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Postconviction DNA Symposium

Date Published
February 25, 2009

DNA technology has become one of the most powerful tools to ensure justice in our criminal justice system. DNA helps identify suspects, clear innocent suspects and, increasingly, free the wrongly convicted.

By January 2009, DNA testing had played a crucial role in exonerating 225 people in the United States, according to The Innocence Project. However, using DNA in a post-conviction environment presents many challenges.

To help meet these challenges, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) held a nationwide symposium January 22-23, 2009. Participants included prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, crime laboratory personnel, innocence-project advocates, victims and law enforcement personnel from nearly all the 50 states.

What we hoped to accomplish

NIJ's goal was to provide a national forum to allow key people from the states to share information and ideas that could improve processes related to post-conviction DNA cases. Before announcing 2009 grant opportunities, NIJ sought to help states and local jurisdictions identify strategies to overcome some of the challenges presented by post-conviction cases. The symposium also provided an opportunity for networking among key people from around the country.

In 2007, NIJ issued its first "Postconviction DNA Testing Assistance Program" solicitation, which included program eligibility requirements under the Justice for All Act (JFAA). Section 413 of the JFAA requires state applicants to show that they adhere to strict guidelines for preserving biological evidence and that measures are in fact taken by all jurisdictions within the state to preserve such evidence. Only three states offered proposals in response to the 2007 solicitation and none was able to meet this eligibility requirement.

In 2008, the Consolidated Appropriations Act allowed NIJ to ease the section 413 requirements. States must now certify only that they have a policy or practice in place that is intended to provide for post-conviction testing and preservation of biological evidence in the most serious cases. Only five states, however, responded to NIJ's 2008 solicitation for funding. Therefore, NIJ determined that a concerted effort to raise awareness of the importance of postconviction DNA testing. NIJ assembled a steering committee to advise it, and the committee recommended a nationwide symposium.

How we decided the agenda

A steering committee selected key agenda issues and recommended speakers and presenters.

The steering committee was a multidisciplinary group of criminal justice experts from around the country. It included representatives from the Innocence Project, the National District Attorneys Association, the American Judicature Society, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, crime laboratories, law enforcement officials and victim rights advocates.

Who was there?

About 300 people — prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement agencies and crime laboratories representing 46 states and one territory — were able to attend the symposium.

Also in attendance were representatives from the five states — Arizona, Kentucky, Texas, Virginia and Washington — to which NIJ awarded nearly $8 million in 2008. These states can use funds to review murder and rape cases, find evidence or analyze DNA in cases in which the innocence of a convicted person may be demonstrated through DNA. As these states continue their work, NIJ will identify lessons learned for the rest of the country. Representatives from each of these states discussed their post-conviction DNA programs at the January symposium.

Postconviction DNA Symposium: Speakers and Topics

Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino presented "Triumphs and Tragedies of DNA Exonerations." In 1987, Cotton was convicted of two counts of rape and two counts of burglary and sentenced to life plus 54 years. In June 1995, after DNA testing of the evidence, Cotton was cleared of all charges and released from prison after serving more than 10 years. Thompson-Cannino, the victim of the rape (the assailant has since been caught), spoke about her experiences of mistakenly identifying Cotton.

Post-conviction Statutes

Ronald S. Reinstein , a retired judge (Arizona state and supreme courts) led a discussion about post-conviction laws around the country and an analysis of how post-conviction legislation is passed.

Case Identification and Evaluation

Ted R. Hunt, a prosecutor from Missouri, led a discussion among Huy D. Dao, a case director with The Innocence Project, David Rudovsky, a Philadelphia attorney, and Michael Ware , from the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, on how post-conviction casework is started.  Topics included how cases can be reviewed; the discussion also covered federal rights and habeas laws.

Barry C. Scheck , Co-Director of The Innocence Project, gave the luncheon address.

Crime Labs and the Courts

George W. Clarke, a state court judge from California, led a discussion among Betty Layne DesPortes, a Virginia lawyer, Dean M. Gialamas, the crime lab director in the Orange County (Ca.) Sheriff's Department, and Mitchell R. Morrissey , Denver District Attorney, on how technological advances in DNA analysis have affected post-conviction cases.  The discussion included laboratory, ethical and legal issues that should be considered in post-conviction DNA case management.

Evidence Location, Retention and Preservation

Rebecca Brown, a policy analyst with The Innocence Project, moderated a discussion among Christopher J. Plourd, a San Diego lawyer, William T. Vosburgh, laboratory director with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., and Kevin M. Wittman , a retired official with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in Charlotte, N.C., on a wide range of issues in post-conviction cases.  Topics included preserving biological evidence and the challenges involved in developing and using evidence retention policies.

Case Studies

John P. Cox, Assistant State's Attorney with the Baltimore County State's Attorney's Office, and Michele M. Nethercott , a Baltimore public defender, discussed the case of Bernard Webster.  This case shows how a cooperative approach can clear the innocent and convict the guilty.

Christine C. Mumma , executive director of The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, discussed her work in the exoneration of Dwayne Allen Dail. Dail was wrongfully convicted of rape, served 18 years in prison, and was exonerated in 2007 through DNA evidence.

How Cold Case Investigations Are Relevant to DNA Post-Conviction Cases

Gil Kerlikowske , Chief of the Seattle Police Department, led a discussion about similarities in legal issues and investigatory practices between cold cases and post-conviction cases, including victim issues such as notification.

Post-conviction DNA Testing Assistance Programs

Charles Heurich , program manager of NIJ's post-conviction portfolio, led a discussion among representatives from the five states that received NIJ post-conviction funding in 2008.  Participants discussed their states' post-conviction programs, including administrative practices, how the funding is being used, how they got buy-in from leadership.  

Resources for Post-conviction DNA Case Management

Anjali Swieton , director of outreach for the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law (NCSTL), talked about using the NCSTL database as a resource in DNA post-conviction cases.

Identifying and Overcoming Challenges Related to Post-conviction DNA Testing Assistance

Representatives from the states broke into regions to discuss the most significant issues in post-conviction DNA case management.

Date Published: February 25, 2009