Tuesday, October 13, 2009

DNA Testing: Today's Get-Out-Of Jail Card

DNA Testing: Today’s Get-Out-of-Jail Card
By Gary L. Flowers
Executive Director & CEO
Black Leadership Forum, Inc.
October 11-19, 2009

This week, United States Attorney General Eric Holder directed the United States Department of Justice to review a Bush Administration policy virtually excluding DNA testing from defendants in federal cases. In addition, the U.S. Attorney General favors the expanded use of DNA testing is federal courts.

In 2004, the Innocence Protection Act of 2004 was enacted by the United States Congress to ensure greater protections under law for the wrongfully convicted. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Act nearly in tact; however, the U.S. Senate conjured up a catch—waivers to DNA tests that could provide exonerating evidence by defendants in consideration for lesser sentences.

In response to the Innocence Protection Act, the Bush Administration via U.S. Attorneys’ offices required some defendants to waive their right to DNA, despite such a right provided for by the Act. Although waivers were only filed in cases where guilty pleas were entered, the plausibility of coerced confessions of guilt or cases where defendants pled guilty to charges in exchange for lesser prison sentences were not considered. The process was politicized.

The most diabolical aspect of the policy was that defendants who filed DNA waivers were barred from ever asking for DNA tests, notwithstanding the existence of exculpatory evidence in such tests. In other words, a defendant was forced to waive science for a softer sentence, even in cases where their innocence existed. Seriously?

The use of DNA evidence became widely used around 2003 and has had a dramatic affect on exonerating innocent people wrongly convicted of crimes. For example, following the conviction last year of high-ranking police officers in Chicago of coercing confessions through torturing the accused several people have been released from prison as DNA evidence was admitted and exonerated them from the crimes they were forced to admit.

However, the full effect of DNA testing in federal courts is yet to be witnessed. So far, 243 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA evidence (25% of which gave false confessions, and 16 of that number pled guilty). Seventeen wrongly convicted people have been exonerated. All 243 who have been exonerated have been in state cases. In fact, 97% of federal convictions arise from guilty pleas, thereby eliminating the use of DNA tests.

Most federal court districts have enacted legislation allowing inmates to request DNA testing, and the majority of cases permit petitions, post guilty pleas. Some high-volume federal districts such as the District of Columbia, Manhattan, New York, and Alexandria, Virginia commonly use waivers. Twenty-four U.S. Attorneys do not use waivers at all.
However, help is on the way.
The DNA process will soon expand to include biological data. Currently, DNA data does not reveal whether the DNA sample originated in semen, blood, or other tissue. The improvements in science are way overdue for the wrongly convicted—disproportionately African Americans and Latinos.
In 2009, the inmate population in the United States is over 2 million, with nearly 75% ethnically Black or Brown.

In the board game Monopoly a “Get-Out-of-Jail Card” is won on the chance the player rolls the dice and lands on the appropriate box of the board. The reality for defendants of being wrongfully convicted due to poverty, poor legal representation, or overly ambitious prosecutors should not depend on a “roll of the dice” or is it appropriate that so many are jailed for so little evidence. The playing field for the falsely accused and convicted should be leveled so that scientific evidence is available in order to ensure the nation’s promise of liberty and justice for all.
Today, science in the form of DNA testing provides a genetic “Get-Out-of-Jail Card” or better still: a “Not-Go-to-Jail Card.” I love the proper use of science for just public policy!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Partial to Public or Private?

Below is my column entitled "Partial to Public or Private?"

By Gary L. Flowers
Executive Director & CEO
Black Leadership Forum, Inc.
September 27-October 3, 2009

Today’s debate over legislative issues such as health care, education, and energy boil down to whether public interests or private interests will benefit.
I am partial to public.
The word public is an adjective pertaining to, or affecting the people of a community, state, or nation. Many believe the Latin phrase res publica is the origin of the word republic (i.e. Democratic Republic), under which the United States of America is governed.
Historically, Roman authors used the word to describe the period of time (epoch) between the Roman Kingdom and the Roman Empire. Later, the Greeks translated the term into politeia (the organization process of a city-state).
Of course, the word public is found in the name of the political party known as Republican. In 1854, when the Republican Party was established the legislative agenda was centered on the public good. For example, Abraham Lincoln campaigned for the Presidency on, in part, an anti-slavery political platform. By 1960, following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, the people and priorities of Republican Party moved to private interest.
Rather than comply with the law of the land to racially desegregate schools, many southerners established private educational academies in churches to maintain all-White classrooms. For example, the Commonwealth of Virginia closed entire school districts rather than have Black and White students learn together.
When President Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 he ushered in the concept of private health insurance through his relationship with Edward Kaiser who founded Kaiser Permanente. The idea was for private health insurance companies to profit by denying—not providing—health insurance to the public.
Since then, privatized health insurance provider have bazillions of dollars on the broken backs of pubic. Recent research provided by Amy Goodman on the Pacifica Radio Network show “Democracy Now” reveals that California health insurance companies’ denial rate for health insurance claims ranges between 25% and 39%. Each denial of the policyholders represents more profit for the private company.
Therefore, when President Obama stated his preference for the “public option” in health insurance the Re-public-ans held public rallies to preserve private profits. Does such make any sense?
Some argued that the President’s plan was the beginning of socialized medicine in a capitalist economy. Actually, my studies of capitalism bear out that two of the primary tenets of capitalism are choice and competition. Duh? If the
the public has the option to choose health providers which include a government-run health insurance, it seems to me to be consistent with free market capitalism.
Like Michael Moore, I believe capitalism is inherently un-Godly and un-American. Greed should not trump need.
Predictably, I believe in public access, public broadcasting, public domain, public Internet, public safety, public education, public interest, and most of all, public good.
Politics can be defined as who gets what, and how much. American policy should benefit the masses. Power to the people!