| Pit of Bones: Leg fossil has oldest yet human DNA!

Leg bone gives up oldest human DNA ~ Paul RinconScience editor, BBC News.

Sima de los Huesos remainsThe Pit of Bones has yielded one of the richest assemblies of human bones from this era.

The discovery of DNA in a 400,000-year-old human thigh bone will open up a new frontier in the study of our ancestors.

That’s the verdict of experts in human evolution on an analysis in Nature journal of the oldest human genetic material ever sequenced.

The femur comes from the famed “Pit of Bones” site in Spain, which gave up the remains of at least 28 ancient people.

But the results are perplexing, raising more questions than answers about our increasingly complex family tree.

The early human remains from the cave site near the northern Spanish city of Burgos have been painstakingly excavated and pieced together over the course of more than two decades by palaeontologists. It has yielded one of the richest assemblages of human bones from this stage of human evolution, in a time called the Middle Pleistocene.

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We need all the data we can get to build the whole story of human evolution ~ Prof Chris StringerNatural History Museum

To access the pit, scientists must crawl for hundreds of metres through narrow cave tunnels and rope down through the dark. The bodies were probably deposited there deliberately – their causes of death unknown.

The fossils carry many traits typical of Neanderthals, and either belong to an ancestral species known as Homo heidelbergensis – or, as the British palaeoanthropologist Chris Stringer suggests – are early representatives of the Neanderthal lineage.

DNA’s tendency to break down over time means it has not previously been possible to study the genetics of such ancient members of the human family.

But the recent pace of progress in sequencing technology has astonished many scientists: “Years ago, geneticists said they wouldn’t be able to find DNA that was older than 60,000 years old,” said co-author Jose Bermudez de Castro, and a member of the team that excavated the Pit of Bones fossils.

“Of course, that wasn’t true. The techniques have advanced hugely.”

Siberia to Iberia

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, under the supervision of Prof Svante Paabo, have been helping drive those advances.

Prof Paabo, the institute’s director, said: “Our results show that we can now study DNA from human ancestors that are hundreds of thousands of years old,” adding: “It is tremendously exciting.”

The scientists were able to assemble a near-complete sequence of mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA (the genetic material contained in the tiny “batteries” that power our cells) from the ancient femur. But comparisons of the genetic sequence with those from other ancient and present-day humans yielded a surprise.

Rather than showing a relationship between the Spanish specimens and later Neanderthals, which might be expected based purely on physical features of the fossils and geography, the mitochondrial DNA was most similar to that found in 40,000 year-old fossils unearthed thousands of kilometres away at Denisova Cave in Siberia.

The Denisovans are a genetically distinct group of ancient humans, identified only from genetic material extracted from fragmentary bones at the cave. Their relationship to human groups already described in the fossil record is unclear; they are, as some researchers have remarked, “a genome in search of a fossil”.

From missing mutations in the old DNA sequences, the researchers calculated that the Pit of Bones individual shared a common ancestor with the Denisovans about 700,000 years ago.

Muddle in the middle

So there are several possibilities as to how Denisovan-like DNA could turn up in Middle Pleistocene Spain. Firstly, the mitochondrial DNA type from the pit came from an even more ancient population of humans ancestral to both the Spanish hominids and to Denisovans. This genetic lineage must later have been lost from the Neanderthal gene pool.

Secondly, interbreeding between the Pit of Bones people (or their ancestors) and yet another early human species brought the Denisovan-like DNA into this western population.

Prof Chris Stringer, from London’s Natural History Museum, told BBC News: “We need all the data we can get to build the whole story of human evolution. We can’t just build it from stone tools, we can’t just build it from the fossils. Having the DNA gives us a whole new way of looking at it.”

However, he points out, mtDNA is a small and unusual component of our genetic blueprint, from which only limited conclusions can be drawn. For example, no sign of the interbreeding we now know took place between Neanderthals and modern humans remains in the mtDNA of modern people.

To get the full picture, scientists had to sequence nuclear DNA (that kept in the nuclei of cells) from Neanderthals and compare it with that in present-day populations. Likewise, the true relationships between the Pit people and other ancient populations may only be known if and when nuclear DNA is available.

