A review of more than 14,000 criminal convictions across Minnesota using new DNA technology did not reveal a single wrongful conviction.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, whose office revealed the results Wednesday, led the federally funded review of 18 years of criminal convictions to see if current DNA testing could lead to any exonerations.
“Frankly, I wasn’t sure the results would be this good,” Freeman said.
The review, starting in 2010 and ending last fall, was done with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the Minnesota Innocence Project and the Office of Minnesota’s Board of Public Defense. While each case was reviewed, 13,553 cases were closed without further DNA review because DNA couldn’t prove innocence and in most cases, the offenders’ identity wasn’t an issue.
New DNA testing could have proved innocence in only 33 cases and of those, 12 defendants declined testing, 11 tests were inconclusive, eight tests confirmed the original conviction and two cases are still under review.
One of the two still under review is the 1980s case of Billy Glaze, who was convicted in a series of murders of American Indian women in Minneapolis. He died last year in prison after the Innocence Project introduced new DNA evidence in court that it says shows another man, a convicted rapist, had DNA at two of the three crime scenes.
“We believe through this grant we proved Billy Glaze is innocent,” said Julie Jonas, legal director of the Minnesota Innocence Project, adding that an exoneration hasn’t happened yet but “we believe it will.”
Freeman said Glaze confessed to the crime and the case died when Glaze did, adding that no more public money should be spent on the case.
DNA technology has advanced dramatically over the past two decades, with scientists now able to test smaller, microscopic amounts of genetic material. Police now use DNA as a crucial crime-solving tool.
“We all know DNA testing is unemotional and unbiased,” Freeman said. “It’s the gold standard.”
In 1982, the state sentencing guidelines commission began tracking felony convictions, and more sophisticated DNA testing began at the BCA in 1999. As a result, the county used the $859,526 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to examine convictions from 1981 to 1999 to look at whether DNA testing could be used, not at the merits of the case.
“This was an extraordinary study,” Freeman said. “We had no idea what the result would be.”
In two-thirds of the cases, the defendant knew the victim, debunking the misconception that crimes are committed by strangers, Freeman said. Besides Glaze’s case, the other case still under review is a suburban juvenile rape case.
While the results show wrongful convictions are rare in Minnesota, Freeman said DNA has led to exonerations or changes on other cases.
More work to do
All of the state’s 87 counties had at least one case in the review. Hennepin County took the lead because a quarter of the cases originated there.
“All county attorneys, before they charge a case, must have a reasonable belief of being capable of proving that case beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Robert Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. “And the results of this study are indicative that the county attorneys meet that high standard.”
Freeman also said the study’s results show that DNA can be found and used in new ways, such as on electrical cords that bound a victim’s wrist in a crime.
“This business is so much more precise than it used to be,” Small said.
However, while DNA has helped exonerate others, it “isn’t the panacea,” and other exonerating factors should be considered, Jonas said.