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Dekmar Column: Police should take lead in post-conviction investigations

By Lou Dekmar
LaGrange Police Chief

College courses in criminal justice teach it, police policies proclaim it, detectives and investigators are instructed in it … “the fundamental purpose of a criminal investigation is to find the truth.” This cornerstone of all law enforcement investigations reflects a principal that ensures investigators remain faithful to their oath of office and accompanying ethical standards by only arresting and pursuing the prosecution of those that are guilty.  However, in the area of post-conviction investigations the “truth seeking” role of law enforcement is at best confused and at worse undermines the obligation of truth seeking.

As forensic science evolves, where subsequent findings are exculpatory, vindicating as innocent someone convicted of a crime then the police have an obligation to act.  All law enforcement agencies owe a duty to review, investigate, and assess post-conviction exculpatory facts that may exonerate someone that may have been wrongfully convicted. Sadly, those that are wrongfully convicted served an average of 14 years in prison before exoneration and release.

Jim Fisher, Forensics Under Fire, notes that for a significant period of time we have known advances in DNA have uncovered problems in other forensic disciplines.  For years, experts have over reached regarding the evidentiary value of hair and bite mark evidence.  Hundreds if not thousands of criminal defendants have been sent to prison on what many experts now consider unreliable forensic science. Latent prints, considered the Gold Standard of forensic science, has come under attack as a result of a handful of misidentifications.

The citizens we serve rightfully expect that police will review and investigate post-conviction cases where facts become known that indicate previous evidence examination processes were unreliable or exculpatory information is presented that warrants further inquiry.  And to that point, all law enforcement agencies should have a policy defining and establishing criteria and guidelines for conducting post-conviction investigations to ensure the ends of justice are met. This should include an internal protocol for identifying flaws in the initial investigation or scientific evidence that has been determined to yield undependable results.

The primary responsibility of a post-conviction investigation is twofold. First, review and investigate all current available evidence and report such evidence that supports the innocence of the individual originally charged and convicted of the crime. Second, diligently work to identify the person responsible for the crime and arrest, if probable cause is developed.

Finally, police leaders must have the courage and independence to challenge anyone that would seek to compromise those standards. The police should lead the charge in freeing anyone wrongfully convicted … we should always be on the side that seeks the truth.