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DNA tests could clear more, new study finds
By godanriver.com - Frank Green
Published: 06/19/2012

ARLINGTON, VA -- A new study of data from Virginia's DNA testing project estimates that as many as 15 percent of people found guilty in sexual assault cases between 1973 and 1987 were wrongfully convicted.

According to an Urban Institute report released Monday, DNA supports the innocence of 38 people — five convicted in murders and 33 in sexual assaults — indicating that more people are left to be cleared of wrongful convictions.

The Virginia DNA project began in 2005 after sample testing cleared two men of rapes. Testing in hundreds of cases since then has exonerated three more people.

Also Monday, the Virginia Department of Forensic Science released the DNA reports in 29 of the 38 cases cited by the Urban Institute that have been cleared for release by prosecutors.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly ordered the department to release by July 1 the reports in all 78 cases in which testing failed to identify the convicted person's DNA, except for reports that authorities say are critical to a current investigation.

Reports released Monday to the Richmond Times-Dispatch include those of three men who have been exonerated: Phillip Thurman of Alexandria, Bennett S. Barbour of Charles City County and Victor Burnette of Richmond.

DNA exclusion does not necessarily prove innocence. The lack of DNA may have no bearing on guilt or innocence. Also, more than a dozen of the 78 convicted people are dead, and some of those who are alive have not been found.

The Urban Institute, which conducts research on social, economic and criminal justice issues, had access to the Virginia data for its study under a $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that funded most of the Virginia testing.

The institute estimates a wrongful conviction rate in sexual assault cases of 8 percent to 15 percent, comparable to the results in sample testing that exonerated two people and prompted Gov. Mark R. Warner to order the full Virginia DNA project in 2005.

"This is the most methodologically sound study that's been done, and the rate is much higher than has been shown in other studies," said Jon Gould, director of the Washington Institute for Public and International Affairs Research at American University.

Steven D. Benjamin, a member of the Virginia Board of Forensic Science and president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the Urban Institute study should set off alarms.

"Each defendant in the cases that support innocence should be interviewed immediately and the case investigated thoroughly," said Benjamin, a Richmond attorney. "If any one of these (38) is innocent, each day … is an injustice."

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