When Virginia’s top forensic scientist was skimming through a convicted rapist’s file to confirm that all the evidence in the case had been destroyed, he ran across a yellowed old cotton swab taped to the bottom of a testing chart, says the Washington Post. The DNA on that swab led to the exoneration of a Virginia man who had served 15 years in prison and set in motion a chain of events that resulted in Virginia Gov. Mark Warner’s extraordinary decision to reexamine dozens of old criminal cases to determine whether new technology could exonerate more prisoners.
“This is the first time a state has ordered a review of a class of cases where the inmate has never even requested any DNA testing,” said Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “Other states will be keeping an eye on what Virginia does.” Normally, it is up to inmates to request testing for DNA evidence, a process that has triggered the exoneration of more than 100 inmates across the country. Now, in a state that had been known for strict post-conviction rules, workers are poring through as many as 600 boxes of evidence looking for cases in which the DNA is still testable. The results could have far-reaching implications nationwide, regardless of what is found. If they determine that all the inmates are imprisoned properly, some people might have more confidence in the criminal justice system. If the tests find innocent defendants, then justice would be served, experts said.