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Trial by jury; not by DNA page 2
Advancements in DNA evidence testing put criminal-justice system to the test.

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Date published: 9/21/2003



Because in the courts' view a person's constitutional rights will always trump evidence, police and crime-scene investigators have to follow the rules like never before. If there is such certainty from the moment of an arrest based on DNA evidence that a suspect is guilty, his only chance of beating the rap is that his lawyer will find that the suspect's rights were compromised, or that some evidence was obtained or handled improperly.

It will be even harder to stomach a suspect being freed on a technicality if DNA evidence has proved his link to the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

The acceptance of DNA evidence has already caused Virginia lawmakers to modify the state's 21-day rule, which bars the introduction of any new evidence more than three weeks after a conviction. Even the toughest crime-and-justice advocate had to acknowledge that it is unfair to ignore evidence when it absolutely proves someone didn't do the crime, or that someone else did.

As the debate over capital punishment rages in states across the country, the initial talking points always address the risk of putting an innocent person to death. It's the only sentence that can't be overturned, so anytime DNA evidence is available, we ought to seek testing whenever possible as a matter of course.

The ongoing crime here is that those convicted in past cases of any sort where DNA evidence exists must still fight the system to secure the testing that could prove their innocence. There's no shortage of inmates who will always claim they didn't do it, but if DNA testing can prove that one way or the other, the system owes it to itself to make that determination in every case.

Five years ago, former attorney general Janet Reno ordered a commission to study DNA science and establish its validity, its importance, and a likely pattern of future advancements.

The panel found that DNA testing will become increasingly reliable and useful as the database of felons and others who have submitted to testing increases. Cooperative database sharing among the states will increase. And testing will become more reliable and routine on evidence that is badly degraded.

Eventually, the researchers predicted, testing of evidence at crime scenes will become so rapid that database searches could be conducted on the spot.

In other words, the scenarios being played out on television crime dramas today may actually approach reality sometime down the road--perhaps in just a few years.

Certainly we hope and expect that justice will be done in the sad case of Crystal Jacobs. But if the U.S. criminal-justice system is to remain a model of fairness, the innocent-until-proven-guilty part still needs to be based on a judge's or jury's verdict, not on the release of DNA test results.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.

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