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Editorial: Don’t ignore DNA that might tell the truth

Updated: June 21, 2011 9:28AM



Sometimes, law officers act as though DNA stands for “Don’t Notice the Alternatives.”

If they already have someone behind bars, authorities too often don’t want to consider new evidence pointing to someone else. Even if the new evidence is based on DNA, they often will just try to explain it away.

Last year, we noted that Lake County had three cases in which authorities seemed to be infected with “Don’t Notice the Alternatives” syndrome. In all three cases, DNA from the crime scene didn’t match the official suspect.

Since then, one of those three men, Jerry Hobbs, has been released. DNA from the crime scene — which authorities already knew didn’t come from Hobbs — was reportedly matched to a former Zion resident who also faces federal charges in Virginia in the 2009 killing of a Navy petty officer.

Meanwhile, there are signs “Don’t Notice the Alternatives” syndrome could be creeping into Cook County, where two sets of young men remain the official suspects though DNA evidence points in a different direction. We hope that isn’t happening.

In one case, five young men were convicted of the 1991 sexual assault and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Dixmoor though DNA extracted from the victim didn’t match any of them. Three of the young men confessed, but no physical evidence implicated them. One of the young men immediately recanted his confession and the other two have done so since. Now, although DNA results recently matched serial offender and convicted rapist Willie Randolph, Cook County is opposing a hearing for a new trial for the three men still in prison, but is re-investigating.

In the other case, four teenagers were convicted of the 1994 sexual assault and strangulation of Nina Glover, 30, in Englewood. The teenagers confessed, but there was no trace of physical evidence. Last month, DNA testing matched the now-deceased Johnny Douglas, who pleaded guilty in 2001 to the 1997 strangulation murder of another woman. Cook County is also re-investigating this case.

The importance of getting these cases right goes beyond assuring justice for suspects who might — or might not — have been wrongfully convicted. In a report released Monday, the Better Government Association and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University concluded that wrongful convictions in 85 Illinois cases since 1989 have cost taxpayers $214 million.

The study’s authors said costs could pass $300 million due to 16 pending civil suits and another that will be filed later this year. Most of the cases originated in Chicago and Chicagoans have paid most of the bills.

A classic case of “Don’t Notice the Alternatives” syndrome occurred in North Carolina, where Darryl Hunt spent more than 19 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. Authorities learned halfway through Hunt’s time in prison that his DNA didn’t match evidence from the crime scene, but they kept him in prison for another decade. His brother, Willard Brown, eventually confessed.

“Everybody knew the DNA didn’t match him,” says Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, a national leader in DNA searches. “If Willard Brown had not confessed and not indicated that Mr. Hunt had nothing to do with that rape-murder, Mr. Hunt might very well still be in the North Carolina penitentiary serving a life sentence.”

That case shows how “Don’t Notice the Alternatives” syndrome can have serious consequences.

Everyone from law officers to taxpayers needs to guard against it.



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