What Kind of 'Justice System' Refuses to Test DNA Evidence?

The real scandal in the case of Sharon Snyder, who was fired for helping to exonerate an innocent prisoner
dna full reuters.jpg
Reuters
Outrage rippled across the web earlier this week as Americans heard the story of Sharon Snyder, "a 70-year-old great-grandmother who was fired nine months before she was scheduled to retire." Her transgression? An employee of Jackson County Circuit Court, she helped a man in prison who sought to have the DNA evidence in his case tested, but had his request rejected twice on technicalities because he hadn't managed to properly fill out the paperwork.

Robert Nelson, 49, sought DNA testing to overturn his rape conviction in 2009 and again in 2011, but Judge David Byrn denied both requests because he hadn't crafted the motion properly. "After the second motion failed in late October 2011, Snyder gave Nelson's sister, Sea Dunnell, a copy of a motion filed in a different case in which the judge sustained a DNA request," AP reports. Using that public document as a guide, Nelson finally won the right to have the DNA evidence tested on February 22, 2012. Last month, that DNA test proved him innocent.

And five days after he was released, Synder was fired for involving herself in a case before the court. "At first I didn't know if my pension was going to be intact, and all I could do was curl up in a fetal position and cry," she told AP. In fact, she will collect her full pension, the news story states.

The outrage generated on Snyder's behalf is understandable. When powerful people break the law in America -- torturing prisoners, say, or illegally spying on Americans without warrants -- they're granted retroactive immunity. It's only when regular Americans violate some law or rule, even to remedy an obvious injustice, that the importance of enforcing the rules is suddenly sacrosanct. But in this case, the great-grandmother was about to retire anyway, gets her full pension, and walks out the courthouse door knowing she helped free an innocent man from prison.

That's a happy ending.

The true outrage in this case is that Nelson was twice denied a DNA test that ultimately proved his innocence. Judge Byrn may have been following the letter of the law when he denied those two DNA requests, but he wasn't serving justice -- he was keeping an innocent in jail for two extra years. Why deny any inmate a DNA test that could definitively prove that he was innocent, especially in a country where DNA evidence has led to the post-conviction exoneration of 310 people? On average, those wrongfully incarcerated men served 13.6 years in prison.

Yet according to the Innocence Project, "Despite the widespread acceptance of DNA testing as a powerful and reliable form of forensic evidence that can conclusively reveal guilt or innocence, many prisoners do not have the legal means to secure testing on evidence in their case," and as frustratingly, "even in many of the states that grant access to DNA testing, the laws are limited in scope and substance. Motions for testing are often denied, even when a DNA test would undoubtedly confirm guilt or prove innocence and an inmate offers to pay for testing."

The system is unjust. That is the national outrage illustrated once again by this case.

Of course, it was also illustrated by the case of Willie Manning. "On the eve of his execution," my colleague Andrew Cohen explained in a powerful article published in May, "state officials say there should be no DNA or fingerprint testing for a condemned man who maintains his innocence."

What sort of state official opposes such requests?

When an inmate is exonerated by DNA, the most important consequence is the release of an innocent man or woman from prison, but that isn't all that happens. Taxpayers need no longer pay for room and board. Family members and friends stop suffering an absence. And in roughly half of DNA exonerations to date, the true perpetrator of the crime has been identified by the evidence. Everyone wins, save for the police, prosecutor, judge, and jury who put the innocent man away. They ought to admit their mistakes. Many do. But sometimes they keep fighting.

The cost of a DNA test is trivial compared to the possibility (and cost) of incarcerating an innocent person for years or even decades. A criminal justice system that lived up to its name wouldn't force prisoners to fight for these tests, jumping through hoops that require a law degree to understand. A just system would automatically test DNA in any case where it could conclusively prove innocence or guilt. Too often in our system, the adversarial nature of most proceedings obscure the fact that the end goal is to punish the guilt and exonerate the innocent. If prosecutors and judges who send innocents to prison face no consequences for doing so, even as a court clerk who helps to exonerate an innocent man is fired for insubordination, everyone may well be faithfully applying rules that were adopted with the best of intentions.

The contrast nevertheless suggests that it is time to adopt better rules (barring better Supreme Court justices). The Innocence Project says state DNA statutes should have the following attributes:

  •  Allow testing in cases where DNA testing can establish innocence - including cases where the inmate pled guilty
  • Not include a "sunset provision" or expiration date for post-conviction DNA access
  • Require states to preserve and account for biological evidence
  • Eliminate procedural bars to DNA testing (allow people to appeal orders denying DNA testing; explicitly exempt DNA-related motions from the restrictions that govern other post-conviction cases; mandate full, fair and prompt proceedings once a motion seeking testing is filed)
  • Avoid creating an unfunded mandate, and instead provide the money to back up the new statute
  • Provide flexibility in where and how DNA testing is conducted
I'll bet Sharon Snyder would sign on to all that. I'm less sure about her former colleagues in Jackson County. But what really matters is the legislation passed by state legislators and Congress. DNA exoneration should be a priority -- it's a rare opportunity to make almost everyone better off.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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