How DNA Technology Brings the Truth
Criminal defense lawyers are often the unsung heroes and heroines who stand for the rights of citizens and shield them from wrongful prosecution. Without their expertise and dedication to the principles of justice that limit the overreach of governments’ rule of law, our last standing chances as citizens from protection against wrongful prosecution would be lost. Nevertheless, many have fallen through the cracks of our criminal justice system and been wrongfully convicted, jailed and sentenced to death. Strong attorneys coupled with improvements in DNA technology have helped alleviate this issue and have saved the lives of those wrongfully condemned to death.
As DNA technology has become increasingly utilized in courts, several cases including one in Mississippi have been revisited. Kennedy Brewer, a Mississippi man, was wrongfully accused of abducting, raping and murdering a three-year-old child, Christine Jackson, in 1992. The child in question was his girlfriend’s daughter who was found in a creek nearby their home with markings on her body.
Brewer was convicted in 1995 of capital murder and sexual battery and was sentenced to death. On the night of the murder, police questioned and arrested Brewer as the suspect because he had been home at the time of the abduction and there had been no sign of forced entry into the house. In this case, police assumed that Brewer committed the crime and had later disposed of the body in a nearby creek. What the police failed to consider was the broken window in Jackson’s room as a possible entry for someone who would abduct her. DNA samples of semen were obtained from Jackson’s body found in the creek but were deemed insufficient for testing at the time. The marks found on the child’s body, however, were brought up at the trial.
These markings were attributed to teeth marks by the suspect. During the trial, an odontologist from the prosecution, who had actually been suspended from American Board of Forensic Odontology, testified that the marks had to have been from the front two teeth of the suspect. Apparently, they matched Brewer’s teeth marks. In response, the defense called on a licensed dentist who also happened to be a founding member of the American Board of Forensic Odontology. The dentist testified that the marks on Jackson’s body were not teeth marks at all and that they were more likely to have been from insects from the creek her body was found in. Nevertheless, the jury found Brewer guilty and sentenced him to death.
Thirteen years and several appeals later, DNA testing finally exonerated Brewer in 2008. Through this use of advanced technology, another male was implicated who ultimately admitted to the crime and was found to have committed a similar crime in the area. On the night of Jackson’s death, the true suspect was in the area near her home.
The mishandling of this crime is just one example among many of people who have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced for a crime they did not commit. When law enforcement and those who carry the torches of justice fail to do their jobs carefully and with mindful intention, lives can be lost and forever altered. In the case of Brewer, thirteen years were sacrificed before he was able to get his life back. Even after being exonerated, the trauma associated with being wrongfully accused can have a lasting impact on one’s life, mental and physical health and ability to move on. When injustices such as these occur, it risks the lives of all of us as anyone of us could fall victim. Being innocent, indeed, is not enough to protect oneself as is evidenced by
the case of Brewer and the countless others who have been wrongfully convicted. It is unknown how many prisoners are currently being wrongfully held for crimes they did not commit. A strong team of professionals who are committed to a case from beginning to end is crucial in order to end these injustices. This includes attorneys as well as law enforcement involved in the case. Without all parties doing their due diligence, it is incredibly difficult to discern the facts surrounding a crime. Negligence in a case can be life-altering particularly when the stakes of the crime are high and a death sentence is possible.
Given the disproportionate number of minorities in our prisons in the United States, it is increasingly imperative that justice is served accurately and appropriately. Oftentimes, black and Hispanic men are targeted for no apparent reason other than stereotypes that perpetuate the false association with crime. This preconceived notion is often a perplexing image conundrum that many defense attorneys have to navigate around in order to protect their clients. When courts convict and sentence people for crimes they did not commit, the integrity of our justice system is questioned which weakens a foundational component of our democracy and what is supposed to be a binding faith that all are considered equal under law. It is imperative that for our country to thrive that the rule of law is trusted among its citizens and carried out responsibly and equally without discrimination.
Modern DNA technology and other advancements offer a glimpse of hope for many wrongfully imprisoned victims. For those on death row, it’s the difference between life and death. For defense attorneys, an incredible responsibility to uplift and stand for their clients is urgently needed to preserve justice. Their expertise on how to navigate the complex system of our courts is an invaluable resource for all particularly for minorities and low-income families who lack access to necessary legal resources. Nick Wooldridge’s commitment to the words of Martin Luther King Jr. is both commendable and honorable as it indicates an understanding and recognition of the incredible role he plays in the lives of citizens and in upholding justice to its highest standards. With strong attorneys and modern advancements in suspect identification, more cases of wrongfully convicted prisoners will hopefully be brought to light and the injustices of the past will be corrected.
Scholarship article submitted by Celina Keshishian (California State University, Northridge)