Va. DNA Project Is In Uncharted Territory
Sunday, August 17, 2008
After Eva King Jones, 88, was raped and killed in her small-town Virginia home, a local man was accused and convicted. Now, 33 years later, police say newly discovered DNA evidence has led to the arrest of someone else.
In most instances, the decades-old case would have remained tucked away on a courthouse shelf. But Virginia State Police recently reopened the investigation based on new genetic clues uncovered during the state's unprecedented effort to use modern-day technology to find, and exonerate, innocent people.
Since the $1.4 million project was launched almost three years ago, samples of blood, semen and saliva from about 400 rapes, killings and other serious crimes from the 1970s and 1980s have been reexamined. About 400 more cases will be analyzed. Virginia is entering uncharted legal territory as officials face ethical and practical questions about the best way to handle the evidence.
No determination has been made about whether anyone was wrongly convicted. Most don't even know about the tests. In at least eight cases, the convicts' DNA does not match crime samples.
Defense lawyers and legal scholars commend the project, the most extensive effort nationwide to use DNA to undo false convictions, but are pushing for a more transparent process. Several legal experts have criticized a state decision to notify convicts about the tests through a letter by certified mail. They say the convicts, who will learn in the letter only that tests were conducted and not the results, might not read well enough to understand or might be suspicious of the government.
University of Virginia associate law professor Brandon L. Garrett said he does not understand the state's rejection of the offer by about 200 private lawyers who have volunteered to help notify convicts. "It's an incredible undertaking," said Garrett, who studies wrongful convictions. "It's also a stalled undertaking, and it's a secret undertaking. This hasn't been a process so far that we can have a lot of confidence in."
State officials say that they are committed to ensuring that wrongly convicted people know of evidence that could lead to exoneration but that they must consider privacy and safety concerns. They stress that most offenders are guilty and won't welcome the reminder of their crimes, or news of tests that will probably confirm their guilt. They are also sensitive about reopening old wounds for victims.
"Nothing like this has ever been done, and we have to really be careful because we're dealing with people's lives. We're dealing with people's privacy," said Joseph P. Bono, chairman of the Virginia Forensic Science Board. He noted that the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which assists people who say they were wrongly convicted, has agreed to be listed on the letters as a resource for convicts to contact.
Nationwide, post-conviction DNA testing has mostly been conducted piecemeal as defense lawyers push for new tests for inmates who say they're innocent. Virginia's large-scale review was started in 2005 after the exonerations of five men who spent a total of 91 years in prison. Virginia's then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) ordered the testing, calling it the "only morally acceptable course."
The state crime lab began the project by combing through about 500,000 old files of investigations into violent crimes, such as rapes and homicides, to see whether evidence had been preserved. Any case where biological clues remained and a person was convicted was picked for testing. All results are sent to the police and prosecutor's office that handled the case years ago, said Peter M. Marone, director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.
The new investigation into Jones's slaying, the first case reopened under the project that authorities have publicly revealed, illustrates some of the challenges in revisiting decades-old cases.
Jones was attacked in her Emporia home Jan. 2, 1975, according to court records. Before she died, she said her attacker was a black man. Police had few other clues to follow.
In the days after the killing, officers conducted a dragnet, questioning 20 black men at the station, according to documents. Curtis Jasper Moore, who had mental problems and no criminal record, was convicted.
An appeals court later ruled that Moore, who was serving time at a state mental hospital, hadn't been informed of his legal rights. The charges were dropped in 1983; he died about four years ago.
On Monday, police said convicted sex offender Thomas Pope Jr., 53, of Emporia was charged with rape and murder based on DNA evidence. He was convicted of abduction and sodomy in Richmond in 1991.
Attorney Harvey Latney Jr., who represented Moore in his appeal, said that he thinks the new tests prove his client's innocence and that he wants the state to formally acknowledge that.
"Even though Curtis is not here to witness that, I think for his family's sake to know, because they always believed in him," Latney said. "I was convinced 33 years ago that he was innocent."
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said that investigators have been assigned to give the case a fresh look but that authorities have not ruled Moore out.
"We're revisiting and reviewing the evidence and witness statements," Geller said. "The DNA analysis has led us to a new suspect, but this does not exonerate Moore."
Marone said that the state crime lab is focused on the science and that it will be up to the criminal justice system to decide whether the tests confirm guilt. He said that in some cases, a new genetic sample might be needed from the accused or victim.
In one sexual assault case, he said, the felon's sample didn't match the evidence, and nor would it be expected to. "There were two or three individuals," Marone said. "This was the one holding her down or holding a gun to her head while the other two had their way."
Christopher Amolsch, an Alexandria defense lawyer, said questions about how to interpret DNA evidence require that defense attorneys are included in the process.
"Even assuming best intentions, you don't trust a prosecutor to decide whether you are guilty or innocent," Amolsch said. "It's an adversarial system, and you have to have someone looking out for your interest."