DNA evidence exonerated yet another death row inmate on Friday, after a Louisiana judge overturned the murder and rape convictions of 38-year-old Damon Thibodeaux. Thibodeaux had served 16 years in prison — 15 in solitary confinement – for the alleged rape and murder of his 14-year-old step cousin.
Thibodeaux was convicted based solely on a confession, recanted later that day, that he says was obtained after nine solid hours of threat-riddled, unrecorded police interrogation. Countering that confession was a dearth of any evidence corroborating that he was the perpetrator. In fact, it was later determined that the victim had not been sexually assaulted at all.
Thibodeaux now becomes the 300th person and the 18th death row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence – an important marker for the emergence of DNA exonerations. But it would be a mistake to think that DNA is a magic pill to cure the ills of our criminal justice system. If anything, these exonerations say more about the high error rate in convictions than about the power of DNA, given that there is no DNA evidence in the vast majority of cases (even in Thibodeaux’s case, DNA evidence was initially unavailable), and that routine collection of DNA from suspects can have perverse and troubling effects. The Washington Post’s Douglas A. Blackmon explains:
When DNA testing was first introduced in the late 1980s, the revolutionary new techniques shattered a widely held view in law enforcement and the public that American courts rarely convicted the innocent. Since then, high-profile exonerations and the increasingly common reliance on such testing have led many to believe that DNA can resolve doubts about almost any questionable conviction.
It’s now clear, however, that there is no DNA evidence in the vast majority of cases. In the first 15 years of DNA testing, almost all exonerations fit a basic pattern in which the defendant was accused of rape, or both rape and murder — because sexual assaults are the crimes in which DNA is most likely to be recovered. Between 1989 and the end of 2007, a total of 214 people were cleared using DNA evidence. In all but 14 cases — more than 93 percent — the alleged crime involved a sexual assault of some kind, according to a review by The Washington Post.
In hindsight, those straightforward, obvious miscarriages of justice were the low-hanging fruit of DNA exonerations. Now their numbers are declining. In their place are convictions such as Thibodeaux’s, in which serious doubts have been raised but little clear DNA or other scientific forensic evidence exists to conclusively prove guilt or innocence. In Thibodeaux’s case, the absence of any incriminating DNA evidence became as powerful an argument for his innocence as any other element of the case.
Even more alarming, the law does not always permit testing even where DNA evidence is available. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in 2009 that an Alaska inmate had no right to test his own DNA evidence – even if he paid for it himself.
Three-hundred exonerations in, we have not come far enough toward addressing the underlying flaws in our criminal justice system, from the cruelty of solitary confinement to the unreliability of confessions obtained during unrecorded police interrogations.