The court system in the United States of America is far from being perfect. It has become clear that for many different reasons it is possible for someone to be wrongly convicted of a crime or never be presented as a possible suspect. Throughout the years there have been several important advances in forensic science creating the possibly to either exonerate the innocent after years of being placed in jail or convict those who committed a crime years after the case has gone cold. The introduction and advancement of DNA evidence has become an important aspect to criminal investigations. The following two cases are prime examples of how DNA evidence can help exonerate the innocent or convict the guilty years after a crime has been committed.
West Memphis Three
American’s have the opinion that only the guilty are sent to prison, with modern forensic technology, accidental convictions should be a thing of the past, DNA can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that an individual is guilty of a crime, or completely innocent. The case of the West Memphis Three demonstrates that this is not always the case, there are occasionally those wrongly convicted and DNA evidence can be useful in proving innocence after conviction.
In 1993 the United States of America was in the midst of the “Satanic Panic” and three teenage boys of West Memphis, Arkansas had fit the image of a “Satanic Cult” which placed a fear into the people of this small town. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. had been convicted of the murder of “three 8-year-old victims -- Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch -- were stripped, bound and beaten before being thrown into a muddy reservoir in a wooded area known by locals as Robin Hood Hills” (Warren, 2011, July 26).
The convictions of these three young men were not based on any actual evidence found during the investigation. The “Police never found blood, saliva, skin cells, fingerprints, shoe prints, hairs or any type of DNA at the crime scene from Echols or his co-defendants” (Warren, 2011, July 26). The conviction was based on a confession by Jessie Misskelley who is known to be borderline mentally retarded. Misskelley four hour interrogation ended with him providing the police with the confession they wanted, which turned out to be a lie to placate the police.
In 2007 during evidence review there had been two strands of hair found. The first was found in the shoelace which bound Michael Moore’s wrists to ankles. The DNA from this strand of hair matched Terry Hobbs, Stevie Branch’s stepfather. The other strand of hair matched David Jacoby, who had been visiting Hobbs just before the boys had disappeared. This was enough evidence to for the courts to allow a retrial for Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley.
The murder of one child is awful; the murder of three 8 year old children is horrifying. The police in West Memphis Arkansas originally wanted to find the murders of these boys as quickly as possible. These officers choice to pursue a mentally challenged young man who was easily manipulated rather than focus on the evidence they collected. The confession turned out to be fabricated by one of the “murders” in order to end the interrogation. If the DNA evidence which was found many years after the initial investigation was processed before the original trial then Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley would never have been convicted of the crime.
When discussing DNA profiles there are several different reasons a person might voluntary provide the court system with a sample. These reasons range from testing for paternity of a child to being excluded from a suspect list. In New York State the criminal justice system requires those petitioning for parole to submit a DNA sample to be analyzed. This was not a good thing for Francisco Acevedo who was filing for parole after serving time on a DUI charge.
Acevedo “provided a DNA sample as part of his parole application that was, as a matter of routine, entered into the federal Codis database” (Allen, 2012, January 17). Acevedo was not able to continue with the parole process since after the search on Codis he was linked to the murder of three women in Yonkers, New York. Maria Ramos, Tawana Hodges and Kimberly More had been linked to a possible serial killer since they were all “found strangled, naked, bound at the hands and facing upward. They were also linked to each other by DNA found in vaginal swabs” (Fitzgerald, 2012, January 17). The victims, Maria Ramos (1989), Tawanda Hodges (1991) and Kimberly Moore (1996), according to Acevedo all had consensual sexual relations with him. The Westchester County police did admit to Ramos and Hodges had been known to be prostitutes at the time of their deaths so it was feasible Acevedo had consensual relations with these three women.
After voluntarily submitting a DNA sample to the state of New York, Francisco Acevedo was convicted of murdering three women instead of being paroled from prison for the DUI charge he was initially convicted of. He is now serving 75 years to life jail sentence.
This particular case covers several issues which are hot topics within the field of DNA analysis and the court system. One of the issues this case had presented was the need for a state to allow for collecting DNA samples from those who have been convicted of crimes. In New York State, since the creation of the DNA database in 1996 there have been over 2,700 convictions and 27 exonerations (Allen, 2012, January 17). These numbers might seem low so one should take into account the fact that only approximately half of those convicted have submitted DNA samples. One of New York State’s major supporters is Governor Andrew Cuomo who has been pushing to expand the New York State’s criminal DNA database in order to insure that the guilty get convicted of the crimes they have been charged with.
The criminal justice system within the United States is not a perfect system. There will always be debates on whether or not a particular means of investigation is reliable or scientific enough to allow for the conviction of the person who committed the crime. One thing which should be kept in mind, a conviction does not come from the evidence found and process but the police work involved in finding that evidence. In the case of the West Memphis Three, the police forced a teenager to confess to a crime he did not commit and it took 18 years for these young men to get a chance to be retried. Francisco Acevedo had been convicted after submitting his DNA sample for something completely unrelated to the initial investigation. In a land were personal freedoms are important to the individual there will be a continuing debate over whether it is against the rights of the convicted to have to submit their DNA profile.
Allen, J. (2012, January 17). Serial killer discovered with DNA evidence - Yahoo! News. Yahoo! News - Latest News & Headlines. Retrieved February 12, 2012, from http://news.yahoo.com/serial-killer-discovered-dna-evidence-235642035.html
Fitzgerald, J. (2012, January 17). Francisco Acevedo sentenced to 75 years to life for three murders | 7online.com. ABC Owned Television Stations. Retrieved February 12, 2012, from http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news/local/northern_suburbs&id=8508631
Warren, B. (2011, July 26). New DNA found at murder scene doesn't match West Memphis Three » The Commercial Appeal. The Commercial Appeal: Local Memphis, Tennessee News Delivered Throughout the Day.. Retrieved February 12, 2012, from http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2011/jul/26/new- dna-found-murder-scene-doesnt-match-west-memph/