News 06.12.06

U.S. Supreme Court Reopens Death Row Case Based on DNA Evidence

(Washington, DC; June 12, 2006) – A U.S. Supreme Court ruling issued today will give prisoners nationwide more opportunities to prove their innocence or secure a new trial when new scientific evidence substantially invalidates evidence that helped convict them, the Innocence Project said.

“This is an important ruling that will profoundly impact people in all 50 states,” said Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project. “New scientific evidence can change the entire landscape of a case that resulted in a conviction, and today’s ruling makes it clear that people should have an opportunity to seek new trials where juries can hear all the facts. This ruling recognizes that scientific advances have transformed our criminal justice system and must be weighed heavily in determining whether innocent people have been wrongly convicted.”

The Supreme Court ruled that Paul Gregory House, a Tennessee death row inmate, is entitled to a new hearing in federal court because post-conviction DNA testing invalidated the prosecution’s theory that he raped and then murdered a woman more than 20 years ago. Blood evidence presented at House’s trial is also in doubt because of new scientific information. The case marks the first time since DNA testing became widely available that the Supreme Court has looked at the standards for reopening death penalty cases. Since 1989, 180 wrongly convicted people in 32 states have been exonerated with DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project filed an amicus brief in the case, House v. Bell, arguing that courts should be allowed to give more weight to hard scientific evidence (such as DNA) which indisputably shows that evidence produced at the original trial was false, than they would give to evidence that is less scientific and hence less reliable. Citing its dozens of clients around the country against whom the evidence at trial appeared overwhelming and certain – until DNA tests proved otherwise – the Innocence Project urged the Supreme Court to rule that judges should reopen cases when new scientific evidence, although perhaps not sufficient to conclusively prove actual innocence, nevertheless disproves a material fact in the case.

Today’s ruling comes as Congress continues debate the Streamlined Procedures Act, legislation that would severely limit people’s ability to appeal convictions in federal courts – even when new evidence raises serious doubts about whether a jury would still convict them.

“Paul House now has an opportunity to prove his innocence in front of a jury that can look at all the facts in his case. If Congress passes the Streamlined Procedures Act, other people wouldn’t have that opportunity, and public concerns about innocent people being convicted and executed will continue to grow. This ruling is a reminder that the federal appeals process is a critical safeguard for fixing problems in our criminal justice system,” Neufeld said.

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