On Monday, Hubert Thompson walked out of Hartford Superior Court a free man. He felt the sun hit his face, breathed fresh air and went where the hell he damn pleased. He had just been granted a new trial after serving well over half a decade in prison for a rape he didn’t commit.
After DNA taken from the victim was discovered to still exist in a vault somewhere, his attorney sought to have it tested. The results excluded him as the source of the DNA and implicated another man. On Monday, his motion for a new trial was granted [I don't have a copy of the actual motion, but if you go that page, you can see a copy of the order page, which has some details on it].
[I've been sitting on this post for 3 days now, since there was absolutely no media coverage whatsoever and I didn't want to find myself in the enviable position of being the source of a news story that frankly half a dozen "news" organizations shouldn't gotten their hands on this week. That it took 4 days before the intrepid folks at CT News Junkie tracked down this story independently speaks volumes to the focus of the "mainstream" news outlets, which are quick to splash sensationalist headlines of people's arrests but reluctant to find out about real stories of injustice even when repeatedly informed of them. This is why independent news outlets like CTNJ and New Haven Independent have the drop on most traditional news media.]
How did Mr. Thompson get arrested, charged and convicted, you might ask, despite the title of this post? A faulty identification by the victim, ‘natch. Just in time, too, as the legislature today holds a public hearing on another eyewitness identification bill that would improve upon the one passed last year. But it also comes at the right time in the context of the death penalty debate, serving to remind us and our legislators that even here in the land of steady habits, we are not perfect. We make mistakes and one day, these mistakes are going to converge in a death penalty case. That we’ve been lucky so far is no reason to maintain faith in the infallibility of our particular death penalty scheme.
Thompson was convicted in 1998 of a rape and kidnapping that occurred in 1994. He was sentenced to serve 12 years in prison. At the time there was no usable DNA evidence, but the victim identified Thompson as the perpetrator.
Just this month, the State lab finished testing on the victim’s underwear to find that it excluded Thompson and implicated another man. Which is fantastic for Mr. Thompson, but just imagine, for a second that there was no testable DNA remaining. He’d still know he was innocent, but no one would believe him. He’d probably serve 12 years and be left to the ravages of the system with no way of proving his innocence.
There are people like that in our prisons. People who are innocent, but have no way of proving it. And a large number of them are convicted based solely on eyewitness testimony. Why do we continue to rely on this faulty mode of evidence? Why do juries? People: if you’re reading this and you’re on a jury, be extremely skeptical. There may be no white knight in 5, 10, 15 years to save an innocent man. Maybe it’s time we all started requesting instructions on the dangerousness of eyewitness testimony. We should ask that juries be instructed that 75% of wrongful convictions involved an identification of the exonerated. Something has to be done.
Just not what State Rep. Hewett wants:
However, Rep. Ernest Hewett, D- New London, said Thompson’s case lends support to a different proposal he’s pushed in the past. Hewett wants to allow the pre-conviction collection of DNA data at the time of a felony arrest. “Can you imagine if we increased our database to arrestee DNA, how many people we’d get? They’re just walking the streets,” he said. “Those people that are running wild out there, continuing to commit crimes, their profile would be in our database.”
This, apparently, is his pet project. I’ve written in the past about how this would run afoul not only of our basic Constitutional rights, but also the principles underlying those rights and would only serve to push us closer to war with Oceania [and a debate on this bill last year produced, in my estimation, the "Best. Quote. Ever"].
Hewett, as you can see from prior posts, is prone to saying things that make little sense. He says that Hubert Thompson’s DNA exoneration, – and for that to work, they’d had to have DNA from the victim, the suspect and Mr. Thompson – this particular case, lends support to the idea that we should take DNA from people when they’re arrested. Apparently he missed the part where they didn’t test the DNA in 1998 because there wasn’t any usable DNA in the rape kit, not because they didn’t have Mr. Thompson’s DNA or that of the real suspect.
As time went by, extraction methods and protocols improved, allowing the lab to extract DNA from samples previously thought to be unusable. It’s that advancement in technology that permitted the exoneration of Mr. Thompson, not him suddenly deciding 5 years into a 12 year sentence that “hey, you know, maybe I should start working on this whole ‘getting out of serving time for a crime I didn’t commit’ thing”.
We’re all allowed to have positions on things and our pet projects – God knows I have so many – but can’t we at least expect our elected officials to be able to understand, articulate and properly apply theirs?