overall numbers would be even more staggeringly high if prosecutors in all states took it upon themselves to test available DNA samples from old or suspect cases.
Indeed, in recognition of the probative value of this new technology, all states now admit DNA testing at trial; and all but three states honor requests for some form of post-conviction testing. If the end of our justice system is the protection of all of us through the restraint and detention of actually dangerous people, then the potential accuracy of DNA testing is an opportunity to be embraced and enlarged.
But last week, in the case of District Attorney’s Office for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne, the US Supreme Court’s conservative majority marched stolidly backward in time, ruling that there is no constitutional right to post-conviction analysis of DNA samples. The facts of the case unfolded in Alaska, one of those three states where post-conviction DNA testing remains a matter of prosecutorial and judicial discretion. In 1993, one William Osborne was convicted of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a prostitute on the outskirts of Anchorage. The victim identified Osborne “with some uncertainty,” from a photograph and again at trial. The condom used in the rape was found at the scene, but was not tested for a match using the most precise DNA technology of the time. Osborne maintains that he requested that it be so tested and that the results be presented at trial; but apparently his defense counsel believed he was guilty and thought it better not to conduct such a test as a tactical matter. So no such request was presented to the trial court.