DNA debacle 

Did the execution of Eddie Crawford gut Georgia's new DNA law?

It was a terrible crime. Everyone can agree about that.

The victim, Leslie Michelle English, was as innocent as victims come, a 2-year-old girl snatched in the middle of the night from her bed, raped, probably strangled, and dumped in the woods off a Spalding County roadside.

Then there's the man convicted of Leslie's murder, her uncle by marriage, Eddie Crawford. Hours before Leslie disappeared, her mother had denied Crawford's sexual advances. "I'll get even with you," he responded.

After Leslie's body was found, evidence quickly piled up against Crawford. A shirt with blood on the hem was found stuffed behind his dresser. Sheets from his house were near the child's body. Strands of hair closely matching Leslie's were pulled from his car. Fibers from his car's upholstery were lifted from her pajama top.

But there is other evidence, evidence not entered at Crawford's trial -- evidence his attorneys say deserves to be tested to determine whether its DNA actually matches Crawford's.

It's too late for that testing to help him. On July 19, after spending two decades on death row for Leslie's murder, he was executed by lethal injection.

But even if that evidence fails to exonerate Crawford, the courts' refusal to grant a hearing to consider the evidence appears to run counter to the state's year-old, post-conviction DNA testing law. The law was passed in response to the growing role that DNA analysis plays in exonerating the innocent -- some of whom have spent decades behind bars.

"The horrible nature of this crime may have caused the courts to engage in a strained reading of the ... statute," says Sen. David Adelman, D-Decatur, who authored the legislation.

The law allows inmates convicted of one of seven violent felonies to be granted a hearing at which DNA testing can be ordered -- so long as the case meets certain criteria, such as the existence of evidence from which actual DNA samples can be lifted, and the unavailability of DNA testing at the time of the original trial.

Crawford's lawyers viewed the new law as a tool to raise questions about his 1984 conviction. The law was supposed to make post-conviction DNA testing easier, and Crawford's defense wanted to test crime-scene evidence that the state allegedly suppressed.

The existence of testable items -- including possible bloodstains on the victim's mattress pad, as well as a pubic hair found on her body -- was discovered late last year, through a state Open Records request. But the defense's efforts to test the items show that getting a hearing under the new law is anything but simple.

What's more, a state Supreme Court opinion handed down in June, which denied Crawford a hearing, "just totally gutted what was really a good piece of legislation," according to Mike Mears, a death penalty expert who heads the statewide office that provides indigent defense for capital cases.

In the ruling, five justices concluded that the DNA law only allows for a hearing under the narrowest of circumstances. Two dissenting justices read the law as a guarantee to serious felons that their requests for testing would be heard.

The differing interpretations can be traced to two contradictory passages of the law. "The language of the statute is, admittedly, a little confusing," state Chief Justice Norman Fletcher wrote in the dissent.

One part says that before an inmate is granted a post-conviction hearing on DNA evidence, lawyers must "show" a judge that the evidence, if tested, would raise a "reasonable probability" of innocence.

The other part says an inmate "shall" be granted the hearing -- and only then will face the burden of demonstrating that DNA testing would show a reasonable probability of innocence.

"By denying Crawford's right to a hearing to determine whether DNA evidence exists that is testable and might lead to a different result at trial, the majority ignores this plain language and undermines the very purpose of the statute," Fletcher wrote.

In the waning days of the fight for the DNA hearing, Crawford's defense pulled out the big guns. Enter Barry Scheck, a DNA expert who represented O.J. Simpson and co-founded the Innocence Project, which has used DNA testing to exonerate 145 inmates nationwide, including three in Georgia.

Five days before the execution, Scheck unsuccessfully argued at a closed hearing before the state Board of Pardons and Paroles that Crawford deserved a stay to give the Innocence Project time to run DNA tests.

"It would be unconscionable ... to go on with the execution of this defendant," Scheck said after the hearing. "You want to err on the side of DNA testing."

But Spalding County District Attorney Bill McBroom, who also argued in front of the Pardons and Parole Board, points out that four courts ruled that the relevance of tests sought by Crawford's defense was negligible.

"Everybody who has looked at this has said the evidence [against Crawford] is overwhelming," McBroom points out. "You've got to show that what you want tested has got reliability."

McBroom says he did ask the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to run several DNA tests last year -- the most conclusive of which shows that DNA from blood found on Crawford's shirt is a probable match to DNA from a strand of the victim's hair. Though the results haven't been entered into any court record, he mentioned them when arguing before the state Supreme Court.

In his dissent, Fletcher says the evidence McBroom raised is "not so strong as to preclude ... that DNA evidence pointing to another perpetrator would have resulted in a different outcome."

He points out that the blood on Crawford's shirt is not definitely a match to the victim's. He also notes that the victim's hair found in Crawford's car and the fibers from the car found on the victim's clothes might be the result of two car rides the victim took with her uncle in the week prior to her death.

"While these facts do not establish that potential DNA evidence would have changed this case, they illustrate the need that led to the enactment of this statute in the first place," Fletcher wrote. "In eviscerating [the law], the majority has made it far less likely that this statute will achieve its laudable purposes, and far more likely that the execution of innocent people will occur."

Crawford's attorneys have vowed to continue pushing for the tests, even after Crawford's execution.

Adelman says that, if re-elected, he intends to introduce an amendment to clarify the law's language, making it clear that in cases such as Crawford's, a hearing should be permitted.

mara.shalhoup@creativeloafing.com

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