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Post-Conviction DNA Bill Unveiled

June 13, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Tuesday he will introduce legislation to provide those already convicted of crimes with access to DNA testing that could establish their innocence.

The anouncement by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican who is among the chamber’s most conservative members, gives momentum to the push for post-conviction genetic testing.

``While reasonable people can differ about capital punishment, it is indisputable that advanced DNA testing lends support and credibility to the accuracy and integrity of capital verdicts,″ Hatch said.

``In short, we are in a better position then ever before to ensure that only the guilty are executed.″

The debate over DNA testing has intensified as more cases emerge in which innocent people were convicted of murder and other serious crimes.

Earlier this year, Illinois Gov. George Ryan placed a moratorium on executions. His decision came in light of the 13 Illinois death row inmates who were cleared and released since the state restored capital punishment in 1977.

Critics of post-conviction DNA testing point to the cost _ each test is about $2,000 _ and say it can needlessly delay justice for victims. There currently is a backlog of about 180,000 cases awaiting DNA tests.

O.J. Simpson defense attorney Barry Scheck, founder of the New York City-based Innocence Project, and former death row inmate Dennis Fritz of Kansas City, Mo., were among those who testified before Hatch’s committee in favor of DNA testing.

``There is an urgent need for national legislation to assist a narrow but important group of people: those who are sentenced to decades in prison, or sit on death row, but could show through post conviction testing that they were wrongly imprisoned or sentenced,″ Scheck said.

Hatch’s bill would allow post-conviction testing only if identity was an issue at the trial and if the results could establish the defendant’s innocence.

A broader measure is being pushed by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore. It would give more inmates access to DNA testing and put in place federal competency requirements for defense lawyers in capital cases.

Both bills would make post-conviction DNA testing available in federal cases. Any states that opt out of the requirements would risk losing federal money for law enforcement.

In Texas, where more executions take place then any other state, the lack of quality defense counsel in capital cases has become a ``crisis,″ according to former Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Charles Baird.

``And I can guarantee you that the state of Texas is not going to address that,″ said Baird, a Democrat.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who is running for president, recently granted a 30-day reprieve to death row Ricky McGinn to give him time to retest some DNA evidence. It was the first time Bush intervened in a death penalty case after allowing 131 executions.

Much of Tuesday’s hearing focused on what the threshold should be for DNA testing.

Leahy’s bill would provide for DNA testing in cases where the evidence is relevant to the defendant’s claim of wrongful conviction or sentencing. Some state law enforcement officials said that was too broad.

``We look at the Leahy bill as test first and ask questions later. We’re looking to ask questions first so as to limit the expense,″ California Deputy Attorney General Enid Camps said.

Others, like New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, said protecting the innocent must be the prime concern.

New York and Illinois already have post-conviction DNA testing standards. Spitzer said in New York DNA evidence has led to exonerations in at least seven cases and has not been overly costly.

``Our experience demonstrates that post-conviction DNA testing can bolster the integrity of our judicial system without unduly burdening our criminal justice system,″ he said.

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Leahy’s bill is S. 2690

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On the Net: http://www.senate.gov/ 7/8judiciary/

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