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A Virginia man convicted of raping and beating a 10-year-old girl in 1990, will get new DNA testing of evidence that was never analyzed, a judge ruled this week.
Darnell Phillips, now 44, was convicted in 1991, based on a single hair. His attorneys, from the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law, discovered the additional physical evidence in October – a bag which includes DNA swabs from the victim which were never tested.
Hair evidence has been called a “junk science” in recent months, due to forensic reports claiming FBI standards were inaccurate for roughly 20 years. The Bureau has since admitted that expert testimony was inaccurate for decades – prompting some overturned convictions nationwide.
The DNA evidence will be tested, the judge ruled Monday.
“If science changes and something can be done to find out the truth, I think that should be done,” said Second Judicial Circuit Judge Bonwill Shockley, presiding over Monday’s hearing in Virginia Beach.
Phillips denied ever raping the girl. Immediately after he was found guilty he requested further testing of the single hair found on a blanket wrapped around the victim by a Good Samaritan after the attack.
The Innocence Project’s own analysis of the hair about a decade ago found it was not a “Negroid” hair – a racial characterization of the sample.
“That’s the word they use,” said Deirdre Enright, the clinic’s director of investigations. “Phillips’ counsel went back to the judge and said, ‘That’s not Darnell’s hair. That’s not a Negroid hair, but rather the hair of some man who has a white mother.’ So the judge says, ‘Oh, we’ve got a ballgame. Let’s test all the physical evidence.”
But that evidence was destroyed, according to the police records available in 2005. Over the next decade, Phillips and his attorneys attempted to find if any further evidence existed. A final motion for relief was denied in 2010.
But the attorneys kept trying to find the evidence, said Jennifer Givens, the legal director of the school’s Innocence Project clinic. For years, they filed Freedom of Information Act requests that were either left unanswered, or resulted in testimony that the evidence was destroyed.
But they kept trying – until Givens was on the phone with a Virginia Beach clerk one day last fall.
“I mentioned to her that as far as we could tell, there was no physical evidence remaining, and she replied, ‘Oh, we have a bag of evidence here,” said Givens.
A week later, Sabrine Tribie and another law students were there for the opening of the bag in question.
“Once we realized what was inside the bag, I had a difficult time containing my excitement,” said Tribie. “Not only did we find the victims (rape) kit and undergarments, but we found just about all the physical evidence in the case.
“I looked over at Professor Givens and whispered that we had just hit the jackpot,” Tribie added.
Givens told Forensic Magazine that that the plan is for the inventory of the physical evidence to be taken, and for a testing plan to be made. She hopes that will be set by March 28. The testing may take months more, she added.
The Innocence Project clinic at UVA is also looking into three cases involving the contested hair analysis. Their recent exonerations include Bennett S. Barbour in 2012, and they were also part of the team that successfully vacated the death penalty of Justin Wolfe.
Another rape conviction based on a single hair was overturned by a Massachusetts judge earlier this month. George Perrot, now 48, has served 30 years in prison for the 1985 rape and break-in, and has had his conviction overturned three times.
Multiple states have begun to audit all their criminal convictions involving hair analysis, Forensic Magazine reported last year.
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