(Indianapolis, IN — March 16, 2022) Yesterday, Governor Holcomb signed SB 263, a bill designed to ensure biological crime scene evidence is properly retained. The new law, which was authored by Rep. Steuerwald (R-District 40) in the House and led by Senators Doriot (R-District 12) and Koch (R-District 44) in the Senate, is a key step in revealing wrongful convictions and solving cold cases in the Hoosier state.
The proper collection, preservation, and storage of physical evidence from a crime scene is imperative when it comes to prosecuting and defending criminal cases. The major advances in technology over the past decades — including the collection of trace amounts of DNA and forensic genealogy — have revolutionized the use of biological evidence in a way that allows investigators to solve cold cases, detect the guilty, and exonerate the innocent.
“I am grateful to the Governor and my colleagues for helping to pass this critical legislation,” said Rep. Steuerwald. “By requiring the proper preservation of evidence, this bill will ensure that justice is served to victims of crimes and the wrongfully convicted, while preserving due process and maintaining the public’s trust in the integrity of the criminal justice system.”
In the U.S, there have been 375 exonerations based on DNA evidence to date, none of which would have been possible if biological evidence was not available to test. If this evidence had been destroyed, tainted, contaminated, mislabeled, or otherwise corrupted, we never would have discovered the innocence of these wrongfully convicted people. Indeed, out of these 375 exonerations, the true perpetrators of the crimes were subsequently detected in 50 percent of the cases. While innocent individuals spent years behind bars for crimes they did not commit, 165 people who committed the crimes for which the innocent languished remained free and subsequently committed an additional 154 violent crimes: 36 murders; 83 rapes; and 35 other violent crimes that could have been prevented if the actual perpetrator had been detected in the first place.
Take for example, the case of Roosevelt Glenn and Darryl Pinkins, who were wrongfully convicted of a 1989 rape and robbery in Hammond, Indiana. Pinkins was imprisoned for 25 years and Glenn for 17, before finally being exonerated. At their original trial, a police lab analyst testified that blood found at the crime scene tied both men to the crime. Additionally, a state crime lab analyst testified that a hair found on the victim’s sweater was similar to Glenn’s. In 2000, the Wrongful Conviction Clinic at Indiana University’s Robert McKinney School of Law began reinvestigating the case and was able to conduct a DNA test on the hair from the victim’s sweater which definitively excluded Glenn as its source. Then, in 2015, a DNA mixture expert further determined that both Pinkins and Glenn could be excluded as contributors. If not for the proper preservation of evidence, neither of them would have been exonerated.
“The Indiana criminal justice system is now positioned to take advantage of progress in forensic technology to exonerate the innocent and bring to justice the guilty. Prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, and wrongful conviction advocates agreed on the need for this essential step forward. So thankful for legislative leadership recognizing the void in our law and responding. Awesome,” said Fran Watson, Director of the Indiana University McKinney School of Law Wrongful Conviction Clinic.
The Innocence Project worked with the Department of Justice-funded and National Institute of Standards & Technology-administered Technical Working Group on Biological Evidence Preservation, which issued a set of recommendations to policymakers for the proper retention of biological evidence. “It is so gratifying that the federal-to-state guidance issued by the Technical Working Group on Biological Evidence Preservation is taking hold across the nation. As a member of that working group, I am thrilled to see state after state continue to embrace these common-sense recommendations, which promise to settle innocence claims,” said Rebecca Brown, Director of Policy for the Innocence Project.
Until now, Indiana was one of only 15 states without an evidence preservation law, and state evidence custodians — including law enforcement agencies, court clerks, and hospitals — have faced a lack of guidance on how long to properly preserve biological evidence from collection through post-conviction. This new law will put the Hoosier state on a par with neighboring states, such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Illinois, that already have a statutory automatic duty of preservation.