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Critics say Virginia DNA testing project is moving slowly
Posted: August 28, 2007 5:01 pm
Two years ago, Viriginia officials said they would begin to test crime scene evidence in hundreds of cases that may have been wrongful convictions, and now critics say the state’s crime lab is moving too slowly in completing the task.
The process has its roots in the 2002 exoneration of Innocence Project client Marvin Anderson. After officials declared that evidence in Anderson’s case had been destroyed, samples of evidence were found preserved in the notebook of a lab technician, along with samples from hundreds of other cases. After DNA testing on this evidence led to the exonerations of Anderson and two other men (Julius Earl Ruffin in 2003 and Arthur Lee Whitfield in 2004), the Innocence Project urged officials to conduct a broader review of cases. Then-Governor Mark Warner ordered a review of a 10 percent sample of the 300-plus cases in which the technician had saved evidence. Two more men (Phillip Thurman and Willie Davidson) were proven innocent by this review.
Based on these results, Warner ordered a systematic review of all Virginia convictions in which biological evidence led to convictions, and officials said the project would take two years. However, two years into the $1.4-million project, testing has not been completed on even the first 30 remaining cases. Critics have accused lab officials of dragging their feet:
Betty Layne DesPortes, an area defense lawyer and member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, isn't satisfied. "They didn't complete four cases, so we really don't know the magnitude of the problem. . . . They left over 10 percent of these cases incomplete."But crime lab director Peter Marone said the undertaking has grown since inception. His department has searched over 500,000 files for potential evidence so far, he claimed.
"Why haven't they done it already? They have no sense of urgency or commitment to this project," she said.
"I do not see how this is foot-dragging," Marone wrote in an e-mail. "This is not an easy process on 20-to-30-year-old cases."Read more about the cases of Anderson, Ruffin, Whitfield, Thurman and Davidson.
Read the full story here. (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 08/28/2007)
Watch a video interview with Marvin Anderson.
Tags: Virginia, Marvin Anderson, Willie Davidson, Julius Ruffin, Phillip Leon Thurman, Arthur Lee Whitfield
Virginia editorial: Crime lab review should be transparent
Posted: October 25, 2007 4:35 pm
After DNA testing on biological evidence discovered in the files of a long-retired Virginia forensic analyst led to the exoneration of five innocent people between 2002 and 2005, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner ordered a systematic review of possible DNA cases in the state lab. Officials say that review is moving forward, but the procedures have not been made public.
An editorial in today’s Virginian-Pilot calls for more transparency from the lab and prosecutors regarding their methods of reviewing cases for possible exculpatory evidence.
Lab leaders have sought assistance from local prosecutors in gathering information about the original crimes in each case. But an obvious bias exists if prosecutors are helping to decide whether a criminal case should be re-opened….Those convicted of the crimes have a right to know if new questions are being raised about their guilt, or alternatively if their guilt has been confirmed by new evidence.Lab officials announced last week that the first batch of 66 cases had been analyzed, and that two convicted defendants would be notified that their DNA was not found in the evidence from their case.
Read the full editorial here. (Virginian-Pilot, 10/25/07)
Read the full story here. (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 10/22/07)
While searching for evidence in the case of Marvin Anderson, Virginia lab officials discovered that retired analyst Mary Jane Burton had been saving samples of biological evidence in her files. Anderson was exonerated by tests on the evidence in 2002, and the other four men exonerated by these samples were Julius Earl Ruffin, Arthur Lee Whitfield, Phillip Leon Thurman and Willie Davidson.
Tags: Marvin Anderson, Willie Davidson, Julius Ruffin, Phillip Leon Thurman, Arthur Lee Whitfield
Virginia pauses massive DNA review to wait for federal funds
Posted: May 13, 2008 5:00 pm
The state of Virginia is seeking a $4.5 million federal grant to continue an unprecedented systematic review of DNA evidence in hundreds of convictions. The project, ordered over two years ago by then-Governor Mark Warner, has halted temporarily after spending $1.4 million in state funds.
