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Saturday, April 28, 2007

DNA to Clear 200th Person

By Richard Willing
Monday, April 23, 2007

A former Army cook who spent nearly 25 years in prison for a rape he did not commit is scheduled today to become the 200th person exonerated by DNA evidence, underscoring the quickening pace of overturned convictions, according to the Innocence Project.

The New York-based legal group says the 100th exoneration occurred in January 2002, 13 years after the first exoneration. It took just more than five years for the number to double.

"Five years ago, people said that the number (of exonerations) was going to dry up because there just weren't many wrongful convictions," said lawyer Barry Scheck, who co-founded the Innocence Project in 1992 to help prisoners prove their innocence through DNA evidence. "But clearly, there are plenty of innocent persons still in prison. There's no way you can look at this data without believing that."

David Lazer, a Harvard University public policy professor who specializes in DNA issues, says improved testing technology and an increase in the number of lawyers who are taking on DNA cases should result in a continued increase in the number of wrongful convictions that are set aside.

Convicting an innocent person is "every prosecutor's nightmare," said Joshua Marquis, vice president of the National District Attorneys Association.

The "tiny number" of exonerations suggests that the "epidemic of bad convictions" that Scheck suggests is "fiction," said Marquis, chief prosecutor in Clatsop County, Ore. There were 1,051,000 felony convictions in state courts in 2002, up from 829,300 in 1990, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The exoneration milestone is to be reached today in Chicago, where Cook County prosecutors and Innocence Project attorneys together will petition a Chicago court to set aside Jerry Miller's 1982 conviction, said Tandra Simonton, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office.

Miller, 48, was convicted of raping, robbing, assaulting and kidnapping an office worker in a Near North Side parking lot in September 1981.

It is near certain the judge will grant the joint motion, Simonton said.

DNA tests performed by the Innocence Project in March showed that his genetic profile differs from the rapist's, proving that he didn't commit the crime. Miller continued to insist he was innocent even after being paroled last year.

"I really need to hear from the judge — 'your record is clear, we know you didn't do it' — before I feel truly free," Miller said in an interview. "I'm waiting for this to be finally, truly over."

Most exonerations come from cases from the 1980s and 1990s, before DNA testing was available or widely used. DNA was first used in an American criminal court case in 1987. The Innocence Project — which now has 36 affiliates at law schools and law offices across the USA — says its records show all but two of the exonerations occurred in convictions that happened before the year 2000.

Scheck said the "typical" DNA exoneration case has not changed much over the years. It often involves a sex crime allegedly committed by a black man in which the white victim is often the only witness, he said.

Miller, who is black, was identified by two parking lot attendants, who were also black. The victim, who was white, could not identify her assailant.■

DNA Should Clear Man Who Served 25 Years

By Richard Willing

Twenty-five years in Illinois prisons for a rape he didn't commit gave Jerry Miller plenty of time to think about how the criminal justice system works.

It is, he decided, a lot like "a big assembly line."

"Lots of products come off, and most of the time it's OK," says Miller, set to be formally exonerated of rape, battery, robbery and kidnapping at a court hearing in Chicago today.

"But then there's the defects, the one's that are messed up. …You got an assembly line, you're always gonna have some defects."

The Innocence Project, a New York City-based group that uses DNA to clear persons wrongly convicted, says the 48-year-old former Army cook will be the 200th person exonerated by DNA evidence since the technology was first used to clear a convict in 1989.

DNA testing hadn't yet been used in a criminal case when Miller was convicted of the September 1981 rape, robbery, assault and kidnapping of a Chicago office worker in a parking garage north of the Loop.

The woman testified that she had been assaulted by a black man, robbed and raped in the back seat of her car before being thrown into the trunk.

The victim never got a good look at her assailant. Two lot attendants, both black, identified Miller as the man who attempted to drive the car out of the lot but fled when challenged.

A few days earlier, police had briefly detained Miller for acting suspiciously near cars parked in the area.

Miller had an alibi: He was home watching the Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns welterweight title bout. Only family members backed up his story.

The jury didn't believe them.

"It was a high-profile case, and they basically had it in their minds to convict me from the start," he says of prosecutors.

Miller appealed his conviction, lost, then began hearing about DNA in the mid-1990s. He sought help from the public defender's office and the Innocence Project. He was paroled last year before testing could be performed on semen stains from the crime scene. Even though free, he says, he insisted on DNA testing to remove the "stigma" of the conviction and to be removed from Illinois' sex-offender registry.

In March, Miller's DNA was shown not to match the genetic profile of the rapist drawn from the crime scene. He says the number of DNA exonerations will grow because there are more innocent people in prison "than you would ever think."

"You know everybody (in prison) can't be innocent, but there's a lot of guys who say they are, and they've got pretty good cases," he says. "But so many of them get discouraged, and they give up."

The second-hardest part of living with a wrongful conviction, he says, is "sticking with your guns" by continuing to insist you're innocent.

The hardest part?

"Getting people to believe you."

Since his parole last year, Miller lives with family in a town outside Chicago, cooks part-time at a restaurant and works as an attendant on a shuttle bus that serves handicapped persons.

He has focused on having his conviction vacated, both to clear his name and to be rid of the restrictions that came with his parole. These include an order that prevents Miller from interacting with children and a Global Positioning System-based monitor that allows parole officers to monitor his whereabouts. "I know I didn't do it, but it's still important for me to hear a judge say so," Miller says. "It's like there's this weight I been carrying around for 25 years, and I'm still carrying it."■