Science Needed To Help Free Innocent Prisoners
August 20, 2012

Freeing Innocent Men, Project Implores For Science Community’s Help

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Thousands of convicted inmates are sitting in a prison, including dozens on death row, that are innocent, but one project is collaborating with the American Chemical Society (ACS) to try and keep forensic experts accountable to science.

Forensic scientists, attorneys and others that are a part of The Innocence Project put out a call to scientists at the 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society to get involved in trying to exonerate convicted people in the prison system.

In recent years, forensic scientists have come under scrutiny, particularly after being called out by the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Frederic Whitehurst, an FBI supervisory agent who works in the agency's crime laboratory, said "we are looking at a social problem, not a science problem," during a press conference attended by redOrbit at the ACS event.

He said in the U.S., "we have a tremendous appetite for incarceration," and that looking back at forensic science and data over the years, it is easy to say "you guys did it wrong."

Essentially, there are concerns that some people are looking for someone in the science community to prove a case rather than the truth, and science has not always been as accurate as it is today. Also, it is not as accurate today as it could be in the future.

Scientists have recently found that many laundry machines have sperm cells from the clothes that have been washed in them previously, which could ultimately lead to a mis-conviction if not considered from the proper perspective during a case.

Whitehurst said a federal prosecutor builds a multimillion dollar crime laboratory, and no citizen is able to build a defense against it. He said the government calls him in to say "Dr. Whitehurst," because that Ph.D that is attached to his name gives him weight in the courtroom.

He said there are times when you are not allowed to tell the truth and keep your job, referring to a situation in which a forensics lab was contaminated, but he wasn't allowed to talk about it while in court.

"Did it come off the shoes of the men who just came from the bomb range?  We don't know, but during that period in time, we were not allowed to say," Whitehurst said.

At the press conference, representatives for The Innocence Project said that judges allow scientific tests to come into the courtroom because the evidence in the case wasn't adequate enough to prove someone was guilty.

They told reporters that it was due the lack of standards, and a social problem, that some people are still sitting behind bars for crimes they didn't commit, even if science says they did.

As examples, men who were exonerated due to the work done through The Innocent Project gave testimonies about how the judicial system, and in some cases forensic science, failed them.

Steven Barnes was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in 1985 for the rape and murder of a young girl. He said at ACS that his trial consisted of "similarities" to help prove he was guilty. He said the trial lasted 14 days, and he was found guilty after prosecutors brought in things like a "similar hair" as the victims that was found in his truck, and dirt similar to that found at the crime scene was found on his truck.

In 1993, after Barnes had already been in jail for about five years, the first DNA test came back inconclusive, making his case to fight for his innocence go dormant from then until 2007.

After over 19 years in prison, The Innocent Project was able to finally help Barnes get exonerated after investigators identified two DNA male profiles that didn't match his profile.

"Spent all the available years of my life for something I never did," he told reporters at the conference. "It was a nightmare for me."

Investigators have still not found the men in the case in which Barnes served 19 years of his life in prison for. His story will be airing in the winter on 48 hours.

"It was tough what happened to me, but thank God for The Innocent Project," he said. "Stuff in my case wasn't handled the way it should've been."

Ray Krone, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 10 years in prison and two on death row, also spoke to reporters at the event.

Krone said the "justice system of the United States of America failed us", referring to him, and both Barnes and Raymond Santana, another exonerated man as a result of The Innocent Project.

"They took our lives from us, they took our families, and put us in prison," Krone said at the event.

He said he sat in a courtroom and was called a monster, and a killer.  "I can't tell you what that felt like, but I can tell you how good it felt to know there were people out there trying to fight for me."

Representatives for the project said that there are thousands of convicted men in jail who are innocent. According to the project, the second most common mis-conviction is the mis-application of science.

They said they "want to make forensic science more about science, and less about law enforcement."

"We are thrilled the ACS has decided to take up this," The Innocent Project said. "We want to get your members involved."