System That Convicts Innocent Needs Reform

On July 9, the long agony of JonBenet Ramsey's family was brought at least to a partial close. On the basis of new forms of DNA testing, the Boulder, Colo., district attorney wrote a letter of apology to her father, John Ramsey, because the results cleared him and his late wife of any involvement in the girl's murder.

The new form of testing -- called Touch Testing -- used cells from under the victim's nails and from blood on her clothes to rule out involvement by John and Patsy Ramsey. Sadly, no matches could be found to identify the actual murderer.

The Ramsey case is not alone. The Ramseys were never convicted, but the Innocence Project reports that DNA testing has exonerated 218 people wrongly convicted of crimes in the United States since 1989. Sixteen served time on Death Row. They served an average of 12 years in prison, or a cumulative total of 2,694 years.

Not surprisingly, those later found innocent were disproportionately people of color. More than 60 percent were African Americans. Needless to say, few things could be more devastating than a wrongful conviction.

Since the reimposition of the death penalty in 1976, Texas has conducted about one-third of the executions, despite a criminal justice system that is notoriously flawed.

Recently, U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) focused on 18 Dallas County men cleared after conviction through DNA testing. Some had spent decades behind bars. "There is perhaps no greater failure in our democracy and our justice system than the conviction and incarceration of those who have been wrongfully accused," she said.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said he hoped the exonerations across the country would focus attention on a criminal justice system in dire need of reform, and lead to reforms "bringing us a little bit closer to justice."

Because of the crusading of the Innocence Project, led by co-directors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, all but eight states have laws allowing for post-conviction challenges based on DNA testing. Fewer, sadly, have laws requiring compensation for those whose lives were torn apart by the convictions.

I have never believed the state should have the right to condemn a person to death, and especially not in this society, where our criminal justice system is still discriminatory. Several years ago, former Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, a Republican, suspended all executions in the state, fearful that innocent people would be put to death.

Every state should mandate post-conviction DNA testing where applicable. But it isn't enough to correct the injustice afterward. We must constantly work to reform a justice system that still locks up too many innocent people. DNA testing should not only be used to exonerate the innocent; its revelations should identify priority areas for reforming the system that mistakenly convicted the innocent.

For example, the Innocence Project reports that false eyewitness identification was a factor in more than three-fourths of the cases ultimately exonerated. And in two-thirds of those cases, the incorrect identification was cross-racial.

Reform of our criminal justice system has been ignored for too long. We now incarcerate more people than any other country in the world, including China. Most of them are locked up for crimes that do not involve violence. And now, we're learning that a portion of them are incarcerated even though they are completely innocent. It is time for a dramatic change of course.

--Jesse Jackson

(c) Copyright 2008 Digital Chicago, Inc.

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