In 2004, Josiah Sutton was exonerated after serving four-and-a-half years of a 25-year sentence for a rape he did not commit. Sutton's conviction was the result of a mistaken identification and faulty scientific testing performed by the Houston police laboratory.
In 1998, the victim was abducted at gunpoint, raped by two men, and dumped into a nearby field. Five days after the attack, she identified Sutton and his friend as her possible attackers as she was driving in her neighborhood. The two teenage boys consented to requests by the police for blood and saliva samples to compare with evidence collected from the victim and her car. The testing concluded that Sutton may have been an attacker, but his friend was excluded. Despite the victim identifying both boys, only Sutton was brought to trial.
The DNA evidence became the primary testimony against Sutton. The laboratory claimed that the semen sample from the backseat of the car contained two profiles – Sutton’s and that of another, unidentified man. Moreover, a crime lab employee testified at trial that the DNA found on the victim was an exact match with Sutton, meaning that only about 1 person in 694,000 could have deposited the material whereas in reality, 1 in 16 black men share this profile.
Sutton, asserting his innocence throughout the investigation and his incarceration, sought independent DNA testing during the trial. In his appeal, he claimed that his attorney was ineffective for not obtaining independent testing that would have been exculpatory. The state asserted that the attorney was not ineffective because he told Sutton he did not have enough money for the testing.
The flaws in Sutton’s conviction were numerous and not limited to DNA testing defects. After the rape, police were looking for a 5′ 7″ man who was approximately 135 pounds. Sutton was picked up despite being 6′ and 200 pounds at the time. While incarcerated, he studied DNA testing and filed a hand-written request for retesting. He was denied and it was not until an independent investigation of the police crime laboratory that he got his chance to prove his innocence. Two local reporters were investigating the police crime laboratory and sent transcripts and reports from numerous cases to a group of experts. One of these experts, University of California criminology professor William Thompson, described the reports as the worst he had ever seen and said they were not as scientifically sound as a decent junior high school science project.
When the reporters broadcasted their story, Sutton’s mother was tuning in. She quickly contacted the reporters who agreed to investigate her son’s case. Thompson said of the report in the Sutton case that the mistakes practically jumped off the page. After examining the original DNA test strips, he concluded that the lab was completely wrong in their report. His finding led to retesting, that produced conclusive, exculpatory evidence. The semen source came from a single man, not two, and it did not come from Sutton.
The Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory has since been subjected to an investigation that has shown a great number of problems, ranging from untrained staff to contamination of evidence, and the laboratory was shut down. Sutton’s case has shed light on many other cases where potentially innocent inmates are incarcerated as a result of faulty science.
Sentence: 25 years
Incident Date: 10/25/1998
Conviction Date: 01/01/1999
Exoneration Date: 05/14/2004
Accused Pleaded Guilty: No
Contributing Causes of Conviction: Eyewitness Misidentification, Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science
Death Penalty Case: No
Race of Defendant: African American
Race of Victim: African American
Status: Exonerated by DNA
Alternative Perpetrator Identified: Yes
Type of Crime: Sex Crimes
Forensic Science at Issue: DNA