Forensic Science and Wrongful Convictions

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Brandon L. Garrett, nationally respected DNA evidence expert, presented the Ninth Annual Buck Colbert Franklin Memorial Civil Rights Lecture on October 21, 2008.

The Innocence Project has recorded over 200 DNA prisoner exonerations since 1989, including 15 prisoners who had been sentenced to death, according to Atlantic Monthly. With the advent of DNA testing, a group of aggressive lawyers have made such cases their mission, convinced that a measurable percentage of the 2.2 million men and women locked up in prisons and local jails are innocent of the charged crimes. One such lawyer, Brandon L. Garrett, who is on the forefront of using DNA evidence to battle wrongful convictions, gave the Ninth Annual Buck Colbert Franklin Memorial Civil Rights Lecture.

In conducting a body of wrongful conviction research, Garrett, an associate law professor at the University of Virginia, has catalogued the reasons for those wrongful convictions. In "Judging Innocence,” published in the January Columbia Law Review, Garrett states that mistaken eyewitness identifications, often due to police subtly pointing witnesses toward the people the cops suspect, resulted in 79 percent of the false convictions. Flawed or corrupt testimony by scientific “experts” figured in 55 percent. False confessions, mostly by juvenile defendants, figured in 16 percent. The Innocence Project and other post conviction relief efforts are garnering national attention. The Washington Post recently featured a $1.4 million project launched by the State of Virginia cited as the nation’s most extensive effort to use DNA to find and exonerate individuals who have been wrongfully convicted. While DNA exonerations have spurred reforms by some states, Garrett and others are pushing for a more transparent process, especially in the court system, where the falsely accused face formidable procedural obstacles. Garrett will speak about his research, the Innocence Project and the state of post-conviction DNA testing that has brought about the exoneration of over 200 prisoners. Garrett joined the faculty of the University of Virginia School of Law in 2005. His areas of research and publication include criminal procedure, wrongful convictions, habeas corpus, corporate crime, civil rights, civil procedure, constitutional law, and new forms of public governance. He received a B.A. degree from Yale in 1997 and his J.D. degree from Columbia University School of Law in 2001.