Almost two years after Virginia started a groundbreaking, $1.4 million effort to search for people wrongfully convicted of crimes, no new exonerations have been announced, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The project has drawn national attention as a window on the accuracy of the justice system. It began with some urgency in 2005 after DNA testing of evidence in a random sampling of 31 old forensic case files cleared two men wrongly convicted of rape. Then-Gov. Mark Warner ordered the state forensics lab to test all appropriate cases from 1973 through 1987. Evidence is being tested in batches as found so any innocent person could be cleared — and freed if necessary — as quickly as possible.
However, the Virginia Department of Forensic Science has not completed work on all of the original 31 cases, much less what was initially thought to be a 1½- to 2-year task. Four of those first 31 cases were called “inconclusive” by the department because it lacked the DNA profile of the defendants to clear any of them who might be innocent. As of last week, the lab still had not acquired them, prompting critics to charge foot-dragging. Peter Marone, director of the department, said the intent in 2005 was only to determine the magnitude of the issue with a random sampling of 10 percent of the cases that met certain criteria. The criteria included having a known DNA sample of the suspect. Betty Layne DesPortes, a defense lawyer and board member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, isn’t satisfied. “They didn’t complete four cases, so we really don’t know the magnitude of the problem,” she said. “They did not try to contact the defendant to obtain a sample. They did not contact the prison. They did not contact the state police. Nothing.” As of Wednesday, 500,945 files have been searched. Of those: 2,138 contain both crime-scene evidence and a named suspect; 470 files have been reviewed to determine if the suspect was convicted of the crime; and the evidence from 114 cases has been sent for DNA testing.