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Trial by jury; not by DNA

September 21, 2003 1:07 am

THE CASE of Crystal Jacobs' brutal July slaying might have gone unsolved if not for DNA technology. Her family and loved ones have both science and tenacious police work to thank for putting a suspect behind bars.

The list grows longer by the day of alleged killers apprehended--and convicted killers exonerated--because DNA testing of crime-scene evidence identifies or rules out a given individual.

For the criminal-justice community, such incontrovertible evidence is a double-edged sword: It can be a dream come true for closing cases, or a nightmare if authorities haven't gone by the book during their investigations. For the media and the public, it presents the challenge of avoiding leaping to conclusions of guilt or innocence.

Anyone who picked up The Free Lance-Star on Monday, for example, probably exulted that authorities think they nailed the guy who allegedly stabbed Crystal Jacobs to death. No one had reported anything out of the ordinary that afternoon as she wrapped up her day in the post-office section of Earl's True Value Hardware store in the Chatham area of Stafford County. Solid leads were assumed to be scarce.

According to Stafford Sheriff Charles Jett, evidence taken from her body led to a DNA match of the suspect, Antwon Whitten of Dumfries. We can anticipate that once the case comes to trial, evidence such as the suspect's skin cells found under the victim's fingernails will emerge as the key link to proving his identity and presence at the scene. A watch found in the suspect's home, believed to be Jacobs', serves as corroborating evidence.

Even the most airtight alibi springs a leak if a DNA match is established. Circumstantial evidence this is not.

Given the public's abiding trust in science, and knowing that other high-profile cases have turned on such evidence, does anyone believe that Whitten didn't do it? Does the fact that he has not enjoyed the benefits of due process and hasn't had his day in court really matter?

Is there any chance the public (being the jury pool) will keep an open mind when Sheriff Jett expresses his confidence with the case-closed statement: "Antwon Whitten maliciously and brutally murdered Crystal Jacobs--a loving mother, wife, daughter, co-worker, friend, and valued member of this community"?

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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