Former FBI chief applauds latest efforts to extend DNA testing

[JURIST] Former FBI Director William S. Sessions [official profile] Wednesday applauded recent efforts to extend DNA testing, especially for the benefit of prisoners facing the death penalty. In a JURIST op-ed, Sessions said that a proposal by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) [official website; JURIST news archive] to expand New York's DNA database and an Ohio Supreme Court decision [PDF text] limiting prosecutorial discretion over post-conviction DNA testing of inmates were "necessary and overdue efforts to protect public safety while pursuing meaningful justice." Sessions recalled an early investigation into the use of DNA evidence performed by the FBI in 1988:

The results of those first 100 tests astonished me. In thirty percent of cases the DNA gathered during the investigation did not match the DNA of the suspect. In three out of ten cases not only did we have the wrong person, but the guilty person was still at large. In capital cases the stakes were unnervingly high: the prospect of executing an innocent person was only slightly more appalling than the prospect of murderers and rapists walking free, unidentified and dangerous.

The statistics today are roughly the same as they were 19 years ago. In approximately 25 percent of cases the genetic evidence recovered during an investigation does not match the DNA of the suspect. Oftentimes this discrepancy is discovered before irreparable harm is done to either the investigation or the suspect; however, too often we learn of our mistake only after time, money, and sometimes lives have been wasted on empty pursuits.
Sessions also called for more general criminal justice reform, especially in capital cases:
Reviews of state capital punishment systems have been ordered from the bench and governors’ mansions around the country, and with good reason...The delivery of justice also requires competent, well-trained, well-resourced lawyers for defendants in death penalty cases while simultaneously reserving capital punishment for only the most heinous of crimes.
Sessions, now a partner at the Washington law firm of Holland & Knight LLP [firm website], headed the FBI from 1987-1993.

 

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