Backers Of A Kansas DNA Task Force Say It Could Exonerate Wrongly Convicted Prisoners

Apr 12, 2019
Originally published on April 12, 2019 7:29 am

Eddie Lowery was a soldier stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1982, when he was sentenced to 11-years to-life in prison after being convicted of aggravated rape, assault and burglary.

He had not committed the crime.

"You’re just wondering why this happens to you. Why?" Lowery says. "Why didn't the system protect you when you’re in the interrogation room telling them you’re innocent?"

People who've been wrongfully convicted make up an estimated 2-7% of the country's prison population, according to the Midwest Innocence Project, a non-profit organization that helps investigate wrongful convictions.

Once someone is convicted, their cases are considered solved, or closed. But when police investigate new crime scenes, there's often no way for investigators or defense attorneys to know whether DNA that could potentially exonerate someone is checked against cases that have already been closed.

"When someone's already convicted, what does law enforcement do with it? Does it even get to the prosecutor? Does it get to anyone? We just don’t know," says Tricia Bushnell, the Midwest Innocence Project's executive director.

Bushnell's organization was among the parties who approached Kansas State Sen. David Haley, who serves on the Senate's Judiciary Committee and introduced legislation to create a task force unlike any other in the country. A Closed Case Task Force ideally would set precedent nationwide by developing a protocol on the notification system for DNA evidence.

A task force comprised of 14 stakeholders would develop a reporting system for DNA evidence, ensuring all associated parties in closed and cold cases are notified when a match is found in the system.

"It's not a creation of new testing. It's not going back and opening new evidence. It's saying when this hit happens, who gets notified," Bushnell says.

"It's really a public safety issue," she explained. "We know of 350 DNA exonerations. We've identified the real perpetrator in about 180 of those cases who went on to commit over 130 other crimes, many of which are rapes and homicides. So we want to know we're getting the right folks and keeping people safe."

Haley has championed several ideas that he said provide more checks and balances within the criminal justice system, including compensation for those wrongly convicted and witness identification benchmarks.

"To bring yet another tool to make sure that those that shouldn't be serving are exonerated, and those that should be are then incarcerated, is something that I think that serves social utility across the board," Haley says.

The bill made it through the House and is now in a conference committee. Legislature is currently in recess until May, but Haley says he feels confident the bill will pass. 

Such a task force could have been pivotal in a case like Lowery's.

Lowery was exonerated in 2003 after serving 10 years. Seven years later, the true perpetrator was sentenced to 10-to 20-years for the same crime.

While in prison, Lowery was dishonorably discharged from the Army and his relationships with his family were destroyed.

"I had a 3-year-old daughter at time," Lowery said. "I missed out on her growing up and bonding there."

After completing required courses, Lowery was released on parole but spent more than a decade labeled as a convicted felon and registered sex offender.

But Lowery says he never gave up hope that he'd be able to prove his innocence.

"It was just a real traumatic, horrible experience for me and I was very happy that I was able to prove my innocence," Lowery says. "It took 27 years, I think, to find the real perpetrator. So he ran free for 27 years after raping a woman that they convicted me of raping."

Eddie Lowery, Tricia Bushnell and Rep. David Haley spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up to Date. Listen to the entire conversation here.

Elizabeth Ruiz is an intern for KCUR's Up To Date. Contact her at elizabeth@kcur.org.

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