Earlier this week the Supreme Court ruled that it is constitutional for law enforcement to collect DNA samples from people arrested for a felony. The decision was a close decision with a 5-4 split among the justices. Opponents of laws allowing for collection of DNA samples argue that such collection is in violation of the Fourth Amendment because swabbing cells from inside a person’s mouth is an unreasonable search. Supporters of these laws argue that collecting a DNA sample is no more intrusive than fingerprinting, which has long been standard in the booking process, and argue that DNA databases help solve crimes that may otherwise go unsolved.
Robert Dewey, a man imprisoned for 17 years for a crime he did not commit, might agree with the majority decision of the Supreme Court: DNA databases have the potential to provide beneficial information.
In 1994, 19 year old Jacie Taylor was found dead. Through police investigation, the prosecution was able to build a circumstantial case against Dewey. While DNA testing was available in 1994, such testing is far more advanced today. DNA samples were taken from various places through the course of the investigation, such as a bloody shirt that belonged to Dewey, fingernail scrapings from the victim and semen from a blanket. Dewey was found guilty at trial.
Through post-conviction investigation, Dewey’s attorney, with the help of the Innocence Project, learned that DNA had been retained from the initial testing. While DNA testing does not actually allow for a true match, DNA testing does exclude such an overwhelming amount of the population, that it is nearly as good as a true match. The DNA was re-tested and, with advances in technology, it became clear that the blood on Dewey’s shirt did not belong to the victim and that the male DNA found under the victim’s fingernails and on the blanket did not belong to Dewey. This information was brought to the attention of the Attorney General’s Justice Review Project, which prompted additional testing of various items. As a result of the additional testing, a DNA profile was composed that allowed for comparison through CODIS, a DNA database. The DNA profile resulted in a “hit” or match with a man who was already incarcerated for life for a rape and murder in Fort Collins.
Recently, Governor Hickenlooper signed into law a bill that allows for monetary compensation to individuals or families of individuals who are wrongly incarcerated. The law requires that the person be fully exonerated. The law does not apply to people who are acquitted due to legal technicalities or appeals.
Robert Dewey was present for the signing of the new law. After signing the bill into law, Governor Hickenlooper shook Dewey’s hand and apologized.
For more details about Dewey’s ordeal see the following article: https://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Robert_Dewey.php