Another DNA exoneration

Outside editorial

Posted: Monday, February 18, 2002

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

Bruce Godschalk was released from a Pennsylvania jail last week after being locked up for 15 years for a pair of rapes that DNA testing now suggests he could not have committed. Mr. Godschalk's case is, in some respects, typical of the recent wave of DNA exonerations across the country. Prosecutors long opposed performing the tests, convinced that there was no way he could be innocent. But the DNA tests, when they finally took place, overwhelmingly suggested that the two rapes were committed by the same person and that Mr. Godschalk wasn't that person.

Mr. Godschalk's case also raises the troubling issue of false confession. Mr. Godschalk confessed following a lengthy interrogation. Though he retracted the confession before trial, his statement was detailed, taped and credible. So much so that the current district attorney in Montgomery County, Pa., Bruce Castor Jr., believed the DNA testing would confirm Mr. Godschalk's guilt. In fact, when the tests suggested otherwise, the prosecutor initially suspected the exoneration itself was an error and would not agree to Mr. Godschalk's release before reconfirming the tests. Even now, he says he is "at a loss" to reconcile the DNA results with the other evidence in the case: "Absent the DNA test, this is one of the strongest rape cases I've ever seen."

It's hard to fathom why someone would confess to a crime he didn't commit. But the uncomfortable fact is that people occasionally do so. Police interrogations can be enormously coercive, sometimes subtly so, and the ability of courts to recognize problems in retrospect can be limited. The courts, for instance, rejected Mr. Godschalk's contention that his confession should not be admitted as evidence.

The lesson is that the laws governing post-conviction DNA testing need to be relaxed enough to make it the rule, not the exception, where a claim of innocence can be verified or refuted on the strength of a new test. There have been more than enough of these cases to demonstrate that a certain humility the flexibility to correct errors needs to be built into the criminal justice system. Even in the absence of more permissive rules, prosecutors need to be more open to testing that could undermine a verdict. You just never know when a seemingly airtight case will melt on close inspection. Mr. Godschalk had been asking for seven years that this material be tested. Someone should have recognized earlier the possibility however remote that he was telling the truth.

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