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Storage of evidence key to exonerations;

BYLINE: Kevin Johnson

Dallas, TX

High number of wrongly convicted people freed because of Dallas archive spurs national push to retain DNA tied to crimes

DALLAS -- The exoneration of Cornelius DuPree Jr. after three decades in prison began in a cramped local laboratory, where an unusual repository of biological evidence from thousands of crimes is liberating more wrongly convicted inmates than any in the country.

The lab was born in the aftermath of President Kennedy's assassination here to fill a void: When Kennedy was shot in 1963, there was no forensic science center in Dallas County to store and analyze evidence needed to solve crimes. Today, as DNA analysis has matured, old samples of blood, hair, dried saliva and other biological material preserved at the lab have transformed it into an archive of hope for prisoners held in error.

Crime-solving remains the lab's primary mission, and the old DNA samples have helped analysts identify criminals who have eluded investigators for years. Exonerations have emerged as a by-product of that mission. Since 2001, the lab's DNA archive has secured freedom for 21 prisoners serving up to life in prison -- the most exonerations in any county.

As more horrific mistakes of the past are exposed, the Institute of Forensic Sciences has become Exhibit A in a national push by some lawmakers, civil rights advocates, prosecutors and the federal government for more uniform standards regulating how biological evidence should be retained in criminal cases.

Dupree, 51, was freed in January when DNA lifted from strands of hair stored at the lab more than 30 years ago cleared him in the rape and robbery of a Dallas woman and her male companion. James Woodard, 57, was freed in 2008 after evidence filed at the lab more than 27 years ago wiped out his conviction in the slaying of his girlfriend. Charles Chatman, 49, was freed in 2008 because evidence warehoused more than 26 years ago cleared him in the rape and robbery of a neighbor.

For all three men, technology was just developing or did not exist to test the evidence collected at the time of their arrests. The first exoneration using DNA evidence occurred in 1989; the years since have produced advances in science and the law.

In Dallas County, the wrongs are being righted because "the evidence -- decades after it was collected -- was there to test," District Attorney Craig Watkins says. The county has been retaining evidence for decades, some samples since 1978.

But in many places, the samples that ultimately freed DuPree, Woodard and Chatman would not have been saved. Only about half the states -- including Texas -- now require the automatic preservation of DNA evidence after conviction, according to The Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to assist inmates' claims of innocence. Sixteen states have no preservation laws.

As new cases of wrongful convictions continue to emerge based on DNA tests, the campaign for consistent preservation standards is gaining momentum across the country. Among recent developments:

* The National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department, is funding the development of consistent guidelines for evidence retention across the country. The work, organized by the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology, began last year and is expected to be complete by 2012, says Melissa Taylor, an analyst in the institute's law enforcement standards office.

* Pennsylvania Republican state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf says a four-year study commissioned by the state's General Assembly, planned for release as early as April, is expected to recommend a package of bills requiring the retention of evidence and the creation of a forensic advisory board to oversee crime lab operations. Pennsylvania has no current preservation laws.

Greenleaf, who has consulted with Dallas officials about their laboratory practices, fears his state's prisons may hold as many -- or more -- wrongly convicted prisoners as those in Texas. "I believe there may be more cases nationally and in Pennsylvania that we are not aware of in part because of the lack of (evidence) supervision and preservation," he says.

* Massachusetts state Sen. Cynthia Creem, a Democrat, is sponsoring a proposal that would increase inmates' access to testing after conviction and set standards for retaining the evidence in a state where no guidelines exist. Creem's bill, filed in January, calls for all biological evidence to be retained as long as the convicted prisoner remains in custody or on probation or parole.

While many lawmakers agree new state measures are needed to guard crucial evidence for possible future testing, not all believe their states need or can afford the standard followed in Dallas County, where much of the biological evidence is never discarded.

"At some point you have to be practical," Montana Republican state Sen. James Shockley says. He supports a bill in which prosecutors can request that evidence be destroyed after convicted felons' appeals are exhausted, even if time remains on their prison sentences. In cases where there is no suspect, the evidence would be preserved for 30 years.

"The problem is storage," Shockley says of costly warehouse space that would have to be expanded if evidence were stored indefinitely. "I can't imagine any science" that would warrant longer retention to preserve the option for future testing. "That's just not real world."

Yet when DuPree was sentenced to 75 years in prison in 1980, Watkins says nobody foresaw the value of DNA analysis in identifying errors in the criminal justice system today, either.

Barry Scheck, co-director of The Innocence Project, says there is a simple explanation for why so many wrongfully convicted prisoners have walked out of Dallas County courtrooms as free men: "What makes Dallas unique is that they have saved more evidence," Scheck says. "That's the reason. End of story."

