The Department of Justice provided an $859,000 grant this week to fund the state's largest comprehensive review of criminal cases involving DNA evidence.
The grant will fund an initiative to review over 13,000 violent crime convictions to determine whether DNA testing could overturn convictions. The project will focus on cases of forcible rape, murder, and non-negligent manslaughter from 1981 to 1999 -- years when DNA testing was not in widespread or consistent use.
"We're going to find innocent people who are in prison for crimes they didn't commit," said Erika Appelbaum, executive director of the non-profit Innocence Project.
DNA evidence has exonerated 244 people in the United States, including one Minnesotan, according to Innocence Project records.
The federal government provided the funding to a partnership between the Minnesota Board of Public Defense, the Innocence Project of Minnesota, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and the States Department of Justice.
"It represents an unprecedented level of collaboration between a non-profit organization, law enforcement, prosecutors, and defense attorneys," said Ed Magarian, co-chair of the Innocence Project and a partner at Dorsey & Whitney.
The agencies will identify cases where DNA evidence exists that may determine whether the convicted person is innocent. If testing confirms that the person did not commit the crime, the Innocence Project will work to secure the convict's release.
Appelbaum said the project faces some barriers. In many older cases, evidence was either discarded or cannot provide a large enough sample for accurate testing. She expects that about 1,000 cases will meet criteria for further investigation.
Participants said that DNA evidence could also help determine whether another individual committed the crime.
"Nobody is served by a wrongful conviction," said Pat Diamond, Deputy Hennepin County Attorney. "Even if an innocent person has served his sentence, the guilty remain on the street and free to reoffend."
David Brian Sutherlin, of Minnesota, was exonerated of a June 1985 rape conviction in 2001 through DNA testing. The testing also identified the actual rapist from the state's DNA database, but the man could not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired.
Although Sutherlin was exonerated of the rape charges, he remains in prison serving a life sentence for two unrelated murder convictions in July 1985.
Appelbaum said that Sutherlin's case is not typical, and that most exonerated convicts not commit other serious, violent crimes.
Agency partners hope to complete the investigations within the 18-month grant period.