The process has its roots in the 2002 exoneration of Innocence Project client Marvin Anderson. After officials declared that evidence in Anderson’s case had been destroyed, samples of evidence were found preserved in the notebook of a lab technician, along with samples from hundreds of other cases. After DNA testing on this evidence led to the exonerations of Anderson and two other men (Julius Earl Ruffin in 2003 and Arthur Lee Whitfield in 2004), the Innocence Project urged officials to conduct a broader review of cases. Gov. Warner ordered a review of a 10 percent sample of the 300-plus cases in which the technician had saved evidence. Two more men (Phillip Thurman and Willie Davidson) were proven innocent by this review and Gov. Warner ordered a systematic review of all convictions with biological evidence.
The review came under fire last year for not moving quickly enough because testing had not been completed on even 30 cases. The Washington Post now reports that lab workers have gone through 534,000 case files and sent thousands of relevant samples for testing.
The review has identified more than 2,100 files that contain forensic evidence with named suspects. The state has sent hundreds of samples to a private Fairfax County lab, Bode Technology Group, for testing.Virginia’s lab director Peter. M. Marone said the testing will continue with state funds if the grant doesn’t come through.
"We're just trying to make sure we'll expend federal grant money rather than state money," he said.
Read the full story. (Washington Post, 8/12/08)The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project is monitoring the case review and has raised questions about why the state is not notifying defendants when testing is being conducted in their cases. Read more on the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project blog (http://www.exonerate.org/category/blog)
Read more about the cases of Anderson, Ruffin, Whitfield, Thurman and Davidson.
Watch a video interview with Marvin Anderson.
Tags: Virginia, Willie Davidson, Julius Ruffin, Phillip Leon Thurman, Arthur Lee Whitfield
Two Are Pardoned in Virginia and a Texas Man Is Cleared Posthumously
Posted: April 8, 2009 4:35 pm
On Monday, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine pardoned two former prisoners based on DNA evidence of their innocence. Arthur Lee Whitfield was exonerated in 2004 but has remained in a legal limbo until his pardon became official this week. He served more than 22 years in prison before biological evidence in his case – previously believed to be lost – was located in the files of former forensic analyst Mary Jane Burton. The results proved Whitfield’s innocence and implicated the real perpetrator, who was in prison for another sexual assault.
Victor Anthony Burnette, who served eight years in prison for a 1979 rape, was also pardoned Monday based on evidence of his innocence. The Innocence Project is reviewing his case for possible inclusion in our database of DNA exonerations nationwide.
Read more about Whitfield and Burnette and Virginia’s ongoing review of cases in which DNA testing could overturn a wrongful conviction. (Virginian-Pilot, 4/7/09)
Meanwhile, a Texas judge yesterday recommend that Timothy Cole, who died in prison in 1999 while served a 25-year sentence for a rape he didn’t commit, be fully exonerated based on DNA evidence that another man committee the crime. Read more about Cole’s case and pending reforms to prevent future wrongful convictions in Texas here.
Tags: Arthur Lee Whitfield
Friday Roundup: Cases and Reforms Move Forward
Posted: July 31, 2009 5:30 pm
Around the country this week, individual cases moved forward – as did efforts to reform the criminal justice system to prevent wrongful convictions and assist the exonerated.
A judge in Wisconsin this morning dismissed rape and murder charges against Ralph Armstrong, who has been in prison for 28 years. Evidence shows that a prosecutor concealed substantial evidence that Armstrong was innocent. Armstrong will remain in custody while the state decides whether to appeal the ruling. The Innocence Project has worked on Armstrong’s case since 1993, and Co-Director Barry Scheck today called Armstrong’s case a “particularly chilling” example of prosecutorial misconduct.
Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County may be the home of pilot programs for identification reforms, according to District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., who chairs the county’s investigations section of the state Committee on Wrongful Convictions. The news comes on the heels of the Innocence Project’s new report on eyewitness identification reforms, released earlier this month. Read more in the press release here.