This will be a challenge given the age of the Spanish fossils, but their good state of preservation – largely a product of the fairly constant temperature inside the cave, gives hope.

“That is our next big here, to sequence at least part of the nuclear genome from the individual in the Sima de los Huesos,” Svante Paabo told BBC News.

“This will answer definitively the question of how they are related to Neanderthals, modern humans and Denisovans.”

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| Archaeology: Oldest big cat ever discovered!

This Fossil Skull Unearthed in Tibet Is the Oldest Big Cat Ever Found ~ Smithsonian.com.

In the summer of 2010, husband-and-wife paleobiologist team Z. Jack Tseng and Juan Liu traveled to the Zanda Basin in western Tibet with a group of colleagues. The remote area, a week’s drive from Beijing and near the border of Pakistan and China, is “basically badlands everywhere, with deeply cut valleys throughout,” Tseng says.

To explore the valleys, the team drove up dirt trail after dirt trail before coming upon a dense patch of fossils sticking out of the ground halfway up a hill. “In the little concentration of fossils, there were lots of limb bones from antelopes and horses obscuring everything else,” says Tseng, who was then a graduate student at USC and is now with the American Museum of Natural History. “It wasn’t until we started lifting things up, one by one, that we saw the top of a skull, and we thought, from the shape, that it looked something like a cat.”

After a few years of analysis, Tseng’s team has discovered that the skull doesn’t belong to any old cat. As they’ve documented in a study published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the skull and six associated fossilized jawbone fragments are the first evidence of a newly discovered species, which they’ve called Panthera blytheae. The discovery represents the oldest “big cat” (a group that includes large predatory cats like lions, jaguars, tigers and leopards) ever found by a wide margin.

CT scans (left) and photos (right) of the skull. Via Proceedings of the Royal Society B/Tseng et. al.

The sediments that make up the basin as a whole range from 6 million to 400,000 years in age, so the group dated the fossil by analyzing the age of the particular rock layers it was buried in. This involved using techniques of magnetostratigraphy, in which scientists analyze the magnetic orientation of the rocks and compare it to known reversals of the Earth’s magnetic field. This method can only provide rough estimates for an item’s age, but it revealed that the skull is between 4.10 and 5.95 million years old. Previously, the oldest known big cat fossils—a number of tooth fragments found in Tanzania—were 3.6 million years old.

The new find fills a gap in the evolutionary record of big cats. By analyzing the DNA of living species, scientists had previously estimated that big cats had split from the Felinae subfamily—which includes smaller wild cats, like cougars, lynxes, along with domestic cats—about 6.37 million years ago. The very existence of P. blytheae confirms that the split happened prior to when this big cat roamed.

But how much earlier? The find could suggest, Tsang says, that big cats branched off from smaller cats much farther back than thought. By comparing the skull’s characteristics with fossils from other extinct big cats, the anatomy of living cat species, and DNA samples taken from both living cats and a few recently extinct, Ice Age-era species (known as cave lions), the researchers assembled a new evolutionary family tree for all big cats. Using known rates of anatomical changes over time and the observed anatomy of P. blytheae, they projected backwards, and estimated that the earliest big cats likely branched off from the Felinae subfamily between 10 and 11 million years ago.

The new fossil also solves a geological mystery. Previously, using DNA analysis of all living big cats and mapping the the fossils excavated from various sites around the world, researchers had determined it was most likely that their common ancestor had lived in Asia. The oldest known specimens, however, were found in Africa. The new species provides the first direct evidence that central Asia was indeed the big cats’ ancestral home, at least as far back as the current fossil record currently goes.

From the fragmented fossils, it’s hard to know much about the extinct species’ behavior and lifestyle, but the researchers were able to make some basic extrapolations from the skull’s anatomy. “It’s not a huge cat, like a lion or a tiger, but closer to a leopard,” Tsang says. The creature’s habitat was likely similar to the current Tibetan plateau, so Tseng speculates that, like the snow leopards that currently live in the area, this species did not hunt on the open plains, but rather cliffs and valleys. Tooth wear patterns also suggest similarities with current snow leopards—the rear teeth, likely used for cutting soft tissue, remain sharp, whereas the front teeth are heavily worn, perhaps reflecting their use in prying open carcasses and picking meat off bones.

