Postconviction DNA Testing

Victims and surviving family members confront a number of issues and events following the conviction and sentencing of a defendant. The impact of the crime does not end with the incarceration of the offender. Convicted defendants have the right to appeal their sentences, the opportunity for parole, and the ability to file subsequent requests for additional DNA testing. All of these postconviction events are upsetting to victims and families and serve as painful reminders of the suffering and loss associated with the crime. It is extremely important that crime victims and family members are approached with great sensitivity. This is especially critical when the conviction was based primarily on eyewitness identification by the victim. Victim service providers must be aware that victims and their families may need special services to help them cope with postconviction developments.

In the context of postconviction DNA testing, it is important to realize that if a convicted offender requests DNA testing of old or newly discovered evidence, this does not mean the request will be granted. Postconviction requests, in which DNA evidence is available for testing and the test results are likely to exonerate an offender, should be handled with great care because it may be necessary to obtain samples from victims and third parties for the testing process. Prosecutors and victim service providers should ensure that victim counseling resources are available through their offices or a community-based assistance program.

If testing results produce exculpatory evidence, particularly in mistaken eyewitness identification cases, victims may still believe the defendant is guilty. Victims may be upset and angry. For example, the credibility of sexual assault victims is usually attacked in trial, and a conviction is viewed as a significant validation of their credibility. To face having their credibility called into question again can cause tremendous distress. In addition, some victims may feel terribly guilty about their part in convicting an innocent person. Reassure the victim that she did the best she could at the time and that memory can be fallible. It may help to remind the victim that DNA technology, which may not have been available at the time of the original investigation, is an important tool in making sure the right person is convicted. Remind the victim or survivor that the criminal justice system is not perfect, and emphasize the importance of knowing the truth and identifying the right perpetrator to ensure justice and prevent future victimization of other individuals.

Also, it may help to inform victims of the following:

  • Even the Innocence Project, which uses DNA testing to exonerate persons who have been wrongfully convicted, concedes that in many cases in which postconviction requests are made for DNA testing, the results have confirmed the identity of the convicted person as the true perpetrator. This confirmation may have a significant impact on decisions regarding the perpetrator's probation or parole.
  • The victim should be assured that everyone in the system, particularly prosecutors and judges, will make sure that ambiguous results that do not clearly exonerate the perpetrator will not weaken the conviction or result in a new trial.
  • If postconviction testing of DNA evidence results in a valid exclusion, the victim can be reassured that growing DNA databases will increase the likelihood of identifying the true perpetrator. DNA databases also will make it easier to accurately identify and link perpetrators in future cases.
Meanwhile, a number of states have passed victims' rights statutes that require notification of victims, including notification of appeal proceedings, prison release, application for pardon, or commutation of sentence. Agencies involved in postconviction DNA cases should make certain they comply with applicable state statutes.

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Understanding DNA Evidence: A Guide for Victim Service Providers
April 2001