DOJ: Bureaucracy Goes from Bad to Lethal

February 3, 2008 | | Comments Off on DOJ: Bureaucracy Goes from Bad to Lethal

Few of us spend our days in law school contemplating those whom justice has evaded or ignored, preferring out of necessity to keep our heads low and survive this tiny journey, looking forward to the day when we can take out our shiny new degrees and battle the best of them for positive and systemic social change. Fewer of us still have an opportunity to hold the hand of a man who has spent time on death row, share a drink with him, or stand outside and contemplate whether the placement of the moon in the night sky will affect this last day of hunting season. It still gives me pause when I think of last weekend, and how many of us did just that.

If you have ever heard Kirk Noble Bloodsworth speak, you understand what it means when I say that he is a hero of sorts to those of us who attended the death penalty symposium co-hosted by the Black Law Students Association and Students for the Innocence Project last Saturday.

Kirk spent 9 years in prison, including 2 on death row, for a crime he did not commit. When his death sentence was read aloud, the courtroom erupted in applause. Though his conviction was later overturned due to Brady violations, a jury found Kirk guilty a second time, sentencing him to two consecutive life terms.

After years of fighting for a DNA test, crime scene evidence thought to be destroyed was discovered by chance and sent to a lab for DNA testing. In 1993, final reports from state and federal labs concluded that Kirk’s DNA did not match any of the evidence received for testing. Almost a decade later, on September 5, 2003, the Maryland State’s Attorney announced that a DNA match had been made in the nearly 20-year-old case.

This past week, Kirk attended a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a topic of something quite dear to him, and something quite extraordinary – the full funding of a bill in his name, the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program. The bill provides federal grants to states to conduct DNA testing. However, since the bill was passed in 2004, the Department of Justice has yet to fund a single application. What is the hold-up, you might ask – and it is the same question Kirk was asking during his visit to Congress last week.

First introduced in a United States court in 1986, forensic DNA testing has profoundly enhanced the truth-seeking function of the criminal justice system. Scientific progress that occurred in the 1990s now makes it possible to obtain results in cases where previous testing proved inconclusive. In other words, current post-conviction DNA testing procedures not only present an opportunity to exonerate the innocent in cases where testing was never conducted, but also in cases where the technology at the time could not provide conclusive results.

More than 200 people imprisoned in the United States have been proven innocent based on DNA evidence. Nonetheless, no state provides, as an absolute right, access to post-conviction DNA testing. Of the more than 35 states that do have post-conviction DNA testing laws in place, many are in stark need of revision to help provide safeguards against the conviction and incarceration of innocent people. And perhaps most importantly, every state is in desperate need of the funds to carry out this mandate – a need that could be alleviated in part by the Kirk Bloodsworth DNA Testing legislation that has yet to be implemented.

Today, however, Kirk is far from throwing in the towel, and neither is The Justice Project, which is currently working to address a variety of problems present in Kirk’s case and in the many such wrongful convictions in this country, including faulty eyewitness identification procedures, false confessions, unreliable jailhouse snitch testimony, and lack of access to discovery, etc.

As John Tucker, author of “May God Have Mercy,” potently reminded us last weekend, in the vast majority of cases, no DNA is present to help exonerate the innocent or convict the guilty. We can only hope that developing the courage and capacity to deal with questionable non-DNA cases will be another unprecedented legacy forged by Kirk and others like him, who continue to fight for justice and accountability. In the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt if the DOJ would just go ahead and put its money where its mouth is.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user mknowles 


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