On Jan. 3. the prison doors swung open and Charles Chatman walked out. He had spent 26½ years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Luckily for Mr. Chatman, the Dallas County crime lab in Texas retains all biological evidence it receives. In Mr. Chatman's case, evidence from 1981. It was only through persistent lawyering and the testing of this DNA evidence that this terrible miscarriage of justice was revealed.
In 2005, Texas enacted a statute statewide which provides for preservation of evidence for all defendants until the defendant dies, completes the sentence or is released on parole. Texas also has a statute that allows any convicted person to apply for post-conviction DNA testing of evidence through the convicting court. Alaska has neither.
The Alaska Innocence Project is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals incarcerated by the State of Alaska and to work to prevent wrongful convictions in the future. As part of this work, the Alaska Innocence Project proposes legislation that mandates preservation of evidence collected during an investigation and used to convict a person.
In this emerging era of DNA evidence, the power and usefulness of such evidence increases daily. Not only can innocence claims like that of Charles Chatman be settled but cold cases with no suspects can be solved. To make any good of this work, however, the evidence must be preserved.
The federal government recognized the importance of preserving biological evidence in 2004 when Congress passed the Justice for All Act. That law requires federal prosecutors keep evidence used to convict a person until that person has completed his sentence. Congress has also made hundreds of millions of dollars available to states as an incentive to adopt proper evidence preservation practices.
The Alaska Senate Judiciary Committee, with the assistance of the Alaska Innocence Project, has proposed a law that meets the federal evidence preservation criteria. This Senate bill would help in crime fighting and provide certainty in convictions. It would also greatly increase efficiency in law enforcement throughout the state by creating a standardized system of evidence preservation and cataloging.
Determining questions of fact in our criminal justice system is an unavoidably imperfect venture. While the system surely gets it right in the vast majority of cases, in an important minority of cases credible questions of innocence linger. Where that is the case, post-conviction DNA testing of biological evidence can provide true finality by proving guilt or strong evidence of actual innocence. To be able to ensure justice, however, that biological evidence must be preserved and located when necessary.
Innocent people should not be in jail for crimes they did not commit, and guilty people should not be able to go free at the expense of those wrongfully convicted. The Alaska Innocence Project is working to bring Alaska forward to where 27 other states and the federal government have moved. For the sake of even one Alaskan like Charles Chatman, the Alaska Innocence Project urges the Legislature to pass an evidence preservation statute as soon as possible.
Bill Oberly is interim executive director of the Alaska Innocence Project in Anchorage.