We’ve all heard the joke: everyone in prison is innocent. But what happens when they really are innocent? When there is a true miscarriage of justice and an innocent person goes to jail forensic science is often their best hope for release. If the evidence against them can be re-examined using modern forensic techniques it is often possible to overturn their conviction and set them free. Let’s take a look at a few case samples where forensics has saved the day and helped an innocent person escape a punishment they did not earn.
63 year old Darryl Pinkins has served twenty four years in jail for a crime he did not commit. In 1989 Pinkins was accused of participating in a gang rape. Although the DNA evidence available at the time did not point to his guilt, he was still convicted based on the fact that his coveralls (which turned out to be stolen) were left at the crime scene. In 1999 the Indiana Innocence Project picked up Pinkins’ case and began digging into the forensic evidence. In April of 2016 he was finally exonerated and released. In this case it was a new form of DNA evidence that was finally able to clear Pinkins. It’s called probabilistic genotyping and the results indicated that three of the five perpetrators in the rape were brothers, but none of the DNA belonged to Pinkins. Investigators now plan to use the new DNA results obtained through probabilistic genotyping to find and convict the real perpetrators who have never been caught.
In 1979 Sean Hodgson was convicted of the rape and murder of Therese di Simone. Hodgson was a pathological liar who actually admitted to the crime during an interrogation and his blood type matched the blood found at the scene. In 1979 police didn’t have the DNA advantages they have today yet detectives were forward thinking enough to store evidence for the future in the hopes that it could be tested later if needed. As it turns out, it was needed. Hodgson gave a false confession and even though his blood type matched the blood found at the crime scene, his DNA did not. He was released in 2009 after serving 27 years.
Kirk Odom was convicted of rape, sodomy and armed robbery in 1981. The conviction was based on hair samples: one taken from Odom and one from the scene of the crime. This, plus the victim’s testimony was enough to put him away. The only problem? He didn’t commit the crime. Hair sample identification is unreliable at best – but in 1981 advanced DNA testing wasn’t possible. Odom’s was finally released on parole in 2003 though he was forced to list himself on the sex offender registry. In 2013 he was completely exonerated when DNA testing revealed he was not the one who committed the crime.
In 1976 a woman named Michelle Mitchell was murdered. When police found her body her hands had been bound together and her throat had been slit. The case was quickly picked up by local media. In 1979 a woman named Cathy Woods confessed to the crime. Woods had verified mental health problems but was able to give police specific details regarding the crime (details she had learned from case coverage in the media). She was subsequently sentenced to life in prison and was serving her time until 2013 when critical DNA evidence from the crime scene was tested and found to be from a man instead of a woman. Woods was not the one who committed the crime. She was released in 2014 and completely exonerated in 2015.
It’s a frightening thing to imagine; that innocent people could go to jail. Unfortunately it happens a lot more often than it should. Thankfully, cases are being reviewed every day and DNA testing is far more accurate now than it was; allowing wrongfully convicted people to go free. In fact, more than 2,000 people have been exonerated in the last twenty years, largely based on advancements in forensic science. As you earn your forensic science degree never forget – forensics can catch the guilty but it can also free the innocent.