To coincide with the 20th anniversary of when the O.J. Simpson case began, a column in today’s
Los Angeles Times
outlined the tremendous effects the trial had the way DNA evidence was preserved and tested in future criminal cases. Columnist Patt Morrison spoke to Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck, who was part of Simpson’s defense team, about the impact the case on establishing postconviction DNA legislation and the advances in technology. He explained:
It was a watershed case, but not in ways that people suspect. We did not challenge the underlying reliability of DNA testing methods; we attacked the way that evidence was gathered and processed. We had a 21st century technology and 19th century evidence collection methods.
One thing that wasn’t developed at the time of the Simpson case is CODIS, the DNA databank. Let’s say there is a mask left at a crime scene and testing excludes the defendant. There ought to be a clear statutory right to get a DNA profile [from it] put in the databank in hopes of identifying the real perpetrator. In California, a defendant doesn’t have [that] statutory right.
Scheck went on to explain that DNA is the only validated form of science to be used in court among the other disciplines that have just started to be analyzed. He also underscored how the case directly affected the Innocence Project.
On the one hand, we knew the whole innocence movement would be really significant. DNA would be able to demonstrate that a lot of innocent people had been convicted, and identify people who had really committed the crime. But we also knew it would expose all kinds of problems: the [questionable] reliability of the confession, prosecutorial and police misconduct, jailhouse informants — all of these matters have been exposed by the innocence movement. The Simpson case in that way may have muddied the message.
On the other hand, there were, frankly, uses that can be made of celebrity. After watching this trial, people understood that we had this technology in forensic matters. People did pay attention. Prosecutors and law enforcement took it very seriously. Fame is a good thing to have sometimes if you can put it to good use. The Innocence Project benefited from that.