Tseng says that he and colleagues plan to return to the area to search for more fossils that could help enlighten us on the evolutionary history of big cats. “The gap still isn’t completely filled yet,” he says. “We need to find older big cats to put the picture together.”

A reconstruction of the newly discovered species Panthera blytheae, based on a skull discovered in Tibet that is estimated to be between four and five million years old. Illustration by Mauricio Antón, Via Proceedings of the Royal Society B/Tseng et. al.

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| US Debate: Supreme Court OKs Unfettered DNA Collection — An Invasion of Privacy or a Blow to Crime?

Debate: Supreme Court OKs Unfettered DNA Collection — An Invasion of Privacy or a Blow to Crime? ~ Democracy Now.

In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the police can collect DNA samples from people they arrest even before they are convicted of a crime. Supporters of the swabbing method call it “the fingerprinting of the 21st century” that will help nab criminals and break open unsolved cases. But privacy advocates say the ruling is vague because it does not define what constitutes a “serious crime,” and could create an incentive for police to make more arrests. The Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 ruling will likely fuel an expansion of DNA swabbing nationwide. We host a debate between Michael Risher of the American Civil Liberties Union and Mai Fernandez of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a major decision by a divided U.S. Supreme Court that allows police to take DNAsamples when a person is arrested for a, quote, “serious” crime. The case centered on a Maryland law used to take a DNA test of a man arrested for a felony assault. The test matched DNA in a rape case six years earlier that had previously gone unsolved. This is an exchange from the case’s oral arguments, between Maryland’s Chief Deputy Attorney General Katherine Winfree and Justice Antonin Scalia, who later wrote in his dissent that the law violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

KATHERINE WINFREE: Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the court, since 2009, when Maryland began to collect DNA samples from arrestees charged with violent crimes and burglary, there have been 225 matches, 75 prosecutions and 42 convictions, including that of respondent King.

JUSTICE ANTONIN SCALIA: Well, that’s really good. I’ll bet you if you conducted a lot of unreasonable searches and seizures, you’d get more convictions, too. That proves absolutely nothing.

KATHERINE WINFREE: Well, I think, Justice Scalia, it does in fact point out the fact that the statute is working. And in the state’s view, the act is constitutional.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ultimately, the court upheld Maryland’s law, which lets police use a swab to collect DNA from the cells inside a person’s cheek. Supporters of the method call it, quote, “the fingerprinting of the 21st century.” So far, 25 states have passed laws that are similar to Maryland’s. Some even allow DNA swabs for misdemeanor arrests. But privacy advocates say the ruling is vague because it does not define what constitutes a “serious crime” and could create an incentive for police to make more arrests.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, with this five-to-four ruling, more states are likely to adapt similar measures despite such concerns.

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| Multiple waves of migration revealed in first detailed genetic history of Europe!

Modern Europe’s Genetic History Starts in Stone Age ~ Ker Than, for National Geographic News.

Scientists create the first detailed genetic history of modern Europe.

Young men in Breisgau, Germany, in the 1920s.

A group of men from the German-based Breisgau corps pose for a picture in the 1920s. Photograph by Hans Hildenbrand, National Geographic

Europeans as a people are younger than we thought, a new study suggests.

DNA recovered from ancient skeletons reveals that the genetic makeup of modern Europe was established around 4,500 B.C. in the mid-Neolithic—or 6,500 years ago—and not by the first farmers who arrived in the area around 7,500 years ago or by earlier hunter-gatherer groups. (Read about Europes oldest known town.)

“The genetics show that something around that point caused the genetic signatures of previous populations to disappear,” said Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, where the research was performed.

“However, we don’t know what happened or why, and [the mid-Neolithic] has not been previously identified as [a time] of major change,” he said.

Furthermore, the origins of the mid-Neolithic populations that did form the basis of modern Europe are also unknown.

