The Innocence Project reports that DNA has proven the innocence of nearly 300 people who spent 13 years on average in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. K’vaughn Hines, 19, is not one of them because multiple charges—including first-degree murder and rape—were dropped before trial and conviction. DNA testing eventually excluded him and Sheldon Sneed, 19, from a violent gang rape committed in a Metro station in Maryland. As reported in the Maryland Gazette.net here, Hines, who did not have as much as a traffic ticket prior to this charge, spent four months in jail without bond and a month on house arrest before the charges were dropped. It was a life-changing experience.
A witness at the Metro station spotted Hines and Sneed at the station and said they had committed the crimes, but they were not identified at the scene of the crime. What followed rarely makes headlines, but it was a nightmare for Hines who was evicted from his apartment, had to give up his dog, and lost his job while in jail, to say nothing of the emotional stress suffered as he contemplated spending life in prison.
Hines’s lawyer, James Shallek, said that it’s “worth the inconvenience to take a (DNA) sample from somebody”—an argument for swift testing in crimes with biological evidence. He noted that Hines was “frustrated” (presumably waiting for the testing and results) and that without DNA, he might still be in jail. Given unfounded trust in the reliability of eyewitness testimony, Hines might also have been convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The quantifiable and unquantifiable expenses incurred in the jailing of the wrong person are a strong recommendation for fast-tracking DNA testing as soon as possible following an arrest. In addition to the taxpayer expense of housing an innocent, perpetuating focus on the wrong person unnecessarily for weeks and months has unwarranted and potentially tragic costs. The ability to apprehend the true perpetrator diminishes with time, increasing the chances that he or she may escape justice and continue a life of crime and violence. The wrongfully charged innocents—jailed for days, months, or years—struggle mightily to repair tangible and emotional damage and somehow restore their lives.
When to test biological evidence has been a controversial subject. The experiences of Hines, Sneed, and countless others, suggest that, like fingerprints, DNA should be utilized as quickly as possible to increase confidence in the case against a suspect…or to identify a costly mistake.