Sunday, November 19, 2006

Mixing it up with Conservative Bloggers on the Ben LaGuer Miscarriage of Justice

This is the second in a series of posts on the Benjamin LaGuer issue. This afternoon I spent time on some of the rightwardly winged Massachusetts blogs. Gov. Elect Deval Patrick's appointment of Joan Wallace-Benjamin as his chief of staff was getting a workout. Like Patrick, she had spoken out on the injustices of the LaGuer case in the 1990's. So the conservative bloggers were busy opining as to when the prison doors in the state are going to be swinging wide open. I happen to have a lot of respect for true conservatism. So my post to their blogs is aimed at appealing to their better angels. Feel free to use the links to add your $.02.

I am glad to see that there is a two-sided debate on Hub Politics and Wizbang! and Universal Hub on Benjamin LaGuer's actual guilt. (Which is a separate question from whether he got a fair trial. That question will be taken up by the SJC in January.)

Having researched the case I have come to the conclusion that not only did LaGuer not commit the crime, but the police overlooked a likelier suspect who went on to be charged with another rape and who is still living in the community. Does that make me a bleeding heart liberal? Absolutely not. It makes me someone who takes law enforcement and public safety seriously. As I argued on Hub Politics last August when it looked like the Tom Reilly campaign was trying to smear Patrick for his comments on the LaGuer case, true conservatives are instinctively suspicious of government power. In this case, the Worcester legal establishment (long dominated by Democrats, by the way) has been going to extraordinary lengths to defend a bad conviction.

I'll be the first to acknowledge that the 2002 DNA test sealed the question of LaGuer's guilt in the minds of many people. I would be among them had I not taken a closer look at the case. The fact is, there is a growing awareness in the DNA expert community (read: Tarnish on the 'Gold Standard': Recent Problems in Forensic DNA Testing, by William Thompson) that just as in everything human beings do there is potential for error when it comes to forensic DNA. Don't get me wrong, it's an important tool and law enforcement has and will use it to good effect. But there are now dozens of case studies showing that the results are susceptible to mistakes through lab error, contamination and occasionally fraud. As the saying goes, The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance. So whether you are liberal, conservative or somewhere else on the spectrum, don't ever make the mistake of kissing away your Constitutional rights through a blind faith in supposedly scientific proclamations.

In LaGuer's case four highly reputable DNA experts have looked a the paper trail associated with the evidence and they have looked at the DNA reports (which are available in full at and concluded that contamination is the best explanation for how the results turned out. One of them had this to say:

“In summary, there are numerous deficiencies in this case relating to the criminal investigation, evidence collection, evidence handling, evidence storage, chain of custody, serology testing, and DNA testing. The types of errors and mistakes in this case are the result of individuals not adhering to the accepted standards and practices of criminal investigation and forensic laboratory testing.”

- Dean A. Wideman, certified forensic consultant

So whatever your political leanings, always view the government with suspicion. I think if you take a hard and honest look at this case you will agree that LaGuer deserves a new trial. After all, the commonwealth hid a State Police generated report from him at the time of trial that showed there were four fingerprints found on the base of the trimline telephone, the cord of which was used to bind the victim's wrists and that they belonged to someone other than LaGuer. Under our system of justice (which I wouldn't want to trade for any in the world) that is just plain unacceptable.

If you oppose a new trial that means you are for saying it is okay for the government to hide key and potentially exculpatory evidence. If that is the kind of country you want to live in, then God help you. A new jury at a new trial will have every opportunity to examine the DNA and any other evidence the commonwealth wants to introduce. It will also have the right and indeed duty to reconvict LaGuer if that is their conclusion.

By the way, for those who don't know this already, the lawyer who is working for free to argue LaGuer's case in the upcoming SJC hearing on January 4, 2007 is a guy named James C. Rehnquist. His father was the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, one of the towering figures in conservative jurisprudence of the latter part of the 20th century. So before you join in the political spinning that characterized how all sides used this case in the campaign, ask yourself what it means to be an American, and what the right to a fair trial might mean to you or someone you love some day.

(For more chatter on the LaGuer/Joan Wallace-Benjamin connection head on over to the Blue Mass Group blog.)


John Hosty said...

I just read the report that examines how much error is committed in DNA testing and found it to be absolutely shocking. Please make sure you read this if you are interested in the truth.

Fair Trial for Ben LaGuer said...

Thanks John. William Thompson has made documenting the problems with forensic DNA something of a specialty. He was instrumental in exposing a big DNA scandal at the Houston crime lab. I agree with you, his article in the The Champion is a must-read for anyone interested in this topic.