Saturday, January 10, 2009

Almost missed an anniversary this week 20 Years of DNA Exonerations

On January 4 1989, David Vasquez became the first person in the US.

Factual background. In the early morning of January 24, 1984, a woman was sexually assaulted and murdered in her home by an assailant who had entered the home through the victim's basement window. The woman died from asphyxiation by hanging.

David Vasquez pleaded guilty to second-degree homicide and burglary (Alford plea) on February 4, 1985. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison. He had pled guilty to the crime after allegedly confessing to the crime and reporting details that were not released to the public. Vasquez, who is borderline retarded, later reported that he had only dreamed the crime.

Prosecutor's evidence. In addition to Vasquez's guilty plea, the prosecution proffered the following evidence to the court:

  • Two witnesses placed Vasquez near the victim's house on the day of the crime.
  • Vasquez could not provide an alibi.
  • Hair analysis of pubic hairs found at the scene were consistent with Vasquez's hair.
  • A guilty plea meant that Vasquez would not be subject to the death penalty upon conviction.

Postconviction challenges. There are no known postconviction challenges. Vasquez's defense attorneys, however, filed for a suppression of two of his confessions because they were issued without a Miranda warning.

DNA results. The Virginia State laboratory, Cellmark Diagnostics, and Lifecodes, Inc., performed DNA tests on the evidence from several rape/murders. All tests inculpated a man named Timothy Spencer as the assailant in rape-murders that were identical in modus operandi to the Vasquez incident.

Attempts by FSA to compare hair found at the scene with Vasquez's blood sample were inconclusive.

Conclusion. The Commonwealth's attorney and Vasquez's defense attorneys filed motions with the governor to grant Vasquez an unconditional pardon. The motions were based on the DNA tests of Spencer and an FBI report that indicated the Vasquez crime and the Spencer crimes were committed by the same person. The report also stated that the crimes "were not perpetrated by someone who was mentally deficient." The governor granted the pardon, and Vasquez was released on January 4, 1989. Vasquez had served 5 years of his sentence.

Timothy Spencer was arrested, tried, and convicted for two other rape-murders. He was never formally prosecuted in the Vasquez incident because he already had been sentenced to death. The United States Supreme Court denied Spencer's request for a new DNA test. On April 27, 1994, Spencer became the first person in the United States executed on the basis of DNA testing.

I strongly oppose the death penalty and the DNA cases show you why. We can and do convict innocent people.

The other thing important about this is case is that he pled guilty. In discussions with prosecutors they are sometimes willing to admit that a trial can convict the wrong guy. But they insist that no one who is not guilty would plead guilty. This is wrong as the Vasquez Case shows. There are many reasons a innocent person would plead guilty. In this case the prosecutor probably took the death penalty off the table in exchange for a guilty plea. An innocence person who sees the cards stacked against him like Vazquez did would often take this deal.

This case also shows that hair analysis is crap. This "science" is quickly (although not quickly enough) falling out of favor with courts. It is not science at all and has been used in thousands of cases to convict people who were innocent.

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