The other face of justice

published January 11, 2013, page A5, MST

Our notion of justice is that those who commit crimes must be caught, tried, convicted and punished.  They should be locked up and kept away from society lest they do more harm to more people.
But justice is also ensuring that no man or woman is put behind bars for something he or she did not commit.
This is the rationale that drives Innocence Project Philippines, a collaboration various groups that was launched last month at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa and the Correctional Institute for Women in Mandaluyong.
The Innocence Project will seek to exonerate wrongfully convicted people through the strength of DNA evidence.
This option was not available until October 2007, when the Supreme Court issued its Rules on DNA Evidence.  According to the Rules, even those found guilty through final and executory decisions may seek to have their case re-examined using DNA technology so long as there are biological samples to be evaluated.
Imagine a man convicted of rape. A DNA test will conclusively establish his innocence is his DNA profile does not match the profile collected from the victim’s body.  Similarly, if the profiles do match, his guilt will be established even if he denies his crime to the high heavens.
Among those on board the network are religious volunteer groups (CBCP Episcopal Commission on Prison Pastoral Care, Coalition Against Death Penalty and the Philippine Jesuit Prison Service),  the Free Legal Assistance Group, the UP DNA Analysis Laboratory, UP College of Law, De La Salle University College of Law and Ateneo de Davao College of Law.
Innocence Project US (, which has by far exonerated 302 individuals through DNA evidence, similarly relies on the help provided by law students. It is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York.
Why these young people? “We want to tap into the volunteerism and idealism of law students,” says Lawyer Jose Jose from the Office of Legal Aid-UP Law.  “We want to impress upon them that they have a role in making society better.”  The cases will also likely demand a lot of time and leg work—something that only a few already-practicing lawyers may be willing to commit to.
Under the guidance of the lawyers’ group, the volunteer students will serve as a clearing house to evaluate cases which could be taken on. At last month’s launch, there were long lines of inmates eager to tell their stories.
Jose says that our justice system heavily relies on testimonial evidence.  Victims and witnesses may make mistakes, inadvertently or on purpose, and there is no other way to reconstruct what happened aside from their testimonies.
A scientific determination of guilt or innocence would do away with these pitfalls.
Then again, since DNA testing is a comparative process, there has to be two sets of biological samples: one to be taken from the suspect, and one from the victim/ crime scene taken during the period of investigation.
Alas, while the samples offered by the suspects asking to be evaluated are easy to obtain, evidence preservation, collection and storage remain weak here in the Philippines. There is no established chain of custody.
Take the case of Hubert Webb, who petitioned the Supreme Court for a DNA analysis with regard to his involvement in the Vizconde massacre in the early 1990s. His request was granted;  the Court even ordered the UP DNA Analysis Laboratory to conduct the test.  But there was a glitch: the biological evidence taken from the crime scene was nowhere to be found. Investigators said they turned it over to the court; the court said it received no such thing. Webb and company were eventually acquitted, not because their innocence had been established.
Thus, another objective is to raise the standards of investigations. There must be clear protocols on how to collect evidence (like rape kits), preserve and store them.  It must also be clear which agency has responsibility for the physical evidence at which stage of the process.
Innocence Project Philippines is a non-government undertaking.  Its lofty objectives will be accomplished through practical, day-to-day functions —things that would cost money.  Jose says that they are looking at grants from institutions like the European Commission, but are open to donations from private groups and individuals as well. A small amount will go a long way.
Some victims’ groups may ask Jose and company:  Why focus on establishing the innocence of suspects? Why not help victims and their families round them up?  Innocence Project Philippines’ answer:  It is likewise an injustice to put a person— any person—behind bars just to be able to say that the case has been closed and that somebody has been made to pay. If the wrong person is convicted, it means the real perpetrator is out there, smugly saying he got away with it and likely planning to harm another again. Sure, there might be a conviction, but there might not be justice at all.
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