“This population moves in around 4,000 to 5,000 [B.C.], but where it came from remains a mystery, as we can’t see anything like it in the areas surrounding Europe,” Cooper said.

The surprising findings are part of a new study, published in this week’s issue of the journal Nature Communications, that provides the first detailed genetic history of modern Europe.

The study shows that “relatively recent migrations seem to have had a significant genetic impact on the population of Central Europe,” said study co-author Spencer Wells, who leads National Geographics Genographic Project. (Read about Europe’s “Wild Men” in National Geographic magazine.)

Genetic Signature

In the study, Cooper and his colleagues extracted mitochondrial DNA—which children inherit only from their mothers—from the teeth and bones of 39 skeletons found in central Germany. The skeletons ranged in age from about 7,500 to 2,500 years old.

The team focused on a group of closely related mitochondrial lineages—mutations in mitochondrial DNA that are similar to one another—known as haplogroup H, which is carried by up to 45 percent of modern Europeans.

Cooper and his colleagues focused on haplogroup H because previous studies have indicated the mutations might have been present in Europeans’ genetic makeup for several thousand years.

It’s unclear how this haplogroup became dominant in Europe. Some scientists have proposed that it spread across the continent following a population boom after the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago.

But the new data paint a different picture of the genetic foundation of modern Europe: Rather than a single or a few migration events, Europe was occupied several times, in waves, by different groups, from different directions and at different times.

The first modern humans to reach Europe arrived from Africa 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. By about 30,000 years ago, they were widespread throughout the area while their close cousins, the Neanderthals, disappeared. Hardly any of these early hunter-gatherers carried the H haplogroup in their DNA.

About 7,500 years ago during the early Neolithic period, another wave of humans expanded into Europe, this time from the Middle East. They carried in their genes a variant of the H haplogroup, and in their minds knowledge of how to grow and raise crops. (Related: Egypts Earliest Farming Village Found.)

Archeologists call these first Central European farmers the linear pottery culture (LBK)—so named because their pottery often had linear decorations.

The genetic evidence shows that the appearance of the LBK farmers and their unique H haplogroups coincided with a dramatic reduction of the U haplogroup—the dominant haplogroup among the hunter-gatherers living in Europe at that time.

Farmers Move In

The findings settle a longstanding debate among archaeologists, said Wells, who is also a National Geographic explorer-in-residence.

Archaeology alone can’t determine whether cultural movements—such as a new style of pottery or, in this case, farming—were accompanied by the movements of people, Wells said in an email.

“In this study we show that changes in the European archaeological record are accompanied by genetic changes, suggesting that cultural shifts were accompanied by the migration of people and their DNA.”

The LBK group and its descendants were very successful and spread quickly across Europe. “They became the first pan-European culture, if you like,” Cooper said.

Given their success, it would be natural to assume that members of the LBK culture were significant genetic ancestors of many modern Europeans.

But the team’s genetic analysis revealed a surprise: About 6,500 years ago in the mid-Neolithic, the LBK culture was itself displaced. Their haplogroup H types suddenly became very rare, and they were subsequently replaced by populations bearing a different set of haplogroup H variations.

Mysterious Turnover

The details of this “genetic turnover” event are murky. Scientists don’t know what prompted it, or even where the new colonizers came from.

“The extent or nature of this genetic turnover are not clear, and we don’t know how widespread it is,” Cooper said.

If this turnover were widespread, it could have been prompted by climate change or disease, he said.

“All we know is that the descendants of the LBK farmers disappeared from Central Europe about 4,500 [B.C.], clearing the way for the rise of populations from elsewhere, with their own unique H signatures.”

Peter Bogucki, an archeologist at Princeton University who has studied early farming societies in Europe, called the finding “really interesting” and noted the timing of the genetic turnover is curious.

“At the end of the fifth millennium—[about] 4,000 B.C.—there are a lot of changes in the archeological record,” said Bogucki, who was not involved in the study.

For example, the long houses that LBK farmers and their descendants favored became less common. Also, the settlement patterns of people living in Central Europe began changing, as did their stone tools.

