Needle in a Haystack


Needle in a Haystack

Henry James hung his hopes of exoneration on the Innocence Project’s ability to find DNA evidence in his case. However, when his box of evidence was located, attorneys discovered with dismay that it was empty. “It seemed like a hopeless situation,” James admits, “But I had confidence, even after 30 years.” He had been wrongfully imprisoned since 1981.


DNA evidence exonerates more clearly than almost any other type of evidence. Every innocent prisoner hopes for it. Without DNA, exoneration can take much longer and may not result in a full declaration of actual innocence, which can be required for compensation and for the wrongfully convicted person to clear his name.

Henry James with daughter

Innocence Project client Henry James with his daughter the day he was released and exonerated.

However, the type of evidence needed for DNA testing – blood, semen, hair, fingernail scrapings, saliva and other biological samples – is so small that it can easily get lost or misplaced among the piles of other evidence. In at least 23 of the 280 DNA exonerations, evidence was initially reported lost or destroyed. If not for the Innocence Project’s persistence, many of these 23 exonerees would still be incarcerated. James’ case provides a recent example.


After exhaustive searches for Henry James’ evidence by the Jefferson Parish Crime Laboratory proved fruitless, the Innocence Project considered closing the case. Senior Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin summarizes the decision to keep searching: “Searches for DNA evidence often come up empty handed, but we couldn’t bear to give up the search. We just felt so compelled by his innocence.”


James’ ordeal began in 1981 when a neighbor was raped at knifepoint. Although the victim initially said that she didn’t know her assailant, she later identified James in a photo array. James knew the victim’s husband and had met her on several occasions, including the day before the attack. Blood type testing at trial also strongly suggested that James was not the perpetrator but his defense attorney failed to bring this critical fact to the jury’s attention.


As Henry James waited at Angola Penitentiary, Cardozo students traveled to New Orleans to search for the evidence in his case. When that search failed, the Innocence Project enlisted the law firm of Willkie Farr and Gallagher to file motions to continue the search. Potkin then assisted New Orleans lab employees as they sifted through boxes of unlabeled evidence. The persistence finally paid off. A few months after this trip, Potkin received a phone call that crime lab employee Milton Dureau had happened upon a slide with James’ case number on it, mixed up in another box of evidence. Potkin and her students spoke of the case so often that Dureau had committed the number to memory and recognized it immediately.


DNA testing of the slide excluded James as the perpetrator. When Potkin called James to tell him that he would be released, she was met by silence at the other end. James explains how, in that moment, he was quietly thanking God. “In some situations you got to hold the emotions. You train yourself within to be peaceful.” On October 21, James was exonerated and freed. He has since been reunited with his two daughters who were toddlers at the time of his wrongful conviction. The Innocence Project New Orleans was co-counsel on the case.


After Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, Innocence Project attorneys despaired of ever finding evidence in their New Orleans’ clients’ cases. A tour of facilities in the area revealed that much of the evidence had been affected by water damage. Thankfully, New Orleans recognized this opportunity to improve warehousing systems and began a massive inventory of evidence in 2009. The Innocence Project New Orleans, Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office and other local partners launched the joint project with the help of a federal grant.

“We couldn’t bear to give up the search. We just felt so compelled by his innocence.”


Vanessa Potkin

Senior Staff Attorney

The inventory includes cataloguing every single item from the Parish warehouse facilities, police department and courthouse even if it’s damaged. The inventory project has produced biological samples for Innocence Project clients like Joseph Alpine. Even before Katrina, Alpine had been told that his evidence was destroyed. The requested evidence, from a 1978 rape, was so old that clerks struggled to find it under the old system. However, during the inventory, the search team discovered a bed sheet with Alpine’s case number in the courthouse attic – one of the few places completely unaffected by flooding. Alpine has always maintained his innocence; now he may finally have the chance to prove it.


Unfortunately, many wrongfully convicted prisoners will never get that chance. Twenty-two percent of the cases closed by the Innocence Project from 2004 through October 2011 were closed because the evidence could not be located. Considering the state of many property rooms across the nation – where antiquated systems are still the norm – it’s not surprising. Evidence may also be located in district attorneys’ offices, hospitals, police departments, courthouses and crime labs, where it is not likely to be better maintained.


One outstanding exception is the property room of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, which underwent a massive renovation when it relocated in 1995. Each piece of evidence was bar-coded and computerized so that it could be easily tracked. Re-cataloguing all of this evidence took only nine months, and cost less than $300,000. Charlotte, which is the second largest city in the Southeastern United States, proved that even big city systems can be renovated on a budget and a timeline. Once the project was complete, the department formed a Homicide Cold Case Unit, using the old evidence to solve crimes.


The Dallas Police Department has also set a shining example, preserving small biological samples on slides from rapes, murders and other violent crimes since the 1970s. The practice has contributed to the high rate of exonerations in that county – where 21 people have been cleared through DNA testing. In Houston, where purges of evidence took place throughout the 1990s, only seven people have been exonerated with DNA evidence.

Woodworking created by Henry James in prison

One of many works of art that Henry James created while he was in prison. James became a woodworking artist during his years at Angola Penitentiary.

The federal government has recognized the value of preserving crime scene evidence – not only to help exonerate the innocent but also to solve cold cases. The Justice For All Act (JFAA), passed in 2004, includes provisions for ensuring the proper collection and preservation of biological evidence. Because some states’ financial woes limit their ability to maintain or update evidence storage facilities, the JFAA offers grants to help finance these efforts. Orleans Parish benefitted from such a grant.


In 2009, the National Institute of Justice created a working group to identify best practices relating to the preservation of biological evidence. The Innocence Project is a participating member of the group, which is charged with developing technical guidelines to reduce premature destruction and degradation of biological evidence. The group will issue model legislation and best practices next year.


States have embraced evidence retention as well. All but two states have now adopted post-conviction DNA access laws, which allow prisoners with claims of innocence to request DNA testing, and many have attached statutes to preserve evidence. Today, 32 states require that evidence automatically be preserved, although many of these laws arenot as rigorous as the Innocence Project recommends. Some statutes preserve evidenceonly for certain types of crimes, others allow for its premature destruction, and many fail to hold officials accountable if evidence is destroyed.


While DNA testing brought new significance to the practice of preserving evidence,many states are still operating under pre-DNA era policies. In much of the country,evidence is routinely destroyed, lost, contaminated and more. Far from the public eye,evidence warehouses have not been a priority for jurisdictions tight on cash, but theInnocence Project and other advocacy groups are helping to shine a bright light indark corners. With state compliance and federal assistance, those innocent prisoners who have been told that their evidence has been lost or destroyed still have reason tohope. In the meantime, the Innocence Project will keep searching for those like Henry James who refuse to give up.


Originally appeared in

The Innocence Project in Print

, Winter 2011

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