Virginia’s Forensic Science Board will rely on volunteer lawyers to assist in one of the largest and most unusual DNA investigations ever undertaken, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The project has combed through half a million 20-to 35-year-old forensic case files on the chance someone wrongly convicted of a murder, rape or other serious crime before DNA testing was widely available might be cleared. So far, biological evidence has turned up for at least 941 felons, 47 of them now dead. The board must make sure — when possible — they are notified the evidence exists.
“This is a dream pro bono project for any attorney, firm, or association,” said Steven Benjamin, a criminal defense lawyer on the Forensic Science Board. Then-Gov. Mark Warner ordered the project in 2006 after a sample testing of material found in 31 old case files cleared two men who had already completed their prison sentences for rapes they did not commit. Five men wrongfully convicted of rape have been cleared by DNA testing of biological evidence — samples of blood, semen or other material — kept in state files. It is largely being left up to authorities to determine whether DNA testing is warranted in each case and to interpret whether the results have any bearing on innocence.