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Innocence Project Uses DNA to Exonerate Convicted Felons - 2003-11-12

DNA testing has proved to be a powerful tool for police officers and prosecutors, as they go about identifying and convicting criminals. But DNA has also been a powerful tool in the fight to exonerate people who were wrongly convicted of crimes long before scientists had the ability to identify DNA evidence. VOA's Maura Farrelly takes a look at the Innocence Project and one man whose life was forever changed by it.

Calvin C. Johnson has a powerful story to tell. He's a black man from Jonesboro, Georgia, and in 1983, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a rape he did not commit. The jury that sent him to jail was all-white. So was the woman he was convicted of raping. Calvin Johnson was also charged with a similar rape that took place in a neighboring town at around the same time, but the jury in that case decided he was innocent. That jury was comprised of seven whites and five blacks.

"When you get a group of people that are made up of the same race, they have a tendency to feel like family, and they have a tendency to stick together and look out for their own," explained Mr. Johnson. "So the only thing you can do is you have to mix it up. The best jury you can have is a mixture of Hispanic, black, white. Whatever other culture may be around."

Calvin Johnson can say that now, since he was exonerated in 1999 and is no longer in prison. But he says he's not sure he would have offered such a clear-headed and even forgiving evaluation of his conviction during the first ten of 16 years that he spent in jail. Calvin Johnson says he was very angry during that time.

"I got to a point where I actually felt like a walking time bomb, about to explode. I felt like I was on the threshold of becoming violent, disorderly, disruptive … because I couldn't talk to anybody," he said. "In prison, there's nobody I can talk to. I can't talk to my fellow convicts, because everybody says they're innocent, which we know they aren't. And I couldn't talk to the counselor, because the counselor said, 'We gotta go by the records, and the records say you did this.'"

Finally, one day Calvin Johnson did find someone he could talk to. His name was Peter Neufeld, and he's the co-founder of something known as the "Innocence Project."

"The Innocence Project was set up about 10 years ago to take advantage of the emerging DNA technology to look at old cases, where people were convicted, perhaps, on less reliable evidence, and now use this powerful science to take a second look at those cases and see whether some of these people were, in fact, wrongly convicted, which it turns out they were," said Mr. Neufeld.

So far, the Innocence Project has managed to exonerate 138 men in 30 states and the District of Columbia. Similar projects have been launched in Canada, England and Australia, and Peter Neufeld says there may soon be Innocence Projects in Turkey, India, France and Italy.

Most of the men who've been exonerated were, like Calvin Johnson, convicted of rape, and sometimes murder, too. That's because DNA taken from the semen left on a rape victim's body is the most definitive proof that a man did or did not commit the crime. Interestingly enough, most of the men on the Innocence Project's list are also, like Calvin Johnson, black.

"About 60 percent of all of our wrongful conviction cases that we've seen so far involve black men who are falsely accused of sexually assaulting or sexually assaulting-killing white women," said Mr. Neufeld. "When a black man is charged with a crime such as that, it's more likely that he'll have a bad lawyer, it's more likely that the cops will cross the line, it's more likely that a forensic scientist might exaggerate the probative value of the data."

Peter Neufeld says inadequate legal representation and misconduct by police and prosecutors are three of the biggest reasons people are wrongfully convicted. To that end, he, the law students who work for him, and many of the men who've been exonerated by the Innocence Project are pushing for judicial reform. Calvin Johnson recently got legislators in the state of Georgia to pass a law requiring that DNA evidence used in any conviction be preserved for at least 10 years. It seems the evidence used in his case was nearly thrown out at one point during the 16 years between his conviction and his exoneration.

"The justice system is a system that's definitely needed, but at the same time, anything that's put together, or made by man is going to have some flaws in it," said Mr. Johnson. "Now we can't live without laws, because society would just go on a rampage. So we have to work with the system we have, but we have to try to do what we can individually to make the system better."

Calvin Johnson has also written a book about his experience. It's entitled Exit to Freedom.