DNA Frees Death-Row Inmates, Brings Others to Justice

Brian Handwerk
National Geograhic Channel
for National Geographic News
April 8, 2005

After five years on Louisiana's death row, Ryan Matthews received a second chance at life. He was exonerated last year with the help of DNA evidence.

"He was 17 years old at the time of his arrest and is borderline retarded," said Martha Kashickey, the public-education associate for the Innocence Project at Yeshiva University's law school in New York City.

"Post-conviction DNA testing on the mask the perpetrator left at the scene both exonerated Matthews and revealed the identity of the actual perpetrator," Kashickey said from New York City.

The Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reports that 13 other death-row inmates have also been exonerated with the help of DNA evidence.

"The assumption was that they were guilty [because] they were found guilty, unanimously, by a jury," said Richard Dieter, president of the DPIC. "But sometimes DNA kind of pierces through that and says that, despite what a witness says he saw, this person was not the one who left this evidence at the scene."

While many death-row inmates await only their execution, others hope for new tests that could spur their release.

"People are on death row sometimes as long as 15 or 20 years, so there are still quite a few people who were convicted at times when DNA testing wasn't prevalent [or as reliable as it is now]," Dieter said.

In 2004 the U.S. Congress passed legislation that encourages all states to enable post-trial DNA tests. The legislation also provides funding for such tests.

"Half of the [U.S.] states have processes to allow [DNA] testing" even after the appeals process is exhausted, Dieter explained.

Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) spokesperson Tela Mange notes that her agency's crime lab has handled 49 such inmate requests (not all of them death-penalty cases) for DNA retesting. A significant percentage of the inmates have been exonerated.

"Eight tests were inconclusive, and there were nine individuals that were excluded as donors of the biological evidence left at the scene," Mange said from her Austin office.

Increasingly Turning to Genetic Evidence

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