When it comes down to it, one of the most unfair aspects of our criminal justice system may be that people are held before trial. Some of those people — many of those people — are completely innocent. Unfortunately, bail can be assessed in part on the apparent evidence against you, even though people are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty.
A case from Louisiana made national news when it was discovered that a routine paperwork error had kept an innocent man in jail for three years while he awaited trial.
Detectives were investigating the stabbing death of Howard Poche. When they found a dark spot on the lid of Roy Verret’s washing machine and tested it for DNA, he knew there would be no problem, as he had nothing to do with Mr. Poche’s death.
But the detectives came back to Roy to say that the stain had tested positive for blood. Based on the DNA, the detectives were 99.9% certain that the blood belonged to Mr. Poche.
Based on this “undisputed evidence,” a judge set Roy’s bail at an unaffordable $500,000. Roy was charged with capital murder.
For the next three years, Roy would obsess about how Mr. Poche’s DNA could possibly have gotten onto the lid of his washing machine. The best he could come up with was that it had been planted there, either by the killer or by police.
Because the case was not yet at the trial state, Roy’s public defender were not allowed to see the DNA sample or independently test it.
Ultimately, it turned out that someone in the crime lab had simply mislabeled the sample from the washing machine. The analyst had mixed up two samples: the alleged blood stain and a knife found at the crime scene. Why the same analyst was given both of these samples at the same time is unexplained.
A defense expert was the one who suggested there might have been a mix-up. She testified that an independent sample from the washing machine tested negative for Mr. Poche’s DNA. It wasn’t even clear that it was human blood.
How many innocent people are locked up?
DNA evidence can seem like a slam dunk, but there are many ways that inaccuracies can arise. If a questionable sample is tested at the same time as a crime scene sample, the two could easily become cross-contaminated or, as in this case, confused.
The defense must have full access to the evidence right away so that independent verification can be undertaken. No one should be in jail for three years for a police lab mistake.