News - This 'evidence' isn't

Sayin' don't make it so

Back in 1978, women in Columbus, Ga., lived in fear. Seven elderly women were raped and strangled with their own stockings. A long list of crime scene evidence tied career criminal Carlton Gary to the crimes, and he was found guilty in three of the rape-killings and sentenced to death.

Now attorney Jack Martin wants to put Gary back on the streets.

Martin claims that Gary is innocent because he belongs to the class of people who secrete blood in their sperm, and the sperm found at three crime scenes indicated a weak secretor or non-secretor rapist. Martin argues that if it can be proven that Gary is a strong secretor, then he is an innocent man.

This isn't in any way true. Gary's fingerprints were found at every crime scene. He was arrested when police caught him with a gun stolen from one of the victims. He led police to houses where the women were killed. His defense — that he only burglarized the houses and left the women alone — placed him at every murder. The fingerprints he left in the murdered women's houses don't support his version of events. An eighth victim who escaped identified him. None of this is in dispute.

It isn't even true that if Gary secretes blood in his sperm, then the sperm found in the victim's bodies cannot be his. The samples taken from the crime scene showed a perpetrator who secreted either some blood or no blood. Martin's assertion that showing any blood in Gary's sperm now would clear him is simply media spin.

But Martin has had great success with this type of spin. The media's fallen in lockstep, dutifully promoting the idea that Carlton Gary's guilt hinges upon this one piece of evidence, and that further testing might change the state's case. Martin knows that manufacturing even groundless confusion about serological testing is good for his client.

"DNA Tests Add Doubt in Strangulations" reads the headline of one article. Curiously, the story goes on to say only that DNA tests aren't being used by either side in the Gary case because crime scene evidence no longer exists to be tested. How could tests that aren't done "add doubt" about anything?

Just the mention of DNA fosters doubts because people sincerely believe that our prisons are stuffed with innocent men, despite staggering evidence to the contrary. The notion is powerful enough to make it child's play for Martin to get away with arguing, on so thin a justification, that the state is blocking evidence that would set Gary free. Martin hasn't presented any case at all against the other evidence — fingerprints, confessed crime scene presence, eyewitness. He doesn't need to. All he needs to do is point at some forensic scientist and talk gibberish until Carlton Gary is on the streets.

Of course, there are innocent men in prison — this is inevitable and no less tragic for it — but it's far more rare than headlines or defense attorneys would have us believe. In more than 10 years, the Innocence Project has freed a few dozen men from among millions convicted of crimes.

And, while many of those freed are victims of injustice, at least one is back in prison already for committing another rape, and several are undisputedly guilty of other serious crimes. These are the very strongest cases the Innocence Project could come up with; some are tragic misidentifications, but others have more to do with minor trial errors than the "actual innocence" of the defendants.

Meanwhile, scores of violent criminals walk free because we won't fund efforts to find them or because we lack the civic will to convict felons who prey on the weakest among us. The chances that a rapist will serve any time for his crime are 99-to-1. In 1999, the FBI reported that there are at least half a million outstanding felony warrants: that's 500,000 felons in our midst and 500,000 crime victims currently being denied justice.

What the Gary case actually reveals is how easy it is for violent criminals to avoid punishment. Years before Gary began raping and murdering women in Columbus, he was found guilty of robbing an 84-year-old woman in Albany, N.Y. In addition to being robbed, the woman had been raped and murdered, but Gary claimed he was not responsible, and the state allowed him to plead down and released him back into society. In 1977, he did it again, attacking a 55-year-old woman in Syracuse. She escaped death, but Gary escaped punishment, even though he was found with an item stolen during the assault.

Then he came to Columbus. And if Jack Martin gets his way, Gary will have a third chance to prove that simply saying your client is innocent doesn't make it so.??

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