Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice is scrapping a policy, put in place during the Bush Administration, of requiring federal defendants to waive their right to DNA testing in order to plead guilty. Mr. Holder should be applauded for doing away with this troubling rule.
It is by now beyond dispute that innocent people do plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. Of those who have been exonerated by DNA evidence, seven percent have pleaded guilty. Countless more, including the 5 teenage boys convicted and later exonerated of the rape of the Central Park jogger, a defining case in New York City when I grew up in the 1980s, falsely confessed.
Of course, when innocent people, confronted by police intimidation, deception, and coercion, plead guilty to crimes they do not commit, it says that there’s something shamefully wrong with our criminal justice system. But the previous administration, rather than feeling obligated to find out when the criminal justice system runs so afoul that innocent people are pleading guilty to crimes they did not do, preferred to brush such injustices under the carpet.
It’s understandable that when the federal government works out a plea deal it has an interest in finality. A plea deal would hardly be worth it if defendants could turn around and mount all-out assaults on their convictions. But DNA testing is unique. DNA evidence can shed light on whether the government has convicted the right person, or the wrong person, whether the guilty party is behind bars or still in our community. It is hard to believe that a person who is really guilty would be clamoring for DNA tests. It is only the innocent who try to avail themselves of DNA testing. And nobody should be asked to waive their right to scientifically prove they are innocent.