In a new Q&A on the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund blog, Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld talks about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to deny DNA testing to Alaska prisoner William Osborne. While the decision was disappointing, Neufeld also says it represents “a call to action for all of us to pass legislation granting DNA testing in the three states with no laws on the books and improve the existing laws in other states.”
He goes on to discuss the disproportionate number of African-Americans and Latinos among people exonerated by DNA testing (70% of the 240 DNA exonerees are people of color).
LDF: Can one draw any meaning out of these numbers and what they say about racial disparities in the criminal justice system?
Neufeld: In many ways, the numbers speak for themselves. It’s impossible to look at the racial breakdown of the people who have been exonerated through DNA testing and not see that our criminal justice system disproportionately impacts people of color. Digging deeper, most of the DNA exonerations are people of color who were wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting white people. Two-thirds of the exoneration cases are cross-race sexual assaults, while the Department of Justice says that less than 15% of all rapes are cross-race. There’s a long history of the American criminal justice system treating the rape of a white woman by a black man as a particularly vile crime. One consequence of treating such crimes with particular zeal is that people of color will be wrongfully convicted more frequently.
The DNA exoneration cases also illustrate the intersection of race and class. In case after case, defendants could not afford top-quality lawyers to challenge prosecutors who often over-stepped the line to secure a conviction – and in the vast majority of cases, the defendants were people of color. Years later, when they are exonerated through DNA testing, they are released without adequate financial compensation and little or no services from the state.