News 01.09.09

Steven Barnes is Fully Exonerated with DNA Testing in Utica, NY, Nearly 20 Years After Wrongful Conviction for Rape and Murder

(UTICA, NY; January 9, 2009) – Innocence Project client Steven Barnes was fully exonerated today in an Oneida County 1985 rape and murder of a high school student for which he was convicted in 1989.

Barnes was released from prison in late November after DNA testing supported his longstanding claim of innocence, and at a court hearing this morning in Utica the indictment against him was dismissed – officially exonerating him, clearing his name and making it possible for him to begin rebuilding his life.

“The last few weeks have been amazing, but today I finally feel free,” Barnes said. “I’m moving on with my life, and part of that will be doing everything I can to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else. When I was in prison, I would read about other people who were exonerated after 10, 15 or 20 years, and I wondered if my time would ever come. I want people to know that wrongful convictions happen in New York and that our elected officials can and should pass reforms to prevent them.”

Twenty-four people have been exonerated through DNA testing in New York State. In a report released last year, the Innocence Project (which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law) concluded that New York leads the nation in wrongful convictions overturned with DNA testing but lags behind other states in enacting policy reforms to make the criminal justice system more fair and effective. The New York State Bar Association Task Force on Wrongful Convictions is studying this issue, and will issue its report to the NYSBA House of Delegates later this month.

The State Bar Association has looked closely at these issues, and we hope the upcoming report will spark new momentum to pass critical reforms in New York,” said Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck. “Steven Barnes’ case is a powerful reminder that wrongful convictions are very much a reality in New York State, and that very few of the reforms that prevent wrongful convictions – and simultaneously help catch real perpetrators – have been implemented in New York.” For the last two years, the State Legislature has failed to act on bills that would improve eyewitness identification procedures, require electronic recording of interrogations, expand the use of forensic databases to identify the guilty and exonerate the innocent and implement other reforms that are proven to enhance the criminal justice system.

Barnes’ conviction also highlights the pressing need for national standards in forensic science, the Innocence Project said. Eyewitness testimony at his trial was shaky, but forensic testimony linked him to the crime. The forensic evidence included testimony that soil on Barnes’ truck tires was similar to soil at the crime scene and testimony that an imprint on the outside of Barnes’ truck matched the fabric pattern on a particular brand of jeans the victim wore when she was killed.  Analysis of jean patterns and comparison of soil have not been tested to determine their scientific reliability or validity; as a result, it is impossible to know how many other soil samples might be similar to soil from the crime scene or the likelihood that other jeans have the same pattern (assuming the marks on the truck were from jeans).

“This is the latest in a long line of wrongful convictions based on improper or invalid forensic science that were ultimately overturned through DNA testing. Until there are clear national standards about what kind of forensic science can be allowed in court, more people like Steven Barnes will be wrongfully convicted while the actual perpetrators of violent crime remain at large,” Scheck said.  At the request of Congress, the National Academy of Sciences is preparing to release a major report on forensic science nationwide. A blue-ribbon commission has spent two years closely examining forensic disciplines that are used in courtrooms nationwide, and the unprecedented report will outline their findings and recommendations for how to ensure that the criminal justice system relies on sound science.

In Barnes’ case, the lack of other strong evidence put particular weight on the forensic testimony, according to Innocence Project Staff Attorney Alba Morales, who appeared in court today with Barnes. “Steven Barnes should never have been convicted in this case, and without the forensic testimony he probably wouldn’t have been,” Morales said. Nick Frayn, a student in the Cardozo School of Law clinic at the Innocence Project, also attended today’s hearing. For the last six months, Frayn handled research on the case that helped secure Barnes’ exoneration.

The Innocence Project began representing Barnes in 1993 and the Oneida County District Attorney agreed to conduct DNA tests on evidence from the crime scene. Those tests were inconclusive because the DNA technology at the time could not yield a profile.  In 2007, the Innocence Project reopened the case, and Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara agreed to conduct more advanced DNA testing (not available in the 1990s). New DNA test results on material collected from the victim’s body and clothing do not match Barnes, leading to Barnes’ release from custody and today’s exoneration. “The District Attorney’s Office has been extremely cooperative at every stage of this case, “Morales said.  “When we approached the DA about conducting DNA testing, his office quickly agreed. When those DNA results excluded Barnes, Scott McNamara agreed to jointly ask a judge to vacate his conviction. Over the last several weeks, the District Attorney’s Office has thoroughly investigated this case to conclude that Steven Barnes is innocent and should not be retried.”

Barnes was 19 years old when 16-year-old Kimberly Simon’s body was found near the Mohawk River in Whitestown, New York. She had been raped and strangled. Four years later, when Barnes was 23 years old, he was tried and convicted for the crime. Eyewitnesses testified that they saw Barnes in town on the evening of the murder, and that they may have seen Barnes and Simon together – but no witnesses could say with certainty that Barnes ever met Simon, let alone that they saw him with her on the night of the murder.

Now that he is exonerated, Barnes will be eligible to seek compensation for his wrongful imprisonment. New York is one of 25 states with a law granting compensation to wrongfully convicted people. There is no cap on the amount of compensation people can receive under New York law.

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The Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. To date, 227 people nationwide have been exonerated through DNA testing and dozens of states have implemented critical reforms to prevent wrongful convictions.

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