Scribner Seminar brings Steven Barnes to campus: Innocent man imprisoned for 19-1/2 years to speak about his experience

Posted by Julia Leef

Forensic Science and Criminal (In)justice, a First Year Experience Scribner Seminar taught by Kim Frederick, an associate professor of chemistry, will play host to Steven Barnes, an innocent man who spent over 19 years of his life in prison, at 7:30  p.m. on Nov. 8 in in Davis Auditorium in a public discussion.

The seminar focuses its studies on such cases of wrongful incarcerations through analyzing actual cases and legal policies, as well as conducting forensic analysis on pieces of evidence. Students also examine ways in which innocent people were convicted due to faulty evidence.

"Mr. Barnes was chosen because he lives and works in Utica, not far from Saratoga Springs, which is also the same community where he was wrongfully convicted," Frederick said. "Our Scribner Seminar course focuses on the misuse of forensic science in the criminal justice system, and the forensic science in Mr. Barnes' case was appalling."

Barnes was convicted in 1989 for the rape and murder of 16-year-old high school student Kimberly Simon. He was incarcerated at 19, the age of most sophomore college students, and was not released until he was 38, after the Innocence Project reopened his case in 2007 and proved his innocence through DNA testing of the sperm cells found on the victim's body and clothing. He was officially exonerated in 2009.

The Innocence Project is, according to its website, "a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice."

As of February 2010, 250 people had been exonerated through post-trial DNA testing in the U.S. Branches of the Innocence Project have handled many of these cases.

"I really see this as a big issue in society," said Caroline Bowne '15, a seminar member. "The Innocence Project has exonerated so many people already. A lot of these cases were before DNA testing played such a major part."

Students, faculty and community members will have the opportunity to ask Barnes questions regarding his experience in prison, as well as how the Innocence Project worked for his exoneration. Seminar students will attend a dinner with him before the lecture.

"I think it will open up people's eyes about what it's like to be in prison, what it's like to be wrongfully convicted," Bowne said. "I think students should really just think about the fact that the justice system isn't perfect."

Continuing their involvement in crime and injustice, seminar students also will assemble pamphlets this semester for public defenders across the country, who, Bowne said, do not always receive proper forensic training, which enables such cases as Barnes's to be mishandled.

"There are a lot of cases like these that have slipped through the cracks," Bowne said. "You have to question the abilities of public defenders, sometimes. How much time and effort do they put into each case? How detailed and how thorough are they? Are a lot of people still slipping through, despite DNA evidence being really usable? I think it shows that there are a lot of flaws in the justice system, and I think that's important."

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