overview of dna analysis
Today, the testing and analysis of DNA is considered the most reliable of all of the forensic tools. Unlike many of the other evidence forms that are gathered to meet the needs of law enforcement, DNA testing has faced rigorous scientific experimentation and validation prior to its use in forensic science.
In criminal cases, the use of DNA forensics typically involves collecting samples from the crime scene as well as samples from the suspect. DNA can be found in blood, bone, hair, and other body tissues. DNA profiles are then identified and compared. This is a powerful tool for convicting the guilty and exonerating the innocent. In fact, this type of evidence was used in a majority of exonerations from the most serious crimes such as homicide and sexual assault, preventing innocent people from spending decades in prison.
The case of Marvin Anderson is one that highlights a wide range of issues in the criminal justice system, including government misconduct, eyewitness misidentification, and inadequate defense. Thankfully, in 2001, Marvin Anderson became the 99th person in the United States to be exonerated due to post-conviction DNA testing.
In July of 1982, a young woman was raped by a black man whom she said was a total stranger. In her report to the police, she stated that the perpetrator told her that he "had a white girl." Based on this claim alone, a police officer singled out Marvin Anderson as the perpetrator on the basis that Marvin was the only person this police officer knew who lived with a white woman.
Because Anderson had no criminal record, the officer went to Anderson’s employer and obtained a copy of his employment identification card. The color photo from the card, along with six black-and-white mug shots, were placed in a photo array before the victim. She identified Anderson as the perpetrator. Shortly after, she was asked to identify the perpetrator in a line-up where Anderson was the only person whose picture was in the original photo line-up. Once again, the victim identified him.
People in the community became aware that the most likely suspect was another black man named John Otis Lincoln. The bicycle used by the assailant was identified by the owner, who said that Lincoln had stolen it from him approximately a half hour before the rape. Although Anderson requested that his attorneys call both the owner of the bicycle and Lincoln as witnesses, his counsel declined. An all-white jury convicted Anderson on all counts and he was sentenced to 210 years in prison.
In an effort to clear Anderson, Lincoln came forward and admitted to committing the crime under oath. Nevertheless, the same judge who presided over the original trial refused to vacate the conviction. At the same time, DNA testing was becoming more widely available and Anderson sought the help of the Innocence Project.
Initially, they were told by police and prosecutors that the rape kit had been destroyed. But several years later, the Virginia Division of Forensic Science advised the Innocence Project that physical evidence from the crime had been located in the laboratory notebook of a criminalist who, against policy, failed to return partially used swabs to the rape kit before it was destroyed.
Nearly 20 years after Anderson's arrest, the Innocence Project won access to DNA testing which proved that Anderson was not the perpetrator and instead matched two inmates, one of whom is believed to be John Otis Lincoln. On August 21st, 2002, Virginia Governor Mark Warner granted Marvin Anderson a full pardon.
Before his wrongful conviction, Anderson was going through the academy to become a firefighter, which had always been his dream. Since his exoneration, he has achieved that dream and now serves as the Chief of the Hanover Virginia Fire Department. Additionally, he serves on the Board of Directors for the Innocence Project.
Want to read more about DNA exonerations? Check out these pages on Brian Banks or Uriah Courtney. Also, learn about one of our HIP exonerees, Alvin Jardine, who was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2009.
Freedom Story: Marvin Anderson