The huge potential of
DNA evidence is often blocked by criminal justice systems that refuse to
consider it, even when it could confirm guilt or innocence
IT IS a case that is gripping the Philippines and being followed avidly in Spain. A man convicted of kidnap, rape and murder sits on death row. His lawyers argue that a simple DNA test would establish his innocence by proving that a crime was not even commtted, but the courts have refused to grant their request.
The case is symptomatic of a wider problem. The huge potential of DNA evidence is often blocked by criminal justice systems that refuse to consider it even when it could confirm innocence or guilt.
Francisco Juan Larraņaga, who has Filipino and Spanish citizenship, is in Bilibid Prison, Manila. He is one of six men sentenced to death in 2004 for the kidnap, rape and murder of sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong. One of the suspects testified against the others in return for immunity from prosecution.
Conspiracy theories surround the case. A policeman who worked on the case said last week he thought Larraņaga was innocent. Only one body was found, which was identified as Marijoy's, but there are serious doubts about whether it is in fact her - even from the original trial judge. What's more, there are rumours that one or both sisters is living in Canada. A DNA test would establish the body is Marijoy, but the supreme court has said no. The president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo promised on Monday that she would intervene to save Larraņaga.
In the Philippines, witness testimony. especially in rape cases, is often considered strong enough evidence to convict, says Faisal Saisee, a barrister from Fair Trials Abroad, a UK-based charity that helps European Union citizens accused of crimes abroad. This and the cost of DNA test explains the court's reluctance, he says.
But it just doesn't happen in the Philippines. There are many examples in the US of possible miscarriages of justice that could have been overturned by a DNA test post-conviction. Perhaps the most notorious is the case of Jackie Eliot, sentenced to death in 1986 for the rape and murder of a woman in Austin, Texas.
Elliot's defense team - and all 22 jurors - wanted DNA testing of blood stains found on the shoes of a man arrested at the same time as Elliot, who had not been charged. The trial judge refused their request and Elliot was executed in February 2003 despite mounting evidence of his innocence.
"The priest visited the........ prisoner carrying a sterile.. blade and a blood............... collection vial hidden in his robes"
Her first success came in the case of Reynaldo de Villa. He was sentenced to death for raping his 12-year old niece, Aileen Mendoza, who had subsequently given birth to a baby girl. De Villa had always maintained his innocence, but no paternity test had been carried out to establish whether or not he was the father of the child.
Because de Villa was in prison, de Ungria could not obtain a DNA sample from de Villa directly, so she enlisted the help of the prison priest. He visited de Villa carrying a sterile blade and a blood collection vial hidden in his robes.
De Ungria still needed a sample from the child he had allegedly fathered, then aged 10. De Villa's grandson, a schoolmate of Mendoza's daughter, was coached to organize a spitting competition in the playground. He collected the girl's spit in a cup, and de Ungria used it to generate a DNA profile.
The results confirmed that de Villa was not the girl's father, but the supreme court refused to consider the new evidence and so he remained on death row. De Ungria marshaled international pressure and eventually, in February this year, Macapagal Arroyo granted a pardon.
The Philippines holds the record for the number of offences that carry a mandatory or optional death penalty - 52 in all, including drug possession and theft. De Ungria has helped to draft judicial guidelines on the use of DNA evidence in Filipino courts in an attempt to catch miscarriages of justice before its too late. She hopes the supreme court, which is considering the guidelines, will admit post-conviction DNA evidence. "Like many people, I would like to help others find justice," she told New Scientist.
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