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Context and Importance of the Problem

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Admissibility of DNA and other Biological Evidence in Court

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Estephany Munguia

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Florida International University

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Professor: Manny Marrero

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CJE4717

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Context and Importance of the Problem

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The purpose of the criminal justice system in the United States is to provide justice and fairness to all people by allowing them a fair hearing in a court of law in accordance with due process (Meusch, 2019). The Constitution of the United States guarantees individuals the right to the due process of the law, being perceived innocent until proven guilty. However, there have for decades existed impediments to justice in the United States’ criminal justice system, resulting in the perception of individuals as guilty without proving their innocence (Garrett, 2018). According to the reports by the Innocence Project which seeks to use DNA and other biological evidence to exonerate wrongly convicted individuals, the rate of wrongful convictions is about 6% in the general state prison population, with the variations ranging from 2%-10% (Ware, 2019).

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There are various common causes that result in wrongful convictions. Eyewitness misinterpretation is one of the major reasons for wrongful convictions as the eyewitnesses can make a lot of errors because the suspect may stand out more in a lineup or photo, making the witness pick them as the perpetrator of a crime (Berkowitz et al., 2020). There are times in which the witnesses become overconfident in believing that the person they choose is the perpetrator of the crime. Also, the police may unintentionally direct the witness to choose a suspect, which is not always the right person. Incorrect forensics is another major reason for wrongful convictions (Rossmo & Pollock, 2019). Flawed assumptions by the forensic scientist may lead to wrong conclusions about the evidence provided including gunshot residue, arson and abrasive head trauma. False confessions have also been used to convict individuals wrongly, as the evidence may seem credible since it is coming from the suspect. Mentally ill, juveniles and mentally disabled are some of the persons who are more likely to confess for a crime they did not commit as they are subject to manipulations, and thus, can be pushed by police officers to confess (Lackey, 2020). Finally, the inadequate defense can also lead to wrongful convictions (LaPorte, 2017). Lawyers need to be well-trained, passionate and require sufficient resources including time to conduct a proper investigation. People from low socioeconomic status find it difficult to hire a lawyer, and this leaves the courts with no option but appoints a public attorney to represent them in court. While these lawyers handle a huge number of cases at a time and are underpaid, they are more likely to lose a case since they are undermotivated (Fisher & Thompson, 2019). Each case requires experience, diligence and funds, and public attorneys are not a guarantee to provide these basics.

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Wrongful convictions have a tremendous impact on the parties involved including affecting a person’s mental health status, negative impacts to the families and as well tainting the criminal justice system as incapable of handling evidence (Rossmo & Pollock, 2019). One of the major effects is the impact on a person’s mental state as wrongful convictions has a psychological impact including severe mental health problems such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), persistent personality changes, depression and adjustment difficulties, feelings of chronic estrangement and isolation, relationship impairments, as well as developing complex feelings of loss (Norris and Kevin, 2020). Depression and betrayal by country is a major impact as the person have been observant of the law, but the system has proved them wrong. In regard to the family, those close to individuals who are wrongly convicted may as well experience stigma and psychological difficulties. No person who likes their loved ones to face any challenges especially against the law, and the pain intensifies especially if the family members are aware that their loved one is suffering due to a flawed justice system (Hoffman, 1987). Finally, the criminal justice system can also be negatively affected as the society may deem it incompetent to handle cases or provide a fair hearing as guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Based on this, it is in the best interest of the criminal justice system to show its competence and gain trust and approval from the public (Walgrave, Ward & Zinsstag, 2021).

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DNA and other biological evidence have been used to prove the innocence of the wrongly convicted (McGlynn, 2019). The first DNA exoneration took place in 1989, and according to the Innocence Project, there have been 375 DNA exonerees to date. According to statistics, 69% of the exonerees involved eyewitness misidentification, 43% involved misapplication of forensic science, while 29% involved false confessions (Webb, Dennis and Aimee, 2020). Despite the success, there have been questions on whether DNA evidence should be admissible in a court of law considering the flaws associated with DNA evidence collection, analysis and interpretation. Also, planting evidence to wrongly accuse another person, and dependency on the police trustworthiness impede the recognition of DNA and other biological evidence from being admissible in a court of law (Goldstein, 2019).