“There are major transformations during this time that haven’t really been all that well explained in interior Central Europe,” Bogucki said.

“It looks like the whole system of agricultural settlement that got established with the LBK ran its course through the fifth millennium and something caused people to change.”

Of Unknown Origins

Bogucki agrees that climate change might have been a trigger for the change in Europe’s genetic makeup, but he thinks it was only a factor and not the sole cause.

One thing that is clear from the genetic data is that nearly half of modern Europeans can trace their origins back to this mysterious group.

“About [4,500 B.C.], you start seeing a diversity and composition of genetic signatures that are beginning to look like modern [Central] Europe,” Cooper said. “This composition is then modified by subsequent cultures moving in, but it’s the first point at which you see something like the modern European genetic makeup in place.”

Whatever prompted the replacement of genetic signatures from the first pan-European culture, Cooper is clearly intrigued. “Something major happened,” he said in a statement, “and the hunt is now on to find out what that was.”

Correction: The original version of this article stated that the genetic makeup of modern Europeans emerged 4,500 years ago. The text has been updated to reflect the correct timing as 4,500 B.C., or 6,500 years ago.

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Racism Wrong

| Rushing to convict, dropping standards: Post-Conviction DNA Testing – Right or Privilege?

The Right and Privilege of Post-Conviction DNA Testing ~  , Pacific Standard.

Almost half the DNA tests conducted at prisoners’ request confirm guilt. Yet many believe that the exceptions more than justify making post-conviction testing widely accessible. And what is often fair or prudent is for Death Row inmates essential.

October 4, 2012 • By  • 

Rather than risk executing an innocent, why not permit Death Row inmates to have DNA testing on available biological evidence in their cases? Why not offer access to testing to others convicted of serious non-capital crimes? It’s quicker and cheaper to test than to hold a court hearing to block it. Besides, testing is no “get out of jail free card”—DNA may also corroborate guilt, and may not go far enough to completely establish innocence.

Lindsay Herf, DNA Project manager and executive co-director of theArizona Justice Project, says arguments that expanding access to testing would open floodgates to frivolous stalling have no evidence.

“Our canvassing of 5,000 inmates led to just over 300 people applying for help,” she says. “Prior to that, we have found that in 12 years of Arizona having a post-conviction DNA testing statute, there have been approximately 45 defendants – that’s about four a year! – who have applied in all of the Arizona counties. And not all of them were granted DNA testing.”

 

Righting What’s Wrong in Criminal Justice

Wrongful convictions stem from the belated entrance of scientific rigor into the field of forensics, systemic problems, and the ubiquitous ‘human factor.’ In the coming weeks, a series of stories by crime author Sue Russell looks at why convictions go wrong, at the common reluctance to rectify error, and at innovations to better safeguard justice.

Stories so far:

A Porn Stash and a False Confession: How to Ruin Someone’s Life in the American Justice System

Red Flags: Early Warnings of Wrongful Convictions

Human Lie Detectors: The Death of the Dead Giveaway

Why Fingerprints Aren’t Proof

Litigating Lineups: Why the American Justice System Is Keeping a Close Eye on Witness Identification

The Right and Privilege of Post-Conviction DNA Testing

Seeking Second Chances Without DNA

 

Innocence Project experts say prosecutors in more than 80 percent of the cases they handle are open to giving inmates access, although others “employ every legal avenue to block testing and exoneration.”

Opponents of post-conviction testing, such as Lynn Switzer, the district attorney for Gray County, Texas, have argued for “finality” and are concerned prisoners would “game the system.” While they want an expiration date on claims, others ask if it is ever right to draw an arbitrary line on questions of innocence.

“If a person is innocent, they’re innocent,” argues Katie Puzauskus, executive co-director of the Arizona Justice Project.  “And there is no finality to someone’s innocence. They should have the chance to prove it through DNA testing, or by other means, if they can.”

Improving technology creates opportunities where none existed before. Herf points to scientific developments in testing sensitivity that mean a profile can be obtained from miniscule amounts of DNA: “In rape cases, it used to be if there was no semen or sperm, there was no possibility of testing – today that is no longer the case.”

