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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Lawyers to aid DNA project

Virginia's Forensic Science Board will rely on volunteer lawyers to assist in one of the largest and most unusual DNA investigations ever undertaken.

The project has combed through half a million 20to 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. As directed by the General Assembly this year, the board must make sure -- when possible -- they are notified the evidence exists.

That's where the volunteer lawyers come in.

"This is a dream pro bono project for any attorney, firm, or association," said Steven D. Benjamin, a Richmond-area criminal defense lawyer on the Forensic Science Board.

Benjamin said he has had informal talks with statewide bar groups and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project to determine the level of interest. Formal letters requesting help will be sent out soon.

Then-Gov. Mark R. 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 the files of the late Mary Jane Burton, a former state forensic serologist, and her colleagues.

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.

This year, however, the assembly ordered the Forensic Science Board, which oversees the Department of Forensic Science, to notify any felon who has biological material found in their old files.

James Towey, executive director of the Virginia State Crime Commission and a member of the board, said, "I'm fairly optimistic that most of these people can be located and notified." [Mark Godsey]

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