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Pre-existing Policies, Policy Options, and Research on DNA and other Biological Evidence

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DNA and other biological evidence have been successful in determining cases in the United States criminal justice system, and this has led to the perception that DNA should be incorporated in every criminal case to determine who is guilty and who is not. However, there have existed various ethical questions regarding the collection and use of DNA and other biological evidence especially when there is fabricated evidence leading to the incarceration of the wrong person. Also, those collecting biological samples such as blood, hair, stool and even fingerprint samples are subject to trustworthiness that the evidence collected is not manipulated as it is taken from the source (Gallagher & Thornton, 2011). Due to huge cases of evidence fabrications that have led to many innocent people being convicted for crimes they did not commit, the federal and state governments have developed policies and procedures to govern the collection and analysis of DNA and other biological evidence, guiding collection and analysis through an ethical approach. Some of the major policies regarding DNA and other biological evidence include the DNA Identification

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Act of 1994, the Justice for All Act of 2004, the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005, the Rapid DNA Act of 2017 among others.

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The DNA Identification Act of 1994 is one of the major laws and policies concerning the use of DNA and other biological evidence in the United States. The Act authorized the establishment of a national index of DNA identification records of persons convicted of crimes, analysis of DNA samples recovered from the crime scenes as well as the analysis of the DNA samples recovered from unidentified human remains (Budowle et al., 2020). The Act also specified various standards for laboratories that contribute DNA profiles to the national index system including proficiency testing requirements for DNA analysts and privacy protection standards that are related to the information in the national index system. The DNA Identification Act of 1994 also established criminal penalties for persons who intentionally violated the privacy protection standards. It also stipulated that if the quality control and privacy requirements were not met, access to the national index system was subject to cancellation.

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Based on the above stipulations, the DNA Identification Act of 1994 can be termed to regulate participation in the National DNA Index System (NDIS) by providing specific requirements (Crider, 2019). Furthermore, the Act seeks to regulate the data that can be maintained in the national index system which includes convicted offenders, unidentified human remains, arrestees, forensic casework, legal detainees, missing persons and their relatives. Based on the requirements of the DNA Identification Act of 1994, laboratories working with the NDIS are required to comply with the quality Assurance Standards that are issued by the director of the FBI. Laboratories working with the National DNA Index System must be approved by a non-profit professional association of persons actively engaged in forensic science which is nationally recognized within the forensic science community. In addition, these laboratories submitting DNA evidence should undergo an external audit after every two years as required by the FBI’s director of Quality Assurance Standards and this is to make sure that the laboratories are at the right standards such that their DNA results will not be questioned in a court of law (Ortyl, 2019). Therefore, the DNA Identification Act of 1994 is set to make sure that quality in DNA and other biological evidence is maintained, creating integrity in the criminal justice system that only convicts and sentence the guilty while exonerating the innocent.

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The Justice for All Act of 2004 (JFAA) was an Act enacted on October 30, 2004. The Act includes the Debbie Smith Act, the Crime Victims’ Right Act, the DNA Sexual Assault Justice Act and the Innocence Protection Act (Jarrell & Ozymy, 2012). The Debbie Smith Act expands the categories of state DNA profiles to include the Federal DNA database, indefinitely tolls the statute of limitations for federal crimes other than a sexual assault that implicate an individual by DNA testing. The Debbie Smith Act also provides funding for the local or state governments to help eliminate the DNA backlogs that has been a major issue in the United States. The DNA Sexual Assault Justice Act is also involved in the funding of the local and state government through the provision of grants to state or local governments (Davis & Wells, 2019); which are used in training and technical assistance of the law enforcement, forensic science, courts and medical personnel, bringing crime labs into compliance with the federal standards, tribal domestic violence and sexual assault groups, identification of missing persons through DNA as well as the elimination of backlogs in forensic evidence. Title IV of the Justice for All Act contains original parts of the Innocence Protection Act that is involved in the provision of post-conviction DNA testing for federal prisoners, funding to train lawyers to help in defending and prosecute death penalty cases as well as more compensation for the wrongfully convicted individuals in the United States (Davis & Wells, 2019). Based on this, the Justice for All Act 2004 was enacted to help protect crime victims’ rights, improve and expand the DNA testing capacity of the federal, state, and local crime laboratories through funding and provision of grants, as well as the elimination of the substantial backlog of DNA samples collected from the scenes of crime and convicted offenders.

