Va. slogs through DNA tests
$1.4 million project attempts to clear those wrongfully convicted
BY FRANK GREEN
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Sunday, December 25, 2005
Instead of catching wrongdoers, the $1.4 million, 1½- to two-year project aims to clear people wrongfully convicted of rape or other serious crimes as long as 30 years ago.
Five men have been cleared so far, and only about 10 percent of the estimated 300 or so cases have been examined. "It's pretty clear there's going to be other exonerations. I can't imagine we got the only two out of all those cases," said Paul B. Ferrara, director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.
Marvin L. Anderson, cleared of a rape conviction by DNA testing in 2001, knows what is at stake.
Exoneration, said the Hanover County resident, "is more than wonderful. There are no words to describe it."
"As humans, we all make mistakes, and we can lose our faith. But when something like this happens, it opens our eyes and helps us back to God," he said.
Findings thus far have documented the fallibility of the criminal-justice system and kept a spotlight on former state serologist Mary Jane Burton, whose evidence files have exonerated five men, including Anderson, and made the current investigation possible.
This month, Gov. Mark R. Warner announced that two more men had been cleared by DNA testing of evidence found in 31 randomly selected old rape cases -- virtually all of them handled by Burton.
Warner ordered the sample review in September 2004, after evidence found in Burton's files had cleared three other men.
The two most recent exonerations prompted Warner earlier this month to order all files with evidence suitable for DNA testing -- testing that could shed light on guilt or innocence -- be found and tested.
Ferrara estimates 300 or more such cases are buried among 165,000 files stored in 660 boxes. He and other forensics experts said they were not aware of any similar study ever conducted elsewhere.
The old files are scattered on 374 shelves -- each 150 feet long -- at the State Records Center on Charles City Road. The 15,876-square-foot guarded room is nearly as secure as a vault, said Ben Smith, the center manager.
Suzanne Smith-Ray, the department's records officer, said that 12 to 15 boxes at a time will be taken from the records center and brought back to the state forensics lab in Richmond for study.
Deanne Dabbs, a technical administrator for the forensic science department, and one or two forensic graduate students hired for the effort, will go through the boxes, Ferrara said.
The 31 cases studied earlier date from 1973 to 1988, when Burton worked in the lab and before DNA testing was widely available, Ferrara said.
The files are in chronological order by lab number, and not segregated by the various types of tests performed by the lab.
Ferrara said they'll be looking for the work of Burton and one or two other serologists who saved samples in their files -- pieces of swabs, fibers or cloth.
Those files will be pulled from the box and checked to see if any potentially testable evidence from the suspect and victim are taped to paper sheets inside.
If there is suitable evidence, then it must then be determined whether the case led to a conviction.
Ferrara believes most of the files selected will be rape cases because those tend to be the ones where evidence samples from the victim and suspect are present. But, he said, other types of crimes may be examined.
Ellen Qualls, a Warner spokeswoman, said the cases that survive the culling and are appropriate for DNA testing will be sent to an independent lab in batches of a dozen or so at a time rather than waiting until all 660 boxes have been checked.
That way, anyone who might be innocent could be cleared as quickly as possible, she said.
William C. Thompson, a professor of criminology, law and society and a DNA expert at the University of California at Irvine, said the rate of DNA exonerations thus far suggests there may be problems with the quality of Burton's work.
Separately, a private commission's study this year of wrongful Virginia convictions found that overstated or faulty scientific testing plays a part in erroneous convictions.
Serology is the science of typing body fluids, primarily blood and to a lesser extent, semen and saliva. Serology has been supplanted by DNA testing as a method for linking an individual to a crime. DNA testing is more sensitive and more specific.
The practice of the state lab at the time Burton worked there was to return evidence tested to the police agency that submitted it. Ferrara said that according to colleagues, Burton kept samples so she could show what she tested if asked in court.
Thompson said he was surprised that two people out of 31 were cleared of old crimes. "We shouldn't be seeing the rate of exonerations we are seeing."
Thirty-one men were arrested, but Burton's serology testing apparently did not exclude any of them as suspects.
Thompson said that although serology evidence is not as discriminating as DNA evidence, it would still be expected to rule out many who are incorrectly accused. But the results thus far could be a statistical fluke, and her work should be considered perfectly fine, Thompson said.
Ferrara said he said he is not surprised that Burton's tests failed to exclude the wrongfully convicted men. The tests were not very exacting because they identified only blood-grouping types, of which there are only a few.
"Some are as common as 45 percent of the population. Only when you ran across a rare type could conventional serology be very helpful," he said.
John A. Humphries III, a nephew of Burton, told The Times-Dispatch last year that before she died in 1999, his aunt told him although she was confident in her work, she acknowledged new technology might some day produce different results.
That is why she saved the material, he said.
Anderson, one of Burton's exonerees, urges every effort be made to prevent wrongful convictions and clear the wrongfully convicted. "There are other innocent people in prison," he said.
Contact staff writer Frank Green at firstname.lastname@example.org or (804) 649-6340.
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