The Wrongfully Convicted
How DNA evidence is exonerating the innocent
With the new technological advancements in DNA evidence testing, DNA analysts have been able to find new evidence and connections in unsolved/post-conviction cases. DNA is unique to almost every individual in the world and is one of the most valuable tools in identifying someone when dealing with the criminal justice system. You are able to gain DNA from an individual’s hair, teeth, feces, saliva, blood, semen, sweat, and cells. DNA can not only be collected at a crime scene but when an individual is arrested on speculation of a felony crime. These samples are then tested to create a DNA profile that is uploaded to the law enforcement databases such as the National DNA Index System (NDIS) and Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). These profiles are especially crucial in investigations when attempting to connect and prove the location of possible suspects to a specific crime.
Alec Jeffreys was a genetics professor at the University of Leicester and was the first researcher to discover how useful DNA could be in identifying individuals. In 1986, Jefferys’ research was put to the test when a 15-year old girl, Dawn Ashworth, was raped and murdered. According to Arnaud, the police collected saliva and blood sampling from over 4,000 males in Leicestershire from the ages of 17 and 34 for Jefferys to examine. Jefferys finally found a match and was able to convict Colin Pitchfork to life in prison. Since then, DNA profiles and databases have significantly evolved, changing the way investigators handle cases. Currently, forensic analysts are able to surprisingly obtain skin cells from surfaces that criminals could’ve simply just touched. Along with the evolution of profiles, the advancements in technology have allowed for new data analysis to separate and determine humans in each a mixed DNA sample in a timely manner. According to the National Institute of Justice, in April 2021, there were over 14 million DNA profiles in the CODIS.
Based on the research above, I created a game based on Kenneth Adams, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering both Lawrence Lionberg and Carol Schmal and raping Schmal in 1978. He was sentenced alongside Verneal Jimerson, Paula Gray, Willie Rainge, and Dennis Williams, also known as the Ford Heights Four. At the time, the police received a tip from a man who placed these men at the crime scene when the murders took place. This then led to the police interrogating Paula Gray, who had a borderline intellectual disability and was questioned for over two nights, where she then testified in court. In court, she confessed that she was present while these four men raped and shot the victims but had inaccurate claims and were then proven false. She then retracted her statement and was also charged with the murders. Throughout the trial, other individuals testified against these men claiming false and unreliable accusations. Adams was sentenced to 75 years in prison, and it wasn’t until DNA testing and a police report was filed within a week of the crime with an eye-witness stating that they had wrongfully convicted these men. At the time, there was prosecutorial misconduct regarding the report, and so it wasn’t given to the defense before the trial. The DNA testing confirmed that the Ford Heights Four didn’t commit the murders and deemed them innocent.
I also used inspiration from the show Criminal Minds because I’ve been watching it for many years now. I personally love crime shows and find them super interesting, so it was really cool to take aspects of the show and incorporate them into my game. For example, I used the way the show is structured in the beginning: The detectives are debriefed by their intelligence analysts and then are able to establish suspects.
I’ve taken criminology and criminal justice classes in previous years, so it was interesting to combine information I’ve learned in previous classes with my game. It was also fascinating to expand my knowledge of the criminal justice field while researching for this game. I’ve always been curious about the advancements in DNA evidence and how it’s affecting criminal cases.
In my game, the player is a detective who has just been assigned to a homicide case. Throughout the game, the player goes through the process of attempting to find suspects and tying evidence together. I use aspects of Adam’s situation where someone tipped the detective off to a suspect, which gave them reasonable doubt to interrogate the character, Tony Dublin. Dublin has autism and OCD, and according to Schatz with the Stanford Law School, “For individuals with intellectual disabilities, the risks of false confession are likely even greater. Police interrogation tactics, which are known to elicit false confessions from typical suspects, pose heightened risks for individuals with these disabilities.” After Dublin goes through extensive interrogating stretching out over 38 hours just like Paula, he finally confesses to murdering Lucy Kindle. However, his confession has a false claim regarding the cause of death.
I also brought attention to circumstantial evidence in my game when a shoe print found at the crime scene matched Dublin’s shoes. Circumstantial evidence is indirect evidence that cannot prove a fact rather insinuates that the fact can exist. It needs secondary speculations in order to support the claim. Individuals can be convicted only using circumstantial evidence if
“(1) There is more than one circumstance.
(2) The facts from which the inferences are derived are proven.
(3) The combination of all the circumstances is such as to produce a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In the game, Dublin’s shoes matched, he didn’t have an alibi, and he confessed. Since there was a confession and two circumstances placing him at the scene of the murder, Dublin could’ve easily been wrongfully sentenced.
According to the Innocence Project, “102 DNA exonerations involved false confessions; the real perp was identified in 76 (75% of these cases. These 38 real perps went on to commit 48 additional crimes for which they were convicted, including 25 murders, 14 rapes, and 9 other violent crimes.” In my game, I included the actual perpetrator in the original suspect list, which I thought was very thought-provoking.
At the end of the game, the player decides whether or not they want to convict Dublin or continue searching for the criminal. They then discover that it wasn’t Dublin who murdered the victim but rather the first suspect. After Dublin dropped Lucy off at home, her work stalker was waiting outside her house. Since she took the same route home from work every day, he had figured out where she lived, abducted and killed her. Dublin became a victim of the inaccuracy of the criminal justice system. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, since June 1, 2021, there has been a total of 2,795 individuals exonerated.
I used character development, realism, and player decisions that elicit emotion for my narrative design strategies. I wanted to create an engaging yet informative game, and I believe these tools helped create my vision in real life. In the game, you develop an understanding as to why the player feels inclined to prosecute Dublin. They are stressed out because their Chief is questioning their job status as a detective, and the victim’s family is demanding closure. You feel bad for Lucy’s family, and you don’t want to lose your job either. This game is representational of many different scenarios in the real world and can launch new conversations regarding the topic of the wrongfully convicted. I also created my own evidence throughout the game, which allows for the player to feel like a real detective with proof.
I related my game back to Adam’s case because I feel as if it is essential to bring attention to sickening issues like this. Too many individuals are stripped of their innocence for years at a time and are not only forced into horrifying conditions but could even be sentenced to the death penalty. Thankfully, with advancements in DNA evidence/testing are increasingly exonerating more innocent individuals.