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DNA and justice

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Thirty-three years after he was convicted of raping a neighbor in Rochester, N.Y., Frederick Peacock became the 250th American to be exonerated by DNA evidence. Peacock, now 60, was paroled from prison decades ago, but he continued to insist that he had been wrongly convicted, and in 2002 the New York-based Innocence Project took up his case. This week, DNA testing that wasn’t available either at the time of his conviction in 1976 or his parole in 1982 confirmed that he was not guilty of the rape for which he had served six years in prison.

But Peacock’s case is more than just another example of a life damaged by wrongful conviction. The sheer length of time it took for him to clear his name highlights not only the need for broad access to DNA testing, but the importance of preserving evidence, even long after a case appears to be over.

“CSI” and other TV shows would have us believe that DNA is tested as a matter of course. The truth is that ahodgepodge of inadequate laws, varying by state, guarantee no such thing. One problem is access: Although 47 states permit convicted criminals to seek DNA testing in order to reopen their cases, the requirements vary widely. Alabama and Kentucky, for example, allow it only for convicts on death row. Other states bar it for convicts who have confessed. (That would have disqualified Peacock, who is severely mentally ill and confessed after a lengthy interrogation.) Other states set deadlines by which it must be requested, or bar testing for those convicted after testing became widespread in the 1990s. But in fact, certain types of testing became widely available only in the early 2000s and are still not routinely performed everywhere.

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Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have statutes requiring the preservation of evidence, but the details are often left to the discretion of law enforcement or individual judges. California requires that evidence be preserved for the duration of incarceration, and that should be the minimum standard for all states. The Peacock case also should inspire states to repeal the confession-linked ban. It underscores what numerous studies have shown: that confessions can be unreliable.

Preservation is desired not just by convicts and their defense attorneys. Some prosecutors advocate evidence preservation because the same DNA that exonerates one person can help convict the perpetrator as well, helping to solve cold cases.

Saving DNA evidence is not simply a matter of compassion for the wrongfully incarcerated. It should also be a top priority for those who want to see wrongdoers punished. Because for every Frederick Peacock who went to jail for a crime he did not commit, a perpetrator went free.

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