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Title IV of the justice for All Act stipulates three major objectives which align with the goal of making DNA and other biological evidence admissible in a court of law. In the first instance, the Act provides for post-conviction DNA testing for federal prisoners, which means that it provides an opportunity for the wrongfully convicted with a chance to prove their innocence. There are many people behind bars with most of them being innocent (Davis & Wells, 2019). However, DNA evidence has proved great to be efficient in proving offenders guilty of a crime they have committed and this has been made successful through the analysis of DNA material evidence recovered from the crime scenes. In the same case, DNA and other biological evidence have been used to exonerate convicted persons from behind bars for crimes that they did not commit, and this has been the foundation of DNA evidence in the criminal justice system, proving the perpetrators of crimes guilty and proving the wrongfully convicted innocent. Another critical part of the provisions of Title IV of the Justice for All Act is that it provides for the compensation of those wrongfully convicted with more compensation as damages for the time spent in prison as well as defamation for being prosecuted for crimes they were never involved. Finally, Title Iv of the Justice for All Act provides funding that is used to train lawyers to help in defending and prosecuting death penalty cases. The United States is one of the countries across the globe which have legalized capital punishment (Davis & Wells, 2019). Putting an offender to death is not a simple task and the judge has to consider various circumstances before coming to such conclusions. Equipping judges and lawyers with such knowledge require funding, thanks to Title IV of the Justice for All Act in providing funding to train lawyers and judges, reducing the probability of putting the innocent to prison.

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The DNA Fingerprint Act 2005 is another major policy regarding DNA and other biological evidence in the criminal justice system. The Act amends the DNA Identification Act of 1994 to repeal the provisions that prohibit the DNA profiles from the offenders that have not been charged in an indictment or information with a crime, and the DNA samples that are voluntarily submitted for elimination purposes from inclusion in the National Index System (Haines, 2006). The DNA Fingerprint Act 2005 requires the complete removal of n individual’s DNA analysis from the System of DNA analysis by the state for an individual who has not been convicted of an offense. According to the Act, such a person whose evidence needs to be removed from the system should be acquitted or their case be dismissed. In addition, the DNA Fingerprint Act 2005 appeals for the provision that grants authority for an authorized person to search and access the system. The Act also permits the local and state governments to use one-time grant funds to include the DNA samples collected under applicable legal authority within the system including DNA samples of an individual convicted of a state offense. Furthermore, DNA Fingerprint Act 2005 helps in amending the DNA Analysis Background Elimination Act 2000 to authorize the Attorney General to collect DNA samples from persons arrested or detained under the United States authority and authorize any other federal agency involved in the arrest, detention or supervision of offenders to collect DNA samples for analysis (Haines, 2006). Finally, DNA Fingerprint Act 2005 helps in eliminating the exception for sexual abuse offenses to the tolling of the statute of limitations especially in cases where DNA testing tends to implicate an individual in the commission of a felony.

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Finally, the Rapid DNA Act of 2017 is another major policy regarding the use of DNA and other biological evidence. The Act amends the DNA Identification Act of 1994, requiring the FBI to issue standards and procedures for using the Rapid DNA instruments to help in the analysis of DNA samples collected from criminal offenders (Shrivastava et al., 2020). The Rapid DNA instruments are used in the generation of DNA analysis through a fully automated process and are required to be compliant with the FBI-issued standards and procedures for the evidence to be included in the Combined DNA Index System. In addition, the Rapid DNA Act of 2017 amends the DNA Analysis Backlog Act of 2000 allowing the FBI to waive certain existing requirements if a DNA sample is analyzed using the Rapid DNA Instruments and the results included in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

