DNA may be the best way to prove someone's innocence, but it's not the only way, says Tara Shurling.
The longtime Columbia criminal defense attorney says plenty of defendants over the years have been the victims of mistakes by police, prosecutors and even their own lawyers.
"The average person on the street believes that if you're arrested and prosecuted for a crime, the odds are overwhelming that you are guilty," she said. "Unfortunately, that simply is not true. There are far more people in prison who are not guilty than people want to believe."
Shurling spends most of her time handling appeals in state and federal courts. She has been in private practice for 10 years and spent the previous 15 years with the state Office of Appellate Defense, which handles appeals for indigent defendants.
She said that while she is "grateful for all the attention that DNA is getting as a forensic tool," proving someone's innocence often doesn't involve DNA testing.
She gave several examples from cases she has handled:
* Daniel McNair was sentenced to life in prison after a jury found him guilty in 1986 of beating his wife to death at their Lancaster home. He spent nearly 14 years in prison until a review of the original autopsy by several outside experts found his wife had died of natural causes. Prosecutors did not retry him.
* Harold Gibson pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 21 years in prison for the 1989 shooting death of a longtime friend at a York County bar Gibson owned. Ten years later, the state Supreme Court reversed his conviction, ruling that prosecutors knew a key state witness had lied to investigators.
Rather than wait months for a new trial, Gibson, who had maintained that the shooting was in self-defense, instead pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter so he could be given credit for time served and be released immediately, Shurling said.
* Malissa Thomas was sentenced to 25 years in 1995 after pleading guilty to trafficking in more than 200 grams of cocaine in Florence County. The state Supreme Court in 2001 reversed her conviction, ruling that it was a conflict of interest for her lawyer to represent both her and her husband, who also was charged but was freed in a plea deal.
Thomas, who contended she was tricked into pleading guilty though she said she was innocent, spent seven more months behind bars before deciding to plead guilty to a lesser offense so she could be released immediately, Shurling said.
Defendants often plead guilty because they are told they likely will be convicted at trial and receive a stiffer sentence, not because they believe they are guilty, Shurling said.
That's why it's important for everyone to be "watchful" of how the court system works, she said.
"When we cease to be vigilant, the innocent fall through the cracks," she said.