The court acknowledged that DNA often has cleared defendants long after their convictions, so officials will by March begin keeping trial records permanently rather than destroying them after 10 years.
Local courts also will begin giving criminal defendants earlier notice of any information that might impeach police informants — such as their criminal record and whether they have been paid, won a plea deal or other inducement, or cooperated with police or prosecutors in the past. Such information will be turned over at least two weeks before trial if it does not endanger witnesses, officials said. Previously, defendants got that information a few hours or days before trial.
“The Superior Court strives to attain exemplary standards of practice in the criminal justice system,” Satterfield wrote in a letter Tuesday thanking the panel.
The changes place District authorities on a path undertaken by many state legislatures, police agencies and court systems in response to wrongful convictions discovered in recent years.
Eyewitness misidentifications have played a role in more than 70 percent of 301 DNA exonerations since 1989, a reminder that despite their persuasive power for juries, witness recollections are not always accurate. Erroneous testimony by jailhouse informants also has been a well-known problem.
Measures to correct the problem have not always kept pace. For instance, the D.C. Superior Court has not reviewed its records retention policy since 1984, before DNA testing in criminal cases.
Meanwhile, the District has seen a spate of recent mistakes. Satterfield formed the committee in response to requests by the D.C. Public Defender Service after the December 2009 exoneration of Donald Eugene Gates.
DNA tests showed that Gates spent 28 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. His conviction was based in part on the testimony of a paid police informant and an FBI agent’s mistaken forensic testimony that he found Gates’s hair on the victim.
Since then, two other District men, Santae A. Tribble and Kirk L. Odom, were exonerated through DNA tests last year after spending a combined 50 years in prison. Mistaken FBI forensic hair matches helped convict both men. Tribble’s prosecutors additionally relied on an informant who received a plea deal, and police in Odom’s case used a victim’s testimony after she was shown Odom’s photograph several times.
U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. welcomed the recommendations, adding that his office is reviewing hundreds of cases for any similar forensic testimony errors but has found none.