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Men exonerated 30 years after false conviction

Today, police and prosecutors widely rely upon DNA evidence when investigating crime scenes and pursing convictions. However, prior to DNA testing capabilities, law enforcement officials relied heavily upon witness accounts and circumstantial evidence. In cases where an individual was suspected of committing a crime and arrested, police officers also relied heavily upon information discovered during questioning and interrogation sessions.

In 1984, two half brothers, ages 19 and 15, were picked up by North Carolina police and questioned for five hours about the disappearance, rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. With no lawyer present the brothers, who were known to have mental disabilities, were rattled by the police officers and, desperate to go home, made up a story detailing the girl's rape and murder.

Both brothers subsequently recanted their confessions at trial asserting they were coerced by police officers into providing false confessions. Both were sentenced to the death penalty and, upon appeal; the younger brother's sentence was reduced to life behind bars.

Despite numerous appeals and questions related to a lack of evidence and the constitutionality of the sentences given the men's mental capacities, the men remained in prison. It wasn't until the non-profit legal defense organization Center for Death Penalty Litigation investigated the case that DNA evidence from a cigarette butt that was found near the crime scene was finally tested.

The DNA evidence matched that of a convicted rapist who lived near where the girl's body was discovered. With no evidence tying the men to the crime, both were exonerated and set free earlier this month.

A criminal conviction can forever alter the course of one's life. While this case provides an extreme example of how the misuse of power and justice can corrupt the criminal justice system, lack of DNA evidence and police coercion are still cited in the convictions and sentencing of many innocent men and women today.

Individuals who are arrested and face criminal charges would be wise to exercise their Fifth Amendment rights and retain a criminal defense attorney. An attorney will work to defend against criminal charges and ensure an individual's constitutional rights are protected.

Source: The New York Times, "DNA Evidence Clears Two Men in 1983 Murder," Jonathan M. Katz and Erik Eckholm, Sept. 2, 2014

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