DNA Frees Inmate Years After Justices Rejected Plea

August 11, 2000

By BARBARA WHITAKER

The United States Supreme Court ruled that Larry Youngblood did not need to be released from prison just because evidence that might have exonerated him on child molestation charges had been damaged. But this week, 12 years later, DNA testing of evidence in the case set him free. 

In 1988, the Supreme Court reversed a ruling by the Arizona Court of Appeals, which had overturned Mr. Youngblood's conviction for the 1983 crime on the ground that his due process had been violated by the failure to safeguard evidence in the case. 

Specifically, the authorities had failed to refrigerate underwear, making it impossible to determine whether there was any semen on the clothing that was Mr. Youngblood's. 

The Supreme Court held, 6 to 3, that a defendant's rights were not denied unless the authorities were acting maliciously and knew the evidence could prove innocence. 

"We now have before us a flawed legal precedent that stands on the shoulders of an innocent man," said Dr. Edward Blake, a forensic scientist with expertise in DNA. 

Dr. Blake, along with defense lawyers, said the ruling had undermined what were once progressive mandates that put the onus on the government to collect, maintain and properly preserve evidence. 

"For those organizations that are poorly run or mismanaged or don't give a damn," he said, "the Youngblood case was a license to let down their guard and be lazy. The effect that had was generally to lower the standards of evidence collection." 

Although the state appellate court set aside the conviction again in 1990, arguing that the state's constitution was broader than the federal government's, the State Supreme Court reinstated the conviction in 1993. 

Mr. Youngblood, now 47, returned to prison and served his sentence concurrently with a five-year sentence for an assault conviction he received while out of prison. In 1998, he was released, but he was returned to prison last year after violating the sex offender law when he failed to report a change of address. 

Last summer, his lawyers requested new, more sophisticated DNA tests on the evidence that were not available in 1983. 

The test results, several months in coming, cleared Mr. Youngblood. 

Rick Unklesbay, chief criminal deputy in the Pima County Attorney's Office, said yesterday that officials regretted what had happened but had acted in good faith. "Based on the testimony of the victim, collaborating evidence and the technology available at the time," he said, "everyone felt we had the right person. Everybody feels bad and it's unfortunate that Mr. Youngblood spent time incarcerated, but we did what we thought was right at the time." 

As for Mr. Youngblood, he said: "For 17 years, I knew I was innocent. They tried to get me to plea for less time, but I would never confess, especially to something like that." 

"I am angry," he added. "They took the best years of my life." 
 



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