In Our View: Modern Microscopes

DNA testing profoundly affects court cases, even those that are 17 years old

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New technological developments have impacted the American judicial system as profoundly as DNA testing. When described by its full name — deoxyribonucleic acid — this advancement in forensic science stirs little excitement among most people. But when understood by its full effect — that of a genetic fingerprint, one that distinguishes one individual from all others — DNA becomes the most powerful set of initials in any courtroom. Unlike evidence gained at, say, a victim’s inspection of suspects in a lineup, DNA testing excels as independent, objective, unemotional and solid science.

Two Clark County men who were convicted in 1993 of attacking a woman in La Center could be granted a new trial because of evidence gained through DNA technology that was not available 17 years ago. As Laura McVicker reported in Tuesday’s Columbian, that new-trial decision will be made at an April 21 hearing before Clark County Superior Court Judge Diane Woolard. There is no way of knowing — yet — if Alan G. Northrop and Larry W. Davis are guilty or innocent, but it’s obvious that DNA testing has thrown a whole new light on their cases. And for that, Northrop and Davis have Innocence Project Northwest to thank.

IPNW is based at the University of Washington’s School of Law. It’s an extension of a national program that has used DNA evidence to obtain more than 240 exonerations, including 17 cases that at one time or another included death sentences. On its national Web site (http://www.innocenceproject.org), the group lists eight possible causes of wrongful conviction, and at the top of that list is “eyewitness misidentification.” IPNW argues that this is what occurred in the convictions of Northrop and Davis. According to McVicker’s story, the victim could not pick Northrop out of a selection of photos, was unsure about Davis’ identification and identified the two men only later in a live lineup. “The victim had seen photographs of both Mr. Davis and Mr. Northrop before viewing live lineups that contained no other familiar faces,” IPNW staff attorney John Pantazis said in a statement.

More compelling, however, is the DNA evidence, which Pantazis said shows the two defendants weren’t at the scene of the crime and points to different assailants. DNA taken from fingernail clippings matched two different, unknown people and results of DNA tests of pubic hair matched one of those two other people. Judge Woolard has granted Clark County Senior Deputy Prosecutor John Fairgrieve more time to investigate the case, but did so reluctantly. “My frustration is that the state has had time for investigation. That’s what the pre-trial investigation was all about and that’s what the trial was all about,” Woolard said

Woolard is correct, of course, but what’s new about this case is the forensic technology that did not exist at the 1993 trial. Northrop has a more profound stake in this case because he remains incarcerated while Davis has since been released, but the two men owe an equal debt of gratitude to modern science and IPNW’s vigorous pursuit of their possible innocence. Whether that second trial is granted remains to be seen, but this much is certain: The work of Innocence Project lawyers in Seattle and throughout the country is training a more powerful microscope on hundreds of cases that warrant these new reviews. Second trials allow second juries to peer through this second microscope. If you don’t think that’s important, imagine yourself having been wrongfully convicted.

Taken to a mundane and less-important comparison, DNA testing is like the instant replay in sports. In both cases, the strategy is basic: Whatever it takes to make the right decision.