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As mentioned earlier, DNA and other biological evidence have proven to be successful in solving cases that have proven challenging to solve. When Congress passed the DNA Analysis Backlog Elimination Act of 2000, it aimed in helping clear the backlog of DNA samples. The new law also approved the collection, analysis and indexing of the DNA evidence collected from individuals convicted of committing federal crimes. Currently, all states in the United States have passed laws and statutes that necessitate certain offenders to provide DNA samples to be included in the various government databases after they get convicted. While many states began with the collection of DNA samples from victims of sexual assault, in modern times, all states collect DNA from sex offenders, with certain states such as Virginia requiring the collection of DNA samples from all convicted felons. Through the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, Congress passed CODIS in 1994 (Berson, 2009); which combine DNA databases from the local, state and national levels. CODIS allows laboratories across the United States to compare DNA profiles and thus help in the identification of offenders with ease. With the number of crimes increasing in the United States, many states have established laws that require the mandatory collection of DNA evidence from all offenders for some misdemeanor offense except for Idaho, Nebraska, and New Hampshire that do not provide for the collection of DNA evidence from all felony convictions.

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Conclusion

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The numerous laws and statutes established both at the state and federal levels aimed at increasing the quality of DNA and other biological evidence in order to make it reliable in a court of law (Villavicencio‐Queijeiro et al., 2021). These laws and statutes emphasize quality in the collection, analysis and indexing of DNA samples as collected from the scene of a crime. The collection of DNA samples is one of the most important issues in determining the quality of DNA and other biological evidence. The reason behind this is because the scene of a crime is always the point of high interest to the law enforcement as it gives inferences as to what could have transpired during the crime. At the crime scene, biological evidence such as hair strands, blood samples, mucus and semen may be collected to help determine the perpetrator. While the collection of evidence is of great significance, it needs to be maintained at high levels, avoiding contamination at any point. The crime scene is involved with different kinds of officers from the dog sniffers to the FBI, and in the process, the biological evidence may be trashed or contaminated, proving it difficult to determine the DNA of the perpetrator, an indication that wrong accusations can be a possibility.

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Far from the collection of evidence, analysis of the DNA to help identify the perpetrator is another major issue in determining the quality of DNA evidence (Murphy, 2018). Laboratories are often involved in the analysis of biological samples collected in crime scenes. Based on this, laboratories need to be closely monitored to make sure that the quality has not been compromised. It is in the laboratory as well that the results of the DNA and other biological evidence can be manipulated as they have the power to do as they wish. However, these laboratories are guided by specific ethical guidelines that prohibit the employees from manipulating the evidence. In addition, the government, whether federal or state spends a lot of resources in training the laboratory staff to make them competent enough such that they can be trusted in making the analysis without compromising its quality. When all these standards and regulations are followed, there are minimal chances of convicting the wrong people for crimes they have not committed as the margin for error will be greatly reduced. Another advantage of the set standards and regulations is that it increases the quality of DNA and other biological evidence from collection, analysis and indexing, and this is one of the major considerations of judges as to whether DNA and other biological evidence can be admissible in a court of law.

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Policy Recommendations

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The question of improving the quality of DNA and other biological evidence in collection, analysis and indexing has already been answered by the various laws and statutes established by the federal or state governments. However, the question regarding the admissibility of the DNA and other biological evidence still remains debatable. The courts only allow the use of evidence that is not tempered with including in collection, analysis and indexing, proving to the judges that the laboratories involved in the analysis are up to the required standards, and those involved in the collection of DNA evidence including hair strands, blood, urine, and semen are professionals. The government have established statutes and laws that provide for funding that is used to train laboratory technicians and law enforcement officers in dealing with DNA evidence. With such many laws established to regulate the quality of DNA and other biological evidence, the funding provided to training staff in the criminal justice to become professionals as well as the success rate of the DNA and other biological evidence in solving cases including paternity and sexual assault, there is no doubt that DNA and other biological evidence should be admissible in a court of law.

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However, to eliminate incidences of tempered evidence, the DNA and other biological evidence should be used in light of other forms of evidence including eye-witness accounts to build a strong case against the offender.

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References

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Berkowitz, S. R., Garrett, B. L., Fenn, K. M., & Loftus, E. F. (2020). Convicting with confidence? Why we should not over-rely on eyewitness confidence. Memory, 1-6.

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Berson, S. B. (2009). Debating DNA collection. NIJ Journal, 264, 9-13.

