Guilty until Proven Innocent

Mike Sofka

Inmate Gauger was just that.  Just an inmate, and just like all the other inmates, constantly held that he was innocent.  There was only one difference between his plea and most the others, he was legitimately innocent.  Gary Gauger was convicted of slitting his mother and fathers’ throats in 1994 in the Second District Illinois Appellate Court.  He was released just eight months later. Gauger is one of thirteen inmates (from 1977-2000) who was released on auction_5245193287388877904_captdf450a173d4f430c9ac2fe952d8c3840aptopix_dna_exoneration_dn102Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) evidence positively linking the crime to someone else. Gauger was shaken when a man came over one morning, asking to buy a part for his motorcycle from Gauger’s shop.  When Gauger entered the shop he was shocked to see his father laying in front of him, slain. Gauger frantically called the police who immediately came (Heilbroner).  The police then found Gauger’s mother lying in a pool of her own blood in a locked trailer on the other side of the property.  Since Gauger was the only one around that day, he was immediately the lead suspect, and was subsequently interrogated.  After eighteen hours of being in the interrogation room, and after waking up to his parents vicious murders Gauger started to believe what the interrogators where telling him, that he murdered his parents.  After so many hours, he gave a confession, at the interrogators orders, that he did in fact murder both his parents.  During his trial, the police could not display any physical evidence pointing him to the crime.  There was no DNA testing done, and no hard evidence that connected him to the murders; however, he was sentenced to death (Tanner, 3).

The above story points out two very big flaws in our judicial system.  There is a practice of drilling suspects so fervently that they start to believe what the interrogators are telling them.  In cases wehere a family member is the victim, they are distraught and in a susceptible state of mind for suggestion where they begin to question their own sanity and believe that they may have blacked out and actually committed a crime they do not remember or have any reason to commit.   The second problem is that when there is enough physical evidence, as there is in many cases, the DNA test (a biological test on physical evidence) should always be done.  This would eliminate many mistakes and time and money of the judicial system and the lives of many innocent people would be spared.  Especially when suspects are coerced to confess to a crime they did not commit.

“DNA is generally used to solve crimes in one of two ways.  In cases where a suspect is identified, a sample of that person’s DNA can be compared to evidence from the crime scene.  The results of this comparison may help establish whether the suspect committed the crime.  In cases where a suspect has not yet been identified, biological evidence from the crime scene can be analyzed and compared to offender profiles in DNA databases to help identify the perpetrator.  Crime scene evidence can also be linked to other crime scenes through the use of DNA databases.” ( solve_crimes.htm).  In the late 1980’s the groundwork for the DNA data base, Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) was established. (www.dna.gpvomfpsp;ve)

Why in this day and age of technology wasn’t DNA testing done immediately.  Is it because it costs too much or because there is too big of a backlog (cases waiting for the DNA samples to be tested) of unanalyzed DNA to be effective or are the people in the field just untrained in successful methods of collecting DNA material.  I believe that it is because of a huge backlog which means it would take a lot of time and the interrogators feel the pressure to solve crimes in a timely manner which may be why they intimidate the lead suspects.  As time marches on and more and more people in prison are finally released due to DNA testing, we must close the gap on the backlog. 

While this method of solving crimes is far superior to other methods, the backlog must be handled in order for it to be more effective so that immediate answers can be obtained. According to the website, “One of the biggest problems facing the criminal justice system today is the substantial backlog of unanalyzed DNA samples and biological evidence from crime scenes, especially in sexual assault and murder cases. Too often, crime scene samples wait unanalyzed in police or crime lab storage facilities. Timely analysis of these samples and placement into DNA databases can avert tragic results.”

Ways to solve the backlog problem include providing crime labs with equipment to conduct DNA analysis more quickly and efficiently.  Because there are so many types of DNA such as sweat, blood, mucus, semen and ear wax, (to name a few) different types of equipment are needed to analyze it.  More and better Lab Management Systems (LMS) to improve the speed and integrity of handling evidence, more automation of time-intensive procedures and more and better storage facilities.  Also funding would be needed for training of the criminal justice community.

Not all proponents of the use of DNA testing for crimes believe there is a backlog problem.  According to J. Hanic, retired police officer in Akron, Ohio, those in the field see a different reason that DNA testing is not always used.  “It is not that easy to separate DNA at the scene and to determine that that DNA is relevant to the crime.” Biological evidence, DNA, is not always that visible to the naked eye and may be found in many places, such as toothpicks, used cigarettes, envelopes, fingernails and many more so it is easy to miss an important piece of DNA evidence. They also see the turn around time as days or weeks and they are under pressure to solve crimes and obtain evidence quickly.  “Also, many criminals are not in the data base as it has only been within the last five years that DNA has been collected in jails and prisons so as effective evidence it is not always practical.” (J. Hanic)

Still, more funding and training could eliminate the problem of collecting DNA at the scene of the crime and with more funding, better equipment and a larger data base, this problem could be all but eliminated or reduced.

There are many examples of wrongful incarceration, that could have been prevented with DNA testing. The very first innocent person to be put on death row and later freed based on DNA was Kirk Bloodsworth, convicted for the rape and murder of a young girl in 1985 in Rosedale, Maryland.  The evidence against him was flimsy and he was sentenced to death from an anonymous tip.  Finally in 1993 evidence from the scene was found on the underwear of the victim and Bloodsworth’s lawyers struggled to get the evidence tested for DNA.  They finally succeeded and the extractions, Bloodsworth’s DNA was found to not match that of the victim’s giving irrefutable evidence that Bloodsworth was innocent.  Bloodsworth was pardoned in 1993 but lost eight years of his life because the DNA testing was not done immediately. (Wikipedia)

According to the NY Times 200 prisoners have been exonerated and released from prison since 1989-2000 due to DNA testing done after the trial in the United States.   According to the website, 28 of those prisoners were from Illinois. Oprah Winfrey had two such cases on her show.  Both men were incarcerated and later freed on DNA evidence for crimes they admitted to under duress but had no recollection of.  They lost many years of their productive life because DNA testing was not done immediately.  The reason for not using DNA testing immediately was not disclosed. With this being such a huge and definitive factor in convicting the right person, DNA evidence should be used whenever possible to make sure the right person serves time for the crime.  Without the use of DNA testing, time and money are wasted and peoples’ lives are ruined.

While it is difficult to determine the number of backlogged cases at any given time because the number is always changing due to available resources and number of crimes committed, training and funding should be a part of every criminal investigation team until the use of DNA testing is commonplace.  With this training and equipment the backlog will become a thing of the past.  Training is needed for the entire criminal justice community including law enforcement officers, prosecuting defense attorneys, judges, medical personnel and victims.

  1. Gary Gauger has written a first-person account of his ordeal–In Spite of the System: A Personal Story of Wrongful Conviction & Exoneration. Information about Gary’s case is at (you can also purchase the book there).
    Julie Von Bergen (Gary’s coauthor)

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