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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Va. DNA Project Is In Uncharted Territory

After Eva King Jones, 88, was raped and killed in her small-town Virginia home, a local man was accused and convicted. Now, 33 years later, police say newly discovered DNA evidence has led to the arrest of someone else.

In most instances, the decades-old case would have remained tucked away on a courthouse shelf. But Virginia State Police recently reopened the investigation based on new genetic clues uncovered during the state's unprecedented effort to use modern-day technology to find, and exonerate, innocent people.

Since the $1.4 million project was launched almost three years ago, samples of blood, semen and saliva from about 400 rapes, killings and other serious crimes from the 1970s and 1980s have been reexamined. About 400 more cases will be analyzed. Virginia is entering uncharted legal territory as officials face ethical and practical questions about the best way to handle the evidence.

No determination has been made about whether anyone was wrongly convicted. Most don't even know about the tests. In at least eight cases, the convicts' DNA does not match crime samples.

Defense lawyers and legal scholars commend the project, the most extensive effort nationwide to use DNA to undo false convictions, but are pushing for a more transparent process. Several legal experts have criticized a state decision to notify convicts about the tests through a letter by certified mail. They say the convicts, who will learn in the letter only that tests were conducted and not the results, might not read well enough to understand or might be suspicious of the government. [Mark Godsey]

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