In 2000, only two U.S. states had laws allowing post-conviction access to DNA testing. A dozen years later, 49 states – Oklahoma is the odd man out — have some kind of laws on the books. In February,Massachusetts got a new DNA access law.Kentucky introduced but did not pass legislation this year to allow for expanded DNA testing post-conviction; currently, testing is only accessible to death row inmates.

In practice, many statutes limit requests dramatically. For example, some states deny requests if an inmate originally confessed to the crime. (Eleven of the first 225 people declared innocent after DNA testing in the U.S. initially entered guilty pleas.) Other laws exclude those who failed to request DNA testing at trial or who entered a guilty plea.

In Alabama, prisoners convicted of capital crimes can apply for DNA testing as long as none was previously performed in their cases – but they only have a year after conviction to file a request.

And, Herf points out, inmates still need outside help in navigating the legal terrain: “There is a misconception that every inmate in prison would know to file for DNA testing the moment the statute was passed.” Few in Arizona knew of its 12-year-old post-conviction DNA testing law; “Those who did know about it had counsel that informed them of it,” she says.

Some test access restrictions also put an impractical burden on the defense, argue Innocence Project experts, requiring they effectively solve the crime and prove in advance that DNA evidence will implicate someone else.

In addition to fewer procedural blocks to testing, the group would like to see new laws requiring states to properly preserve and be responsible for all biological evidence. And its lawyer Nina Morrison, for one, advocates for reassessing arbitrary time limits that halt prisoners’ access to courts and impede the use of new evidence.

 

Arizona Opens Up

Arizona’s model collaborative program shows how close cooperation can work in reviewing innocence claims, in this case between the state attorney general’s office and the Arizona Justice Project. In 2008, Arizona was one of the first five U.S. states to receive a National Institute of Justice grant to defray the costs of reviewing cases and locating and testing DNA.

Arizona’s wake-up call was the case of Larry Youngblood, convicted in 1985 of abducting a 10-year-old boy from a Pima County carnival and molesting and sodomizing him. While semen was collected, potentially exculpatory blood tests were impossible: the evidence was stored improperly and too degraded.

The victim, who described his attacker as having one disfigured eye, picked Youngblood out of a photo lineup of images of six black men, each with one eye blocked out. (Youngblood is blind in one eye.) In court, the victim again identified Youngblood.

Youngblood appealed his 10-and-a-half-year sentence, arguing that the destruction of the biological evidence violated his rights to due process. He was freed after serving three years when the Arizona Court of Appeals vacated his conviction. But in 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court and reinstated the conviction.

Meanwhile, DNA testing was becoming more sophisticated and the Arizona prosecutor did not object in 2000 when Youngblood’s attorneys requested a test on the degraded old evidence. The results exonerated Youngblood, who was again freed, and implicated Walter Cruise, a Texas inmate then incarcerated on an unrelated charge—and also blind in one eye. “A lot of these DNA exonerations, we see that the true assailant does look similar,” says Herf. “But DNA is the way that we can know 100 percent.” Cruise was convicted of the molestation in 2002 and sentenced to 24 years.

“Arizona experienced a true exoneration,” says John Pressley Todd, special assistant attorney general in the Capital Litigation Section of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. “I felt it was important to understand what happened and to see if there was something that could be done differently.”

Collaborating with the justice project to get the DNA grant was, says Todd, “a natural evolving process – as far as I know, neither a ‘tough call’ or a ‘controversial’ one within the office. It seemed like the right thing to do.”

As part of the program, Todd and Herf emailed prosecutors soliciting submissions of old rape or homicide convictions in which DNA testing might, many years later, prove helpful. The response was underwhelming. Prosecutors “submitted zero cases,” Herf recalls. And defense attorneys only mustered a couple.

The program really got underway after the Department of Corrections fulfilled a request to identify all inmates convicted of homicide or rape: a little more than 5,000 of Arizona’s 45,000-strong prison population. Herf and Todd then went into the inmate population, giving presentations. “Sometimes three people showed up, sometimes a hundred,” Herf recalls.

