New DNA links used to deny parole


By Kevin Johnson and Richard Willing, USA TODAY

February 8, 2008

State law enforcement officials and crime victims are using DNA evidence that links parole candidates to crimes for which they were never prosecuted in an emerging strategy to block early release from prison.

Of the 44 states that responded to a USA TODAY survey, 12 say they review such evidence or would have authority to review the material if it were provided.

Authorities and crime victims have informally submitted the DNA evidence to parole boards, aided by databases that show whether the subjects of DNA matches are in prison for other crimes. The little-known strategy has been in use for several years but appears to be spreading as DNA databases improve.

While popular with some prosecutors, it is raising questions about the fairness of relying on new, incriminating information in parole hearings. Inmates often do not have lawyers, and there are no uniform rules allowing them to challenge the DNA matches.

"The inmate isn't allowed to do all the things he could do in a trial," says John Wesley Hall, president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Milwaukee assistant prosecutor Norman Gahn says the practice helps secure justice. Some new DNA matches involve crimes too old to be prosecuted. "With the power of the databases, we can make them pay at least some price for their actions if — surprise, surprise — they're already in prison," he says.

Among the instances when unprosecuted DNA links influenced outcomes:

• In Wisconsin, Gahn routinely sends DNA match information to parole officials and says it has helped delay releases in about five cases since 2000.

• In Utah, Rudy Romero, a parole-eligible burglar, had his release date pushed back 25 years in 2004 after DNA linked him to five rapes, according to Utah Board of Pardons and Paroles spokesman Jim Hatch.

• In Texas, at least one prisoner was denied parole after an unprosecuted DNA link was presented. In that 2007 case, Debbie Shaw forwarded the match to state parole officials linking Johnny Ray Patton, in prison for burglary, to her 1986 rape.

Shaw, who agreed that her name could be used to raise awareness of victims' issues, says Patton's parole denial gave her "some sense of justice" as well as increased feelings of security. "Now I know I don't have to worry about him being out," she says.

Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association, urges caution. If the "information is used to deny parole, the new case should be reviewed in total.

"There needs to be some due process," he says.