Innocence Project Co-Founder To Give Talk At ASU On Forensic Science Reform, Wrongful Convictions

Co-founder of the Innocence Project Barry Scheck is coming to ASU tomorrow for a talk about the project's work and forensic science reform in the justice system, an emerging topic in Arizona.

Scheck's seminar is scheduled to go from 5 to 6:30 at the ASU Art Museum.

The Innocence Project investigates cases where DNA testing might prove a person is innocent of crimes they were convicted of. To date, they count 267 exonerations nationwide, including 3 in Arizona: Ray "Snaggletooth" Krone, Larry Youngblood, and John Kenneth Watkins. By contrast, Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions counts non-DNA exonerations in their tally, and their total comes out to 16 Arizona cases.

Several universities across the country host local versions of innocence projects. The Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at ASU runs the Arizona Justice Project, which takes cases involving manifest injustice in addition to those of actual innocence. Tomorrow's topic -- forensic science reform -- will likely touch on issues raised by a new Arizona Attorney General DNA-testing program and the December exoneration of John Kenneth Watkins.

Watkins was convicted in 2004 of raping a woman in Gilbert. He was 20 years old. Last December, he was exonerated by advanced DNA testing as part of the aforementioned new program run by the Arizona Attorney General's office. While the DNA testing clears Watkins of rape, he has found unsympathetic audiences for having child pornography -- which is how he originally came to the state's attention.

Watkins had just moved to Gilbert from Texas a few weeks before his arrest. A mover had come over to get rid of a few Watkins family boxes, but when he went to lift, a tarantula crawled up his arm. The mover dropped the box and ran off as child porn spilled out onto the street. Horrified, he called the police.

There had been a rape in Gilbert a couple of weeks before this was reported. The detective handling the child porn complaint mentioned to one of his colleagues that Watkins lived right down the road from where the assault was committed, and so they went to his house and picked him up for questioning. Watkins confessed to having the porn but denied raping the woman. After four hours of intense interrogation, however, he confessed to the rape. Watkins later recanted, but eventually pled guilty to avoid a lengthy child porn sentence.

The police work in Watkins' case has come under scrutiny, with some attention being paid to it by local media, but most of it going unreported. An attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions, Steve Drizin, has been sharply critical of Watkins' interrogators, noting that they contaminated the interview by asking too many highly-leading questions and divulging information only the real perpetrator would know, which they then had Watkins to parrot back to them.

Their handling of the photo lineup has been criticized as well. The rape victim was unable to clearly identify her assailant except to say that he was a young white man wearing a white t-shirt. Detectives showed her a photo lineup with five men wearing dark shirts and one man in white: Watkins.

It took years to convince a judge to order the DNA found on the victim tested, and only after two previous requests for testing were denied. The samples were not of semen, which caused some confusion at the courthouse as to what, exactly, Watkins wanted tested. In 2009, the Justice Project teamed up with the Arizona Attorney General to test the samples using an advanced technique. Once the results returned indicating the DNA on the victim belonged to one man, and it was not Watkins, prosecutors decided to let him go, although they bizarrely continue to insist that he might have been the rapist.

Because the Innocence Project focuses on DNA cases, it seems likely Scheck will discuss the Arizona Attorney General's pilot program, and maybe the case of John Kenneth Watkins. Whatever he says will likely be of interest to anyone interested in the dark world of criminal justice, where the system does not always work as it was designed and innocence becomes the most complicated word in the English language.

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Gregory Pratt
Contact: Gregory Pratt