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DNA: The Freedom Fighter (Part III of III)

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Since 2006, Maine resident Morrison Bonpasse has worked tirelessly for the exoneration of a man he had never met or even heard of until just a few years ago. Alfred Trenkler was convicted in Federal Court in 1994 for making a bomb that killed a Boston police officer.

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Trenkler was sentenced to two concurrent life terms in prison.

Bonpasse believes whole-heartedly in Trenkler's innocence.

According to Bonpasse, two to 5 percent of all people in prison have been wrongfully convicted. That translates to 40-thousand to 100-thousand people. Bonpasse, a non-practicing attorney, believes so strongly in the imperfect storm that led to Trenkler's conviction that he wrote a 700- page book about Trenkler, Perfectly Innocent. He also created a website for him, www.alfredtrenklerinnocent.org, and has even gone into debt for him forcing the 62-year-old, Ivy League-educated Bonpasse to take a menial job at a call center to help pay the bills.

"I'm doing what I learned to do in the 60s when I was at Yale. Save the world," Bonpasse says with a chuckle, but he is only half joking. For Trenkler and the other men he is trying to free, Bonpasse is doing just that.

While Bonpasse is just one man digging and prodding his way through the nation's judicial system seeking justice for his clients, there are a number of organizations, thousands strong, that work on behalf of the wrongly convicted. The Innocence Project, which relies on attorneys working pro-bono with regional chapters throughout the country, has had success using DNA to prove the innocence of those wrongly convicted.

"DNA is the Nobel Prize of innocence," says Bonpasse.

Established in 1992 by civil rights attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the Innocence Project has to date helped exonerate more than 240 people in the United States. But exoneration is by no means a simple or quick process. In fact, after four years of working alone for Trenkler, Bonpasse applied last year to the Innocence Project of New England for their help. He still doesn't know if they will take Trenkler's case. Often, even if the argument for exoneration is strong, even when there is DNA evidence proving innocence (which in Trenkler's case there isn't), exoneration is a painfully slow process.

"The system needs to be fixed," says says Paul Enzinna a partner at D.C. law firm Baker Botts who lends his expertise, pro bono, to the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. "DNA testing can help fix the system. All but a handful of states have statutes allowing inmates access to DNA testing."

Yet there are still roadblocks, including the following facts:
  • Not all states allow DNA testing
  • Not all crimes involve DNA or DNA evidence was not found
  • Some statutes do not allow testing where an inmate pled guilty
  • Some states have a "Sunset Provision" allowing DNA testing for only a limited period of time.
  • A lot of states do not preserve evidence. This means if changes do not take place, innocent men and women will continue to sit in jail with no hope of release. It seems unfathomable.

So, how do we fix the system?

The Innocence Project says we can start by changing laws that involve snitches, false confessions, forensic science and eyewitness identification.

Snitches contribute to 15% of all wrongful convictions. Snitches are inmates who are often given a break on their own cases to testify against a suspect. In addition, we need to let the jury know what the snitch is getting for his/her testimony. "We need disclosure of compensation, favors and other information bearing on witness credibility," says Enzinna. In Alfred Trenkler's case, for example, one of the lead witnesses was an inmate who shared a cell with Trenkler for one weekend. Subsequently, the inmate told law enforcement officials that Trenkler confessed the crime to him. In return, this individual received a four and a half year decrease in his own incarceration.

False confessions contribute to 25% of all wrongful convictions. Duress, coercion, exhaustion, diminished capacity, ignorance of the law and bargaining by law enforcement officers contributes to false confessions. None of these confessions are on the record because these interrogations aren't being recorded. "We need to record the entire interrogation so that the jury can see if there are any off-screen suggestions or threats," says Enzinna.

Forensic science contribute to 65% of all wrongful convictions. Too often, evidence is not preserved so those wrongfully convicted have no recourse in the future. "We need to preserve evidence," says Enzinna who adds that we also need accreditation/oversight for these labs. "Who's running them?" Enzinna asks pointing out that in January 2008 the Department of Justice found insufficient oversight during congressional hearings.

Eyewitness identification contribute to 75% of all wrongful convictions. Here again, the victim or witness needs to be interviewed on tape. "Videotape the ID so the jury can tell if the officer involved was overly suggestive," offers Enzinna. "In addition to this we need blind administration to make sure that the officer showing the photos in a photo line up doesn't know who the key suspect is so s/he doesn't make suggestions." Enzinna also suggests sequential lineups. "Instead of six photos on one page a victim should be shown one photo at a time. Studies show that victims get as many right in this layout but don't get as many wrong when photos are presented this way," says Enzinna.

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Additional facts compiled by the Innocence Project:
  • There have been 249 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States.
  • The first DNA exoneration took place in 1989.
  • Exonerations have been won in 33 states; since 2000, there have been more than 170 exonerations.
  • 17 of the 238 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row.
  • The average length of time served by exonerees is 12 years. The total number of years served is approximately 2,941.
  • The average age of exonerees at the time of their wrongful convictions is 26.
  • Races of the exonerees include mostly African Americans (majority), Caucasians and Latinos.

For further information, read:

Actual Innocence by Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Jim Dwyer.
Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo, the true story of one victim's incorrect identification of her rapist.