The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday reversed the rape conviction of a man who has spent 12 years in prison, ruling that the DNA evidence used to convict him was erroneous. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Cameron.
The alleged victim testified that on September 13, 1999, the defendant vaginally and anally raped her in her boyfriend’s apartment. She believed the defendant had ejaculated during the encounter. Following the alleged rape, the complainant got dressed and left. Two days later she went to the police station to report she had been raped, and the investigating detective took the underwear and dress she had worn on the evening in question. The clothes were sent to the state crime lab for analysis.
A DNA analyst who worked at the crime lab was able to detect seminal residue on the complainant’s underwear. The analyst determined the presence of DNA from at least two males. The defendant was excluded as a potential contributor of the primary source. With respect to the secondary source, the analyst testified that while the defendant could not be identified as the donor, he also could not be excluded. The defendant testified at the trial and told the jury he did not see the complaint on the date of the alleged assault. He further denied that he had any sexual contact with the complainant. Nevertheless, the defendant was convicted and sentenced to 12-16 years in state prison.
While the defendant was serving his sentence, an independent laboratory performed more sophisticated testing on the DNA samples (testing that was not available at the time of the defendant’s trial). The new tests revealed that the secondary DNA source came from a woman. The new evidence contradicted the state analyst’s trial testimony that the defendant could not be excluded as the secondary source of the DNA found in the complainant’s underwear. In fact, the new test revealed that the defendant was not a donor for any of the genetic material discovered on the complainant’s clothes.
The defendant filed motions for a new trial in 2009 and 2013. A superior court judge denied the defendant’s motions, incredibly ruling that the new evidence probably would not have been a real factor in the jury’s deliberations. Equally incredibly, the Appeals Court affirmed the superior court judge’s decision.
The Supreme Judicial Court agreed to consider the case and reversed the defendant’s convictions, remanding the case back to superior court for a new trial. The Court said the prosecution’s entire case relied on the complainant’s testimony, and the only evidence used to corroborate her testimony was the DNA evidence. The state lab analyst’s testimony that the defendant could not be excluded as a secondary source of the genetic material was powerful. The jurors were permitted to infer that the semen was left behind by the defendant when, in actuality, it wasn’t semen at all. Instead, it was a female’s DNA. As the SJC pointed out, the results of the new DNA testing are arguably inconsistent with the complainant’s testimony, and there is a substantial risk that the jurors would have arrived at different verdicts without the state analyst’s erroneous testimony.
DNA evidence is so powerful in front of a jury. This case illustrates the dangers of flawed DNA evidence. While it’s great that the SJC reversed the superior court judge’s denial of the defendant’s motions for a new trial, the damage has been done. The defendant has already served most of his sentence. Even if he is acquitted at his new trial, he will have lost more than a decade of his life for a crime that he might not have committed.