100,000 pieces of DNA

There is only one view to the outside world from one of the examination rooms at the Institute of Forensic Sciences.

Framed by a bay window on one wall is the drive-up emergency room entrance at Parkland Hospital, the spot where President Kennedy was brought nearly 48 years earlier.

The laboratory owes its very existence in large part to law enforcement weaknesses exposed by the president's assassination, says Timothy Sliter, the institute's evidence section chief. Sliter says the assassination and the resulting investigations underscored the county's lack of scientific expertise and ability to analyze evidence in criminal probes.

Although conceived in the post-assassination 1960s, the lab did not open until the late 1970s, when the earliest standards for the storage of evidence emphasized preservation, Sliter says.

Some, including Watkins, say the strict evidence retention practices were first encouraged by legendary Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade, who wanted the evidence preserved to guard against defendants' appeals. But Sliter believes science set the tone for an archive that now holds about 100,000 pieces of biological material.

Much of the evidence is stored in 17 freezers, all set to 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

The samples -- on stained fabric swatches, in small plastic tubes and on cotton swabs containing all forms of biological material -- are packaged in plastic, assigned a number and filed in blue plastic bins, resembling a library in deep freeze.

New evidence pouring in from about 100 law enforcement agencies in the area requires the addition of one new freezer every year. Each is equipped with an alarm system to guard against fluctuating temperatures and possible machine malfunctions.

Stacy McDonald, Sliter's chief deputy, says the steady volume of work has produced a backlog of about 450 tests, resulting in average wait times of two to three months for results. The requests come from police, prosecutors and prisoners. Emergency requests, she says, can be turned around in about three days.

McDonald says the $33 cost per sample includes the "lifetime" storage fee.

Sliter says expenses to test and maintain the lab are far more substantial -- about $5 million per year. Yet he disputes the idea that long-term storage is too costly.

"It's all a matter of whether you think it's important enough to do," he says. "For years, people lived with the delusion that the justice system was free from error. In the 1990s, that delusion began to be shattered largely because of DNA evidence."

Sliter, McDonald and the lab's 17 analysts know their work has led to dramatic exonerations, but they have never met the men who have won their freedom.

"We try to treat everything we do here with the same sense of seriousness," McDonald says. "Somebody could be executed based on what we do here."

"The prosecutors may love us today," Sliter adds. "Tomorrow, maybe not so much."

Archive missing material

For all of the Dallas laboratory's successes, the institute's record isn't perfect, says Michael Ware, chief of Dallas County's Conviction Integrity Unit.

Evidence in some cases dating to the late 1970s and early 1980s cannot be located, says Ware, whose unit was created in 2007 to review hundreds of convictions in which questions were raised about prisoners' possible innocence.

"You are not going to find what you're looking for in some of those cases," Ware says. "And that's under the best of circumstances. Think about what that means in other laboratories" that do not always preserve evidence.

McDonald acknowledges there are missing pieces from the archive's earliest years, from about 1978 to 1983. From 1983 on, she says, the evidence is intact.

About 30% of requests for archived evidence go unfilled because the material is not available, McDonald says. In some of those cases, including convictions based on confessions or plea agreements, the evidence was never submitted by the investigating agency. In others, the material may have been returned to the agencies at their request.

Joe Latta, executive director of the International Association for Property and Evidence, says problems with missing and mishandled evidence plague the industry.

"The vast majority (of police agencies and crime labs) have a hard time taking care of what we call 'the stuff,' " says Latta, one of 23 members of the federal panel that is developing national guidelines for evidence retention.

He says many evidence warehouses are run by police or other law enforcement officials who have no background overseeing those operations. Civilian scientists, not police, maintain the biological evidence in the Dallas lab.

"Police chase bad guys," Latta says. "We have no experience whatsoever taking care of warehouses."

The Dallas lab's work has given DuPree a chance to reclaim the life he lost 30 years ago.

He married after his release from prison. As an intern for Democratic Texas state Sen. Rodney Ellis, a strong supporter of the innocence movement, DuPree is advocating for new laws to help innocent prisoners gain their freedom.

Among the proposals being drafted is a bill to adopt uniform standards for how evidence is retained across the state.

"Without that evidence being in that lab, there is no way I'm here," DuPree says. "I would still be in prison."

No law on DNA preservation

Sixteen states have no laws requiring the preservation of DNA evidence:
* Alabama
* Idaho
* Indiana
* Kansas
* Massachusetts
* New Jersey
* New York
* North Dakota
* Pennsylvania
* South Dakota
* Tennessee
* Utah
* Vermont
* Washington¹
* West Virginia
* Wyoming
1 - Note: Washington does not require preservation but does have a provision in state law that allows judges to order the preservation of evidence.

Source: The Innocence Project

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