Identifying Cases Where DNA Testing May Prove Innocence

New Collaboration between the Wisconsin Innocence Project and the State Public Defender

On September 28, 2012, the 300th person was exonerated in the United States on the basis of new DNA testing. Damon Thibodeaux served 16 years on death row in Louisiana.

In total, these 300 exonerees served approximately 4,013 years in prison—an average of 13.6 per person. The numbers make clear that DNA has been an exceptionally powerful tool in rectifying wrongful convictions, but also that the process often takes many years.

In an effort to shorten that timeline, the Wisconsin Innocence Project (WIP), in collaboration with the Appellate Division of the Wisconsin State Public Defender (SPD), is implementing an innovative new program. Its goal is to develop a proactive and systematic process for reviewing recent convictions, now on direct appeal, to identify cases in which DNA testing may be able to prove innocence.

The most obvious benefit is that wrongfully convicted defendants will spend much less time in prison. But there are other benefits as well—benefits for the defense, the State, and the courts. The factual issues are easier to investigate while the crime is still recent; it saves the time and expense of later hearings and litigation, and there is less of a concern about upsetting the finality of conviction years or decades later. More broadly, the program allows WIP to serve as a resource to appellate attorneys and to grow the pool of attorneys in Wisconsin with DNA experience and expertise.

With funding from a recent Department of Justice grant, the program has been under way since April 2012. WIP works with SPD appellate staff attorneys and private bar attorneys taking SPD appointments to review a number of different types of cases. In cases where DNA testing is deemed appropriate, a WIP attorney works with the appointed attorney to determine the best course of action. In certain cases, students will be involved as well, providing them with an even more diverse clinical experience.

To date, there have been ten exonerations in Wisconsin where DNA testing played a role. With this new program, WIP hopes to grow that number and do it earlier—making sure that justice is served sooner rather than later.

Photos, from top to bottom: Chris Ochoa, Beth LaBatte, and Robert Lee Stinson are three exonerees of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.