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Innocence Projects Abroad

Tue, 02/12/2013 - 12:43pm
Chris Asplen

As I write this column today, on the front page of the New York Times is a story about Joseph A. Buffy who, 11 years ago at the age of 19 was accused and convicted of raping an 83-year-old woman. He has subsequently been exonerated through DNA testing and another inmate, in another prison, in another state has been connected to the crime through a DNA profile. The article uses the Buffy case to highlight the issue of allowing defense attorneys access to the CODIS database system. And I must confess, it takes every bit of self-restraint right now to resist writing this column about the irony of a defense community, the vast majority of whom will object at every turn to any expansion of the DNA database, that argues their right to access that same database because of its exonerative power. But resist I shall—at least for now. Instead, what the Buffy case and this article exemplify is the intertwined nature of DNA exonerations and greater DNA utilization in general. It also highlights the value of two global examples where DNA exonerative efforts are growing.

There have been a number of broad policy and legislative initiatives in the United States that have driven the use of DNA technology and the CODIS database to help solve crime, protect the innocent, and prevent future victimization. The President’s Initiative on DNA, The Debbie Smith Act, and the recently passed Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Federal Law were all substantial steps toward a full integration of DNA into our criminal justice system. But the first big effort by the U.S. government to maximize the potential of DNA technology came with the Department of Justice’s National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence. However, what most people don’t realize is that, while that was a time of extensive investment in and expansion of CODIS and FBI laboratory resources, it wasn’t the investigative power of DNA that prompted the Attorney General to create a “National” commission. Rather, it was the exonerative power of DNA, illustrated in the National Institute of Justice Study: “Convicted by Juries Exonerated by Science: Case Studies in the Use of DNA Evidence to Establish Innocence After Trial,” that prompted Attorney General Reno to create the Commission. It wasn’t 26 violent rapes that were solved, nor was it 26 CODIS hits. It was 26 convictions which were proven to be undeniably wrong through DNA testing that drove the first broad effort to enhance law enforcement training, increase laboratory funding, and expand the scope of databasing.

Now, in two other countries, efforts focusing on the protection and exoneration of the innocent through DNA technology may help bring about safer and more just societies. Innocence projects in The Philippines and South Africa offer an avenue for the legal systems in those countries to begin to appreciate the impact of implementing DNA technology more fully.

This December, Dr. Maria Corazon De Ungria of the DNA Analysis Laboratory, Natural Sciences Research Institute, University of the Philippines (UP), Attorney Jose Jose of the Office of Legal Aid, UP College of Law, and numerous partners launched the Innocence Project Philippines Network (IPPN) at the National Bilibid Prison. Law students and faculty from UP, Ateneo de Davao, and De La Salle University, volunteers and partners from the Free Legal Assistance Group, Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Philippine Jesuit Prison Service, UP DNA Analysis Laboratory and three lawyers from Cebu, including one from Southwestern University, went to the National Bilibid Prison to attend the launch and to interview prisoners who claim to have been wrongfully convicted. The participants from Davao and Cebu are planning to launch the Innocence Project Philippines in the penal colonies within their own regions. Life Technologies, also assisting with the launch, has donated molecular reagents and consumables when a case requiring post-conviction DNA tests is found.

Through a series of launch events, outreach projects, and training programs, the IPPN has systematically introduced a dynamic project in a country with a judicial system in significant need of assistance. Having toured the National Bilibid Prison several years ago with Dr. De Ungria, I can tell you that, as horrible as wrongful conviction is anywhere it can be found, it’s worse in a Philippine prison. I’ve seen the prison first hand and to say that the conditions and provisions (or lack thereof) in a Philippine prison constitute human rights violations themselves is an understatement.

It is no surprise to me that Dr. De Ungria has undertaken this project and created a dynamic program with very limited resources. The exonerative power of DNA is not new to her. At her request, I traveled to the Philippines ten years ago because, even then, they were using DNA in an exonerative context through a grant from the European Union. Since seeing their work back then, she has been one of my favorite speakers to recommend around the world to those looking to implement DNA with limited resources. Dr. De Ungria’s work for the past ten years, culminating in the launch of the official Innocence Project Philippines Network at the National Bilibid Prison, is proof that vision and leadership can drive change in the face of significant systemic and financial limitations.

Now, if you read this column, even only occasionally, you know that I love South Africa. But it drives me crazy. The disconnect in South Africa between the sophisticated potential of forensic DNA and the actual benefits of its application result in the significant loss of life on a daily basis. But there is now yet another effort to leverage DNA’s potential fight the battle of injustice in South Africa.

Last October, as part of their advisory committee, I attended an organizational meeting of the Innocence Project SA in Cape Town, South Africa. Also in attendance were Dr. De Ungria and Attorney Jose (of course); Ed Huffine, Vice President International Development at Bode Technologies,; Vanessa Lynch, Executive Director of the DNA Project, SA; Oliver Preisig of Inqababiotec; Dr. Eugenia D’Amato of the University of the Western Cape; Prof Gerhard Kemp from Stellenbosch University; and the Project’s primary driver, Prof Sean Davison, head of the forensic DNA Laboratory at the University of the Western Cape. While in earlier stages of development than the project in the Philippines, the Innocence Project SA is on its way to develop the necessary resources, establish the relationships, and maximize the considerable legal and scientific expertise found in that country that will bring hope to the wrongfully convicted and a vision for the broader impact that forensic DNA can have on the judicial system.

Focusing on casework, research, communication, and reform the IPSA maintains a vision that extends beyond the utilization of DNA for exoneration purposes. It recognizes that it can also act as a forum to identify where investigative methods, both forensic science based and not, have been effective or have lead to wrongful convictions. As such, it looks forward to having a broad impact on the nature and quality of justice in South Africa.

While I started out writing about the connection between exonerations and database expansion, I am not suggesting that anyone involved in these projects look for that result specifically. As I noted a bit sarcastically above, it is possible to be wholeheartedly in support of identifying the wrongfully convicted through DNA while at the same time considering database expansion to be somewhat in violation of civil or humanitarian rights. But whether they intend it to or not, the inescapable conclusion to be made from these programs will be, as it was in the United States, that if appropriate resources were dedicated to empowering law enforcement to leverage the power of DNA in the first place, there would be significantly less need for their existence.

But currently, there is significant, and I will go so far as to say desperate, need for their existence and important work. As such, I have provided their Web site addresses below. If you visit the sites, you will notice among other things, a donation page. And since you are reading this column in the first place, you are connected to this issue enough to know that in both of those countries there are people sitting, figuratively and literally, in very dark places, suffering the daemons that sit on the shoulders of the wrongfully imprisoned. They would very much appreciate it if you would consider helping Dr. De Ungria and Dr. Davison to help them.

The Innocence Project SA: http://innocenceprojectsa.com/

The Innocence Project Philippines: http://www.facebook.com/InnocenceProjectPhilippines

Chris Asplen is President of Asplen and Associates, LLC. He consults with local, state, federal, and international governments on the use of forensic DNA technology. chrisasplen@gmail.com

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