No one has ever claimed that the justice system doesn't make mistakes. But once a jury or a judge has spoken, identifying and correcting a mistake can be extraordinarily difficult.
Increasing reliance on DNA testing is changing that, at least to a degree. In cases where evidence can be subjected to such testing, the process can determine with virtual certainty whether an individual was present when a crime was committed.
Little wonder that this tool has sparked widespread efforts to establish the innocence of people already behind bars. In one case, out of Georgia, DNA testing is being used to ascertain whether a man executed four years ago was in fact not guilty (see story, page one).
A role reversal of sorts is taking place in California, where a number of county prosecutors are exploring ways to make DNA testing available to inmates who have long pleaded innocence. In Orange County, prosecutors and public defenders are discussing ways of working together to reopen cases. San Diego County's district attorney is offering free DNA testing to convicts who can reasonably claim it may exonerate them.
These California prosecutors deserve commendation. Clearing the innocent isn't usually thought of as part of their job description.
In practice, DNA testing isn't likely to mean a large-scale opening of prison doors. It won't be applicable in cases that don't hinge on physical evidence like hair samples or bodily fluids. So far, however, some 70 convictions across the country - including eight that resulted in death sentences - have been successfully challenged using DNA testing.
In one widely publicized Texas case, a man convicted of rape and sentenced to 99 years is likely to get a pardon from Gov. George W. Bush because DNA tests have established his innocence.
The strange part of that case is that the man's innocence had been affirmed twice before, once because of earlier DNA testing and once because of the weakness of the original, highly circumstantial evidence. Both times, higher legal authority in Texas reinstated the conviction.
As DNA testing, like fingerprint evidence, becomes a standard part of the justice process, there will be fewer sentences subject to later reversal through its use.
Meanwhile, every case reversed by this new kind of evidence should give prosecutors and defense attorneys added incentive to do their jobs thoroughly, and fairly, the first time around.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society