Republican and Democratic leaders are asking Virginia’s General Assembly to provide compensation for exoneree Arthur Whitfield, who spent more than 22 years in prison and was released when DNA tests proved his innocence. Bob McDonnell and Creigh Deeds, the respective Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates, are calling for action during the assembly’s special session in August.
DNA may play a key role in the case of a Florida man convicted of murder 25 years ago. David Johnston was scheduled for execution in May, but the Florida Supreme Court delayed his execution when defense attorneys requested DNA testing on blood samples and nail clippings kept as evidence.
Tags: Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin, Arthur Lee Whitfield, Exoneree Compensation, Eyewitness Identification
Virginia Lawmakers Consider Improved Exoneree Compensation
Posted: August 18, 2009 6:11 pm
Arthur Lee Whitfield served more than 22 years in Virginia prisons for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence and led to his release. He has not received state compensation, however, because the state Supreme Court denied him a writ of actual innocence, which is required to receive compensation under state law.
Lawmakers are returning tomorrow for a special session and will review proposals for bills that would pay Whitfield between $445,000 and $750,000. Delegate Kenny Alexander said he would propose a bill next year to compensate people who are exonerated but don’t receive a declaration of innocence.
Read the full story here. (Virginian-Pilot, 08/18/09)
Virginia is one of 27 states with compensation laws, but it is among several states that exclude certain populations of people even after DNA testing proves them innocent. The Innocence Project works to pass fair, just compensation laws across the country. Find your state’s law on our interactive map here.
Tags: Arthur Lee Whitfield
Virginia Man to Receive $632,000
Posted: August 20, 2009 2:40 pm
We reported Tuesday that Virginia lawmakers were returning to the capitol for a special session and would consider proposals to compensate Arthur Lee Whitfield, who served 22 years in state prisons before DNA testing proved his innocence. He was freed in 2004, but has not been compensated due to a legal technicality – he was refused a writ of actual innocence because the state’s highest court didn’t have the power to grant it to non-prisoners. Lawmakers on Wednesday unanimously approved payment of $632,867 to Whitfield, based on the formula in the state’s compensation law. He will receive $126,573 within a month and the remainder as an annuity.
Whitfield , 54, was recently diagnosed with liver cancer and missed the special session because he was receiving chemotherapy. He works in a produce factory and has been struggling financially.
Only about half of the 241 people exonerated by DNA testing to date have been compensated.
Read more about Whitfield's case and life after exoneration.
Tags: Arthur Lee Whitfield, Exoneree Compensation
Lobbying for the Freedom of Others
Posted: January 26, 2010 6:10 pm
In 2004, Virginia lawmakers passed a measure intended to allow people to challenge wrongful convictions based on evidence of innocence. So far, however, only one person has had a murder conviction overturned under that law, and his mother was in the state capitol yesterday lobbying for an expansion of the law that would help others.
Former Navy SEAL trainee Dustin Turner was convicted of 1995 murder he has always said he didn’t commit, and his conviction was tossed out last year based on the confession of a fellow Navy SEAL. The state is appealing his case, and the Virginia Court of Appeals heard oral arguments this morning. But yesterday Turner’s mother, Linda Summit, was thinking of others like her son.
The law is too narrow to be effective, she said, pointing to examples of people like Arthur Lee Whitfield, who was exonerated through DNA testing and eventually pardoned, but not eligible for a writ of actual innocence under the 2004 law because it only applies to prisoners.
“At least we have that avenue,” Summit told the Virginian-Pilot. “Why I'm here today is, other people don't have that avenue. I'm here advocating for them,"A bill before the Virginia House of Delegates would expand access to the writ of actual innocence to people who have been pardoned or paroled, would make them eligible for state compensation and restore their civil rights – including the right to vote, serve on juries and run for office.
Read the full story here. (Virginian-Pilot, 1/26/10)
Tags: Arthur Lee Whitfield