Why DNA Is Not Enough

By Elizabeth Webster

 After 27 years of wrongful imprisonment, Thomas Haynesworth was released in March on his 46th birthday at the request of Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell.  The Virginia Attorney General and two of the Commonwealth’s attorneys support his exoneration. So why is the Innocence Project still fighting to prove his innocence?

Haynesworth’s troubles began in early 1984, when a serial rapist began terrorizing women in Richmond, Virginia. Police apprehended Haynesworth, an 18-year-old with no criminal record, after one of the victims spotted him on the street and identified him as her attacker. His photo was shown to victims of similar crimes. Ultimately, five victims identified him.

Haynesworth protested, saying that he was innocent, but the eyewitness evidence compelled the juries. Haynesworth was convicted of two rapes and one attempted robbery and abduction. “I thought they were going to see that they made a mistake and correct it,” he says. “It’s been 27 years, and I’m still waiting.”

Haynesworth was sentenced to 74 years in prison, which might have been the end of the story, if not for a lab technician named Mary Jane Burton. While Virginia courts and police agencies routinely lost or destroyed evidence, Burton took the extraordinary effort of saving cotton swabs and other evidence samples in her notebooks. Had Burton followed lab policy and returned all of the samples to the investigating agencies, all evidence in these cases would have been gone forever. The blood type testing, or serology, that Burton performed was not nearly as probative as DNA testing would later become.

The Innocence Project and others pushed for a review of Burton’s case files. In response, then Virginia Gov. Warner launched a massive DNA review of convictions. Burton died in 1999 and never learned of the tremendous impact of her work; so far six wrongfully convicted Virginians were proven innocent because of her practice of preserving evidence. The review also led to DNA tests in Haynesworth’s case.

The DNA testing cleared Haynesworth in one of the rape convictions. Moreover, the Department of Forensic Science matched the sperm sample to the genetic profile of a convicted rapist named Leon Davis. DNA testing on a second rape that Haynesworth was charged with, but not convicted of, also cleared Haynesworth and pointed to Davis. Biological evidence from Haynesworth’s other two convictions, however, does not exist. In one of the convictions, documents show that evidence was destroyed. There never was any biological evidence available in the other conviction.

Profile of a Perpetrator

Davis was suspected of committing at least a dozen rapes in Richmond and Henrico County in 1984, and he is currently serving multiple life sentences for those crimes. Davis and Haynesworth lived in the same neighborhood; they resembled each other and were sometimes mistaken for each other.

In Haynesworth’s first letter to the Innocence Project in 2005, he writes: “There is an inmate named Leon Davis who is in prison for some of the same things I’m charged with, and he was living down the street from me in Richmond, Virginia….I will bet my life this is the man who committed these crimes….Just get my DNA tested, and you will see I’m innocent of these crimes.”

All of the crimes were perpetrated within the same one-mile radius and all shared the same modus operandi. If DNA testing proved that Davis committed two of the crimes, it follows logically that he committed them all.

Haynesworth now waits for a hearing with the Virginia Court of Appeals. Until then he is on parole and is a registered sex offender. He leaves his mother’s house only to report to his job as an office technician with the Office of the Virginia Attorney General, Ken Cuccinnelli. Without a writ of innocence or a pardon, Haynesworth cannot be cleared.

Accepting DNA’s Limitations

In 1992, the newly founded Innocence Project began taking cases from prisoners with claims of innocence whose cases were suitable for post-conviction DNA testing. By 2000, 67 people had been exonerated, and the organization was swamped with letters from prisoners seeking assistance. This trend has not slowed in 19 years. Today the organization receives over 3,000 letters a year and nearly 300 people have been exonerated.

Yet the total number of wrongful convictions surely surpasses this. Many wrongfully convicted prisoners have no DNA evidence to test. Over 20% of the cases closed by the Innocence Project since 2004 were closed because evidence had been lost or destroyed. Despite diligent searching, there just isn’t a Mary Jane Burton in every state. Evidence preservation laws have become more commonplace, but many jurisdictions, even major metropolitan areas, still have hopelessly outdated paper-based systems.

If DNA evidence had existed in all three of Haynesworth’s convictions, it could easily have proven his innocence of those crimes. In a sexual assault case in which a single perpetrator attacks a stranger, and consent is not an issue, the results are easily interpreted. When a real perpetrator, like Leon Davis, can be identified through a DNA database hit, it not only exonerates the innocent but also solves the crime.

As it stands, investigators and attorneys had to look carefully at the pattern of crimes in Haynesworth’s cases to see if they were likely committed by the same perpetrator. Such cases have resulted in exoneration before. But what about those cases that are not suitable for DNA testing at all? Very few cases involve physical evidence that could be subjected to DNA testing, even among violent crimes.

Unlike any other type of evidence, DNA testing can conclusively prove innocence (or guilt) to an unprecedented degree of scientific certainty. But a system that depends on DNA testing alone to protect the innocent is a failed system. DNA illuminates the flaws in the criminal justice system; it does not eliminate them.

Those flaws include eyewitness misidentification; improper use of the forensic sciences or reliance on outdated or invalidated forensic methods; false confessions, admissions, and even guilty pleas; jailhouse informant testimony, and more. Simple, cost-effective reforms-improving police lineup procedures, for example, or mandating that all interrogations be recorded-can reduce the rate of wrongful convictions, and by extension, assist in the apprehension of real perpetrators. Some states have been slow to adopt these reforms.

Before DNA exonerations became common, criminal justice professionals struggled to understand the implications of the technology. DNA testing trumps all other types of evidence- whether it’s a witness who swears that he could never forget a face, a co-defendants’ confession, or a hair analyst who claims to have a match. Admitting that the system has devastated an innocent person’s life is never easy. The only way to truly reconcile the loss is to learn from the wrongful conviction and make sure it never happens again.

The Innocence Project continues to advocate for Haynesworth’s exoneration on the remaining two cases. With the complete support of law enforcement in Virginia we hope that day comes soon. When it does, there will be those who say that the criminal justice system works. They will celebrate the power of DNA to find justice. But 27 years of wrongful imprisonment is not justice, and DNA cannot erase those years. While Haynesworth was behind bars, the true perpetrator continued to commit brutal crimes; additional women were harmed. DNA cannot erase what happened to those crime victims. But if the criminal justice system learns from these errors and continues to adopt reforms that will prevent future injustice, then DNA can be rightfully thanked for leading the way.

Elizabeth Webster is Publications Manager at the Innocence Project.

© 2014 Forensic Genetics Policy Initiative