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The Other Side of DNA Evidence: An Innocent Man Is Freed

Charlie Goodyear, Erin Hallissy, Chronicle Staff Writers
  Tuesday, October 19, 1999

It was Kevin Green's first night of freedom after 16 years locked up for a murder he did not commit.

At a motel, two district attorney's investigators led him down a hallway to his room, where with a single glance he discovered how hard it would be to put prison behind him.

``I turned to them and said, `Do you all know what my cell number was?''' Green recalled of that day three years ago. ``It was 201-A. And the number on the door was 201. They said, `We gotta get you another room.' I said, `No, that's all right.'''

Green, 41, learned that forbearance during years of insisting that he never beat his wife, causing her to miscarry their full-term fetus.

Green's ironic journey to the motel room came not because of his repeated claims of innocence, but because of a DNA database at California's Department of Justice lab in Berkeley.

He remains the only person freed by the database as state authorities struggle to collect and analyze genetic samples from thousands of California criminals -- such as the real perpetrator who raped and beat Green's wife in 1979.

DNA technology unheard of 20 years ago is increasingly being used to right the wrongs of the justice system for prisoners like Green. In the United States, 65 wrongfully convicted people have been freed through the work of persistent lawyers, students and volunteers, and thousands more inmates are hoping they, too, can use their own genetic makeup as evidence that they are innocent.

Green's luck turned in 1996. Authorities in Orange County had sent DNA profiles from a string of 1978 and 1979 unsolved rape-murders believed to be the work of the so-called ``Bedroom Basher'' to the state DNA lab for a possible match in the database.

The computer matched the crime scene evidence to a former Marine, Gerald Parker, whose genetic profile was in the database because of his convictions in the 1980s for sex crimes. Parker confessed to the 1970s murders and said he had also beaten and raped Green's wife. Green was not only freed, but a judge made a finding that he was completely innocent.

``With the advanced technology that we have now, there's so much you can do to catch the guilty and exonerate people that shouldn't even be arrested in the first place,'' said Barry Scheck, who gained fame as a DNA expert for O.J. Simpson.

Scheck and his colleague, Peter Neufeld, founded the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City in 1992. It assists prisoners, often convicted years before DNA testing became widely used this decade, who claim that genetic evidence can prove they were wrongfully convicted.

The project has represented 36 of the prisoners nationwide who have been freed because of DNA evidence, including eight on Death Row.

Law school students are a key part of the project, screening cases to make sure they qualify, discovering whether biological evidence from the crime, such as blood or semen, is still available for testing, and dealing with police and judges to reopen appeals.

The Innocence Project helped free Calvin Johnson Jr. from a Georgia prison last June, 16 years after he was sentenced to life for a rape he did not commit. Project workers got prosecutors to allow them to do DNA testing on the vaginal swab taken from the victim, which proved conclusively that Johnson was innocent.

A major barrier for years has been the refusal of many local and state law enforcement agencies to allow inmates to reopen cases based on assertions that DNA could clear their names. Officials often said their appeals had already been exhausted or time limits had expired. Most states that have compiled DNA data banks do not allow inmates to check another person's sample to prove their own innocence.

Last month, in a major push to change those policies, the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence recommended that prosecutors consider reopening old cases that suggest the innocent have been wrongfully convicted and allow defense attorneys access to genetic evidence.

``We're not opening the floodgate here, we're opening a significant window of opportunity for those who have been unjustly convicted,'' Scheck said. Green's experience proves the frustration of inmates whose proclamations of innocence are ignored.

On Sept. 30, 1979, Green -- a Marine corporal -- stepped out for a late-night cheeseburger and returned to his Tustin home to find his 20-year-old wife, Dianna, raped and severely beaten. The woman, two weeks overdue when the attack occurred, was comatose for a month and suffered brain damage and memory loss, but insisted her husband beat her.

Green hired a good attorney and put on a vigorous defense, but found himself convicted, mainly because of his wife's testimony.

Green had never heard of the Innocence Project and didn't have the $10,000 his appellate attorney said he would need to put up for DNA testing.

Green has spent the past few years rebuilding his life. He lives with his parents in Jefferson City, Mo., bowls with his father, calls bingo Friday nights and works at a Wal-Mart store, along with a few other part-time jobs.

On job applications, he doesn't have to put down that he was convicted of a crime; instead, he accounts for those lost years by writing that he worked for the California Department of Corrections.

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10/19/1999 - Dangerous Delay on DNA.

10/14/1998 - Prosecution begins with DNA; Parker linked to murder .

10/13/1998 - Testimony begins; DNA expert links Parker to murder .

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