Normative Narratives

The Blind Eye of Justice

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In a seemingly obvious argument, defense attorneys take up a call for access to the Combined DNA Index System, or “Codis”. Currently only 9 states allow Codis access to defendants: “Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas”

“There is incredible exculpatory power in the databases that the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on over the years,” said Nina Morrison, a senior lawyer in the case.”

Codis, like all government programs, is funded by taxpayer money. How can the government not ensure that all people have access to its possible benefits? On what grounds would it be justified to not check crime scene DNA versus the defendants in order to help determine innocence or guilt. Obviously DNA testing should not be the only determinant in a criminal case, but there is no good reason why the defense should not have access to this hard scientific evidence while the prosecution does.

Some prosecutors are open to a change in rules governing Codis. “We, as law enforcement and prosecutors, are obligated to seek the truth and follow the evidence, and DNA should be entered into Codis,” said Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association. “It seems like there should be laws for it, and I agree that the defense should be given the information.”

Anybody can be falsely accused of a crime and find themselves as a defendant in a case; shouldn’t they have access to a DNA database they helped pay to build? If the law was truly “blind”, then both sides of the case would have access to any and all evidence that could affect the outcome.

A more inclusive Codis database would also aid the legal process. Perhaps the government should take fingerprints at the DMV. Maybe registration in the Codis database should be a requirement for receiving certain government entitlement programs. The only person who should have a problem registering their fingerprints is someone who believes they will commit a future crime; this is not the person the law should be most concerned about protecting.

Now in this particular case the defendant, Joseph Buffey, confessed to the crime. Buffey was only 19 years old at the time and at the urging of his lawyer and presumably extreme interrogation by police, felt confession would be in his best interests. “I know it’s hard to believe, but you’d be surprised what you’d confess to under certain circumstances.”

“If proceedings go as his lawyers hope, Mr. Buffey’s story will be one more in the several hundred exonerations nationwide brought about partly by new DNA techniques, many involving false confessions.”

If the law is “blind”, it is blind in its search of holding someone responsible for a crime. Attorneys make careers over big convictions and communities want closure; sometimes getting it right is not as important as holding someone responsible.

Two recommendations here. First, there should be greater transparency in the interrogation process. Second, there should be unrestricted access to Codis for defense attorneys in all states. The database is already there and paid for, restricting access makes little sense.

In terms of interrogation practices, there should be an independent evaluator in every police station to ensure ethical techniques are used in interrogation. If there are questionable actions by interrogation officers, it should be noted, particularly in cases of a confession. Lawyers are not allowed to “badger a witness”; police officers should not be allowed to badger a suspect.

What do you guys think? If 2013 is going to be a year of socially conscious discourse and positive change I am going to need the help of my readers. Let’s turn Friday back into a Q & A day instead of another day where I pick a story to write about. It’s more fun and informative for everybody that way.

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2 thoughts on “The Blind Eye of Justice

  1. What’s the benefit of defense lawyers having access to a database of other peoples DNA? This blog does not clarify how DNA could or did exonerate Buffey… Please share some more background of the story because I don’t understand what happened to Joseph Buffey here.

    Anyway, defense lawyers will always have access to their clients DNA, and to the DNA collected in the case. All they need to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that their client is not guilty. They do not need to prove that a different person committed the crime. How will having access to a DNA database help falsely accused defendants, in a way that comparing their own DNA to DNA collected at a crime scene doesn’t?

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  2. Hello Dan, nice to see you back.

    I recently changed the look of the sight again, I liked the old look but having links all but hidden does nobody any good.

    The article talks about how only in 9 states do defense attorneys have any access to the Codis database, NY being one of them. But more specifically, the article addresses how once a confession is made, courts tend to be reluctant to go back an consider the idea that perhaps the confession was made under duress and that there is more to the case than the confession entails.

    In the case in question, another mans DNA was found on the crime scene, but since Buffey already confessed, the court did not see the purpose of reviewing DNA with respect to the Codis database. A competent lawyer would likely be interested in how DNA at the crime scene compares to his clients. The Codis database, which is readily accessible and less expensive than having to DNA test every individual accused of a crime; using Codis is a good first step. If the DNA at the crime scene is not in the system then individual DNA comparisons would be needed. However, depending on what state the defendant is being tried in will determine the level of access that the defendant’s representation has to Codis. Depending on the defense attorneys level of commitment and compensation, he or she may not exhaust all possible avenues to obtain the hard scientific evidence exonerating their client, especially if it is difficult, time-consuming, or expensive to do so.

    Perhaps it is a failure of the courts, or of the defense lawyer, or of questionable interrogation practices which lead to false confessions. Surely some of the blame belongs to someone who knowingly admits to a crime they did not commit. However, this should not be punishable by years in jail.

    The article makes it seem like the defense does not always have access to crime scene evidence, at least not before the point where confessions and plea deals are being offered. Having greater access to crime scene evidence and Codis databases should mean lawyers, even publicly appointed lawyers, will be more willing to go the extra mile before recommending their client confesses to a crime he did not commit. Perhaps there should be a grace period between when someone is accused and when they are allowed to confess or arrange a plea deal, in order for all the evidence surrounding the case to be considered both by the defendant and his attorney.

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