Revealing and preventing wrongful convictions in the District

Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 8:35 PM

IT'S BEEN a little more than a year since Donald E. Gates was freed from prison after serving 28 years for a D.C. rape and murder in the District that he did not commit. So appalling were the circumstances of his case - prosecutors failed to disclose information discrediting the main piece of evidence against Mr. Gates - that questions arose about the validity of similar evidence in other cases. The U.S. Attorney's Office√inconsistent capitalization in twp seems to have taken those concerns to heart and has launched a rigorous investigation. Nonetheless, we continue to believe that a special commission is needed to bring together key stakeholders in areview of practices that can lead to miscarriages of justice like the one that befell Mr. Gates.

Mr. Gates was exonerated in December 2009 in the 1981 killing of Catherine Schilling after DNA tests revealed another man committed the crime. Since then, a furious behind-the-scenes battle has been waged between prosecutors and the D.C. Public Defender Service over what kind of investigation is needed into the faulty forensics that were central to the prosecution of Mr. Gates. An FBI special agent testified that two pubic hairs found on the victim's body were microscopically identical to a sample taken from Mr. Gates. The public defender's office uncovered information, long known to prosecutors, that undermined the credibility of the analyst and cited research that calls into question the use of hair and fiber analysis. Public defenders want the government to review any case in which the testimony of FBI hair examiners played a significant role in obtaining a conviction for a serious offense.

The government has taken a more limited view, focusing on the work of examiners who - like the one who testified in Mr. Gates's case - were implicated in a report by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General. Even that's a massive undertaking going back three decades. Some 130 cases have been reviewed, and the U.S. Attorney's Office, to its credit, invited the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project to independently review 24 cases. U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. also created a position to assist prosecutors with all facets of forensics litigation.

That's a good start, but the concerns of the public defender should not be overlooked. After all, it was the U.S. Attorney's Office - albeit under different leadership - that failed to alert Mr. Gates's defense to doubts about the material used to convict him, an omission for which there has yet to be any public explanation. Chief Judge Lee F. Satterfield of the D.C. Superior Court has wisely decided to appoint a judge to review the forthcoming report of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. More important, he has decided to undertake a study, with the participation of police, prosecutors and defense attorneys, of whether the District should create a commission to bolster protections against practices that lead to wrongful convictions.

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