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Cary's Corner Wrongful Conviction

Posted on Apr 24, 2012 09:35am

DNA evidence has once again shaken things up in the Chicago legal world this week as well-respected criminal court justice Richard Cuesta has been pulled off cases and put in "the penalty box." He's being accused of prosecutorial misconduct during his time at the State's Attorney's office in the 1990s. The current S.A.'s office is not eager to prosecute Cuesta based on this new evidence. If Cuesta did commit misconduct as a prosecutor twenty years ago many more of his convictions could face appeal. The case in question is the 1992 murder of Terri Rooney. The victim's husband, Patrick Rooney, was convicted of her murder. But new DNA evidence determined the presence of another person's blood on the knife that killed her. This isn't the first time DNA evidence has uncovered a wrongful conviction and, if history is any indication, it likely won't be the last... The first use of DNA testing to overturn a conviction took place in Chicago in 1989 in the case of Gary Dotson, a man convicted of aggravated kidnapping and rape. He was originally convicted in 1979 and in 1981 an appellate court upheld his conviction. The conviction rested in large part on the testimony of the alleged victim, who in fact had concocted a story about her rape to explain to her foster parents how she got pregnant. She didn't want to tell them the truth: That she had become pregnant from consensual sex with her boyfriend. In 1985, she recanted her story, beginning the process of overturning the conviction. DNA testing was eventually performed and the results excluded Dotson. By the mid-‘90s, DNA testing in violent cases had become commonplace, but at the time of Terri Rooney's murder, DNA testing was in its infancy. The test was able to rule out a person as a suspect but was not able to unequivocally prove that a particular individual did commit a crime, since only part of a DNA sequence could be tested for a match. Much has changed in the world of DNA testing in the past twenty years. RFLP analysis (Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism) was phased out in the mid-‘90s and replaced with STR testing (Short Tandem Repeats), which gained popularity because it required fewer sample cells from a crime scene – plus the cells did not have to be undamaged. It is now standard to re-test DNA evidence that was originally RFLP-tested with STR testing. However, despite all DNA testing being switched over to STR by 1997, cases using RFLP-analysis were making their way through the Cook County courts well into 2001. Patrick Rooney had his conviction vacated due to advances in DNA testing, but that does not prove Judge Cuesta did anything wrong on the case as a prosecutor. DNA testing is an emerging field even now, and in the early 1990s, was not always used due to a lack of national standards for criminal labs. It's hard for me to believe that the honorable and fair Judge Cuesta didn't carry the same traits when he was a prosecutor. In 1992, he wasn't trying to lock up an innocent man. He was simply using the tools at his disposal to achieve justice.