DNA test backlog is a barrier to justice

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 18, 2013

Imagine your family member was the victim of a rape. Police arrested a man found near the scene and held him in jail for nearly two years before a long-delayed DNA test revealed that he was not the rapist. By that time, the chances of finding the true perpetrator were greatly diminished.
This very scenario played out in North Carolina last week, as the News & Observer of Raleigh reported. Elio Santos de la Cruz had been in the Johnston County jail since June 2011 while prosecutors waited for the State Crime Laboratory to return the results of DNA tests. The tests revealed that de la Cruz was not the rapist.

Defense lawyers say these kinds of wait times for DNA tests are the norm in North Carolina. This not only means that innocent people are sometimes held in jail for months or years, but that justice is delayed — or denied altogether — for victims.
This problem is epidemic in our state, even in cases of murder. About 12 percent of people who are charged with first-degree murder are eventually released without ever being tried. Many innocent people languish in jail for months or years before prosecutors discover they don’t have enough evidence to prosecute them. Meanwhile, the true killers continue to roam the streets.
In a time when our state’s resources seem to diminish each year, we must use them wisely. Our top priority should be solving crimes and getting dangerous criminals off the street. We need a state lab with the staff and equipment to complete routine forensic tests in weeks rather than months or years.

There is an obvious place to find this money. North Carolina spends millions of dollars of taxpayer money each year on the death penalty — pursuing death sentences and housing inmates on death row. These convicts could instead be serving life in prison without parole, working and paying restitution to their victims.
We continue to spend this money despite the fact that no one has been executed in North Carolina for six years. Despite the fact that study after study has shown that executions do nothing to deter crime, and murder rates have fallen even as executions have stopped. Despite a precipitous decline in public support for the death penalty.
If we have to make hard choices about how to spend our crime-fighting money, shouldn’t we focus first on the basics? Shouldn’t we use our resources to ensure that critical evidence is collected, analyzed and used to bring criminals to justice?
Imagine once again that the victim is your family member. That you are waiting on that DNA test to determine whether the right person is in custody.
The answer is obvious.

Kenneth J. Rose is a staff attorney and former executive director for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a non-profit law firm based in Durham that represents capital defendants and assists attorneys representing persons charged or convicted in capital cases.

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