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Budowle, B., Bus, M. M., Josserand, M. A., & Peters, D. L. (2020). A standalone humanitarian DNA identification database system to increase identification of human remains of foreign nationals. International journal of legal medicine, 134(6), 2039-2044.

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Crider, M. (2019). Corporate Genealogists: The New Homicide Detectives. SMU Sci. & Tech. L. Rev., 22, 153.

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Davis, R. C., & Wells, W. (2019). DNA testing in sexual assault cases: When do the benefits outweigh the costs?. Forensic science international, 299, 44-48.

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Fisher, B., & Thompson, P. (2019). The Role of Public Defenders Within the American Justice System. Journal of Student Research, 8(2).

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Gallagher, M. B., & Thornton, J. I. (2011). Trace evidence in crime reconstruction. In Crime Reconstruction (pp. 247-297). Academic Press, San Diego.

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Garrett, B. L. (2018). Evidence-informed criminal justice. Geo. Wash. L. Rev., 86, 1490.

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Goldstein, J. (2019). Guilty Until Proven Innocent: The Failure Of DNA Evidence. Drexel L. Rev., 12, 597.

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Haines, P. (2006). Embracing the DNA Fingerprint Act. J. on Telecomm. & High Tech. L., 5, 629.

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Hoffman, M. L. (1987). The contribution of empathy to justice and moral judgment. Empathy and its development, 4780.

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Jarrell, M. L., & Ozymy, J. (2012). Real crime, real victims: environmental crime victims and the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA). Crime, law and social change, 58(4), 373-389.

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Lackey, J. (2020). False Confessions and Testimonial Injstice. J. Crim. L. & Criminology, 110, 43.

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LaPorte, G. (2017). Wrongful convictions and DNA exonerations: Understanding the role of forensic science. NIJ Journal, 279, 250705.

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McGlynn, K. E. (2019). Remedying Wrongful Convictions though DNA Testing: Expanding Post-Conviction Litigants’ Access to DNA Database Searches to Prove Innocence. BCL Rev., 60, 709.

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Meusch, J. E. (2019). A” Judicial” System in the Executive Branch: Ortiz v. United States and the Due Process Implications for Congress and Convening Authorities. JL & Pol., 35, 19.

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Murphy, E. (2018). Forensic DNA typing. Annual Review of Criminology, 1, 497-515.

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Norris, R. J., & Mullinix, K. J. (2020). Framing innocence: An experimental test of the effects of wrongful convictions on public opinion. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 16(2), 311-334.

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Ortyl, E. (2019). DNA and the Fourth Amendment: would a defendant succeed on a challenge to a familial DNA search?. American journal of law & medicine, 45(4), 421-442.

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Rossmo, D. K., & Pollock, J. M. (2019). Confirmation bias and other systemic causes of wrongful convictions: A sentinel events perspective. NEULR, 11, 790.

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Rossmo, D. K., & Pollock, J. M. (2019). Confirmation bias and other systemic causes of wrongful convictions: A sentinel events perspective. NEULR, 11, 790.

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Shrivastava, P., Mishra, A., Kumar, A., Chaudhary, S. K., Kakkar, S., & Kumawat, R. K. (2020). Rapid DNA Typing. In Forensic DNA Typing: Principles, Applications and Advancements (pp. 561-570). Springer, Singapore.Villavicencio‐Queijeiro, A., Loyzance, C., García‐Castillo, Z., Suzuri‐Hernández, J., Castillo‐Alanís, A., López‐Olvera, P., & López‐Escobedo, F. (2021). Development of an instrument for assessing the quality of forensic evidence and expert testimony from three feature‐comparison methods: DNA, voice, and fingerprint analysis. Journal of Forensic Sciences.

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Walgrave, L., Ward, T., & Zinsstag, E. (2021). When restorative justice meets the Good Lives Model: Contributing to a criminology of trust. European Journal of Criminology, 18(3), 444-460.

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Ware, M. (2019). Innocence Project of Texas. S. Tex. L. Rev., 60, 453.

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Webb, P., Savard, D., & Delaney, A. (2020). The color of confinement: examining youth exoneration decisions and the critical race theory. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 18(3), 206-237.

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