Applications were handed to anyone with a claim of innocence resting on DNA testing, along with a firm admonition from Todd that only the innocent need apply and wild goose chases would not be appreciated. Maximum security prisoners who could not attend viewed the presentations on television in their cells. Some 283 inmates so far have applied.

Todd sees the collaboration with the Arizona Justice Project as “a failsafe given the advances in DNA technology.

“I think my involvement with the DNA project has helped the project evaluate some cases,” he says, “and more important, gain access to other members of the justice system, police, prosecutors and corrections. I hope I add credibility to the DNA project that leads to trust. Personally, I want to be as sure as I can that we do not have wrongly convicted individuals or any major issue with our system. If we do, then I want to be part of the solution.”

 

Should There be a Last Word?

How long a window of time prisoners should be given in which to request DNA-testing is hotly debated. Puzauskus would abolish time limits “because new DNA testing technologies develop regularly and there should never be a limit put on someone to prove their innocence.”

In Pennsylvania, a bill is pending that if passed would abolish that state’s particularly restrictive “60-day rule” which bars an inmate who later discovers evidence of his innocence from presenting it to the courts. According to the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, “No matter how compelling the evidence that the inmate is actually innocent, if the petition is even a day late, a court will not hear it. Period.”

“The 60-day rule simply doesn’t work,” says Duquesne University law professor John Rago, who headed the state’s Commission to Study Wrongful Convictions. “It doesn’t work in Pennsylvania and I cannot imagine a similar limiting rule working well anywhere,” he says, citing a report the commission released in September 2011. “Genuine claims of actual innocence take much more time to develop in a post-conviction setting and the rule that currently exists does little more than frustrate legitimate claims. While it was designed to eliminate frivolous claims, it has, in fact, worked poorly in terms of actual innocence claims.”

The pending bill would extend the period for making requests to one year and allow for its elimination when the petitioner can show that they are “actually innocent” of the charges.” “When there’s a claim of actual innocence accompanied by some credible evidence, there shouldn’t be any time limit,” its sponsor, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, has said. “I don’t see how anyone can argue about that.”

In 2009, the Supreme Court found no constitutional right to DNA testing. “The dilemma,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., “is how to harness DNA’s power to prove innocence without necessarily overthrowing the established system of criminal justice.” And because the goal of finality is deeply entrenched in that system, there is an innate tug of war for those who want to give victims’ families justice but also to serve justice itself.

“While I appreciate, by implication, the value assigned to the principle of ‘finality’ in criminal justice,” says Rago, “I find myself asking the added question: ‘Whose finality are we talking about?’ Surely the victim and the victim’s family are deserving of this consideration. So, too, is the government. No prosecutor wants to try a case twice.”

“In a perfect world, the interests of justice seem to suggest that no time limit would be the perfect rule,” says Rago. He concedes that while a one-year limitation was proposed to balance the interests, “it is clear to me that even a one-year limitation might be too little.”

This assumes, of course, that evidence remains to be tested. Attorney Larry Hammond, who fought for Youngblood’s release, believes it is essential that the system preserves evidence so that it can be considered at any time. Yet, vying for space and citing storage costs, much is discarded. Approximately half the states have laws that compel the preservation of evidence but the statutes vary regarding the crimes from which evidence must be kept and how long it should kept for.

study released in June by the Urban Institute of Virginia on sexual assault convictions between 1973 and 1987 underscores the importance of preservation and why it’s another Innocence Project goal. By testing old evidence kept in files, it set out to discover what proportion of a group of 715 convicted offenders might have been cleared by DNA. Since Virginia began its post-conviction DNA testing project in 2005, thousands of tests involving hundreds of cases have exonerated half a dozen inmates.

Madeline DeLone, the Innocence Project’s executive director, cautions against extrapolating the study’s findings to draw any conclusions about the number of innocents imprisoned. Still, there’s enough there to suggest that more exonerations are likely.

And without the preservation of evidence, most would be impossible. As Larry Youngblood once told ABC News, “If they destroy the evidence, you don’t have a chance. You could die.”

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