Daily Bread for Whitewater, Wisconsin: 6-3-10

Good morning,

Whitewater’s forecast calls for a day with patchy fog, and a high of seventy-seven degrees.

In our schools today, there’s sixth grade yacht-race construction at Whitewater Middle School.

On this date in 1965, American astronaut Edward White became the first American to walk in space. The New York Times described his accomplishment in a story the next day:

For 20 minutes yesterday afternoon Maj. Edward H. White 2d of the Air Force was a human satellite of the earth as he floated across North America from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

Tethered to the Gemini 4 spacecraft, he chatted good-humoredly and snapped pictures as he darted about in raw space with a the aid of a gas-firing jet gun. Asked how he was doing by Maj. James A. McDivitt of the Air Force, the spaceship commander, Major White replied to his partner in the capsule:

“I’m doing great. This is fun.”

When he was told to re-enter the capsule, Major White laughed and said: “I’m not coming in.” But later, after more banter, he followed through on orders to return.

I’ve written before about the use of DNA evidence to exonerate innocent men wrongly convicted, and to point to those who were, truly, responsible for those crimes. See, DNA to Exonerate the Innocent (and Identify the Guilty). The Wisconsin State Journal published recently an editorial that describes the importance of DNA testing to exonerate falsely convicted men:

For five years, William D. Avery sat in prison.

And for five years, the DNA evidence from the crime scene that could have exonerated him in the strangulation death of a Milwaukee woman sat untested.
And for longer than that, a DNA sample from Walter E. Ellis, now charged in multiple Milwaukee County strangulation homicides, was missing from the state’s
DNA database.

It meant an innocent man lost five years of his life behind bars, and it may have cost a woman her life. For if Ellis’ DNA sample had been where it was supposed to be in the state system, detectives could have connected Ellis to the serial stranglings sooner and potentially saved at least one of the victims.
Avery, 38, was finally freed from prison last week after new DNA testing tied Ellis to the crime Avery was wrongly convicted of in 2005. And now Milwaukee County’s district attorney is pledging to review more than 2,000 homicide prosecutions over the last two decades to look for similar flaws related to genetic testing or, more specifically, the lack thereof.

It’s all part of a broken system for collecting, submitting and tracking DNA to fight crime in Wisconsin.

State corrections officials and local sheriffs need better coordination, clear responsibilities, more accountability and verification so mix-ups and omissions don’t continue, according to a Wisconsin DNA Task Force study released last week. The 21-member task force included a variety of law-enforcement officials from across the state.

All felons and certain misdemeanor sex offenders are supposed to provide DNA samples for analysis and comparison after conviction. But thousands of samples are still missing from the state’s DNA databank because the process for getting them wasn’t immediate and consistent.

Few issues are so basic and important to public safety and justice. Few tasks are so concretely matters of life and death.

State leaders need to stay on these troubling lapses until they are fixed.

The good news is that Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and his Justice Department have eliminated a backlog in DNA evidence at the state crime lab. Gov. Jim Doyle and a split Legislature prioritized funding for Van Hollen to help get that done. It was a shining example of bipartisan cooperation.

Similar teamwork will be needed to ensure the state DNA databank is complete and that samples in the future are quickly and accurately collected and processed.

A key proposal from the task force last week was for probation agents, rather than sheriff’s deputies, to collect DNA from felons sentenced to probation.
The task force also called for the Justice Department to verify samples with receipts, something it’s now doing. More law enforcement personnel need easy access to the state DNA database and training. Felons’ identities should be confirmed with fingerprint scans when they give DNA samples.

Ellis apparently convinced another inmate to pose as him a decade ago when he was supposed to have given a DNA sample but didn’t.

Since last fall, the Department of Corrections has hustled to collect about 7,100 of the state’s 17,700 missing DNA samples from offenders. Most of the remaining 10,000 offenders who need to give samples are no longer in custody. But the governor signed a bill this month requiring those people to comply.

Three men convicted of homicide have been released recently because new DNA tests identified different suspects in the killings.

Avery was just the latest last week.

Fixing the flaws in Wisconsin’s DNA collection and tracking system should be one of the state’s highest priorities in the coming year.

Well said. Every candidate for governor should pledge this as a top priority for his administration, should he be elected this fall.

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