DNA Talks

DNA evidence has transformed the American judicial system. It has brought elusive criminals to justice, and has also exonerated many innocent women and men, including Harris County’s Michael Anthony Green. Green was recently exonerated by DNA evidence after spending over 27 years in prison.

Convicted at age 18, Green served more than 27 years for the 1983 rape of a Houston woman. After failed appeals, Green, through his counsel, was allowed post-conviction DNA testing. Green’s sample, compared with DNA found on the victim’s jeans, excluded him as a perpetrator. The testing, however, lead to three new suspects who confessed to the crime. Now 45, Green is a free man.

Green is not alone when it comes to DNA exoneration in Harris County. From 2003 to 2010, Allen Porter, Ernest Sonnier, Gary Richard, Richardo Rachell, Ronald Taylor, George Rodriquez and Josiah Sutton were all cleared of rape or sexual assault convictions by post-conviction DNA evidence. None served longer than Green, but seven of the nine served a decade or more behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit.

Since it was first used in the late 1980s, DNA testing has revolutionized criminal investigations, especially those involving rape and sexual assault. In investigating these crimes, DNA can be obtained from anything an assailant touches or his or her body fluids, such as blood, hair and urine. The FBI notes that the number of rapes reported nationally has dropped, and experts attribute the decline to DNA’s use in identifying suspects. States like New York reported that arrests in rape and sexual assault cases rose dramatically (from 40 percent to 70 percent) after the increased use of DNA testing through rape kits.

While DNA has created a technological boon for law enforcement, it has been a source of controversy for Harris County officials. In 2002, the Houston Police Department Crime Lab was the center of controversy, which resulted in the review of 1,300 convictions and 377 DNA retests. Years after the scandal, an independent review of the crime lab found contaminate DNA samples in the lab, case work mistakes and four cases of fraudulent test results in 2007. As of the end of 2009, nearly 4,000 rape kits and over 1,000 requests for DNA testing remain backlogged.

Having an efficient regional criminal lab will be key for Harris County law enforcement. Through this and timely DNA testing, confidence in the legal system can be restored.