Washington, DC (December 11, 2000) -- States should “ensure post-conviction DNA testing” and “improve the quality of legal representation in capital cases” if they want federal forensic science grants, according to an authorization bill passed by the post-election Congress late last week.
“States that accept such financial assistance should not deny the promise of truth and justice for both sides of our adversarial system that DNA testing offers,” the measure reads.
“At some point, states are going to have to get off the dime, or have their funding cut,” said Edward Mallett, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “It’s time for them to stop dragging their feet while innocent people sit in prison.”
In the $170 million bill to eliminate DNA testing backlogs sent to President Clinton on Friday, the “sense of Congress” provision cites the more than 75 innocent men and women exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing. That total includes at least eight who were condemned to death row.
The measure also cites the effectiveness of post-conviction DNA testing in leading to the apprehension of actual perpetrators of crimes, and says that making such testing available would not be unduly burdensome to the states.
While not binding on the states at this point, the language is a strong sign of an increasing sensitivity in Congress to fundamental flaws in the justice system as it operates today.
“This is a clear indication that the new Congress will give serious consideration to the pending Innocence Protection Act in the upcoming session,” said Ronald Weich, an NACDL member who has been especially forceful in urging inclusion of the DNA and capital-case language. Weich is outside counsel to the Justice Project, which advocates reform of death penalty procedures.
The findings by Congress in the authorization bill also include:
- That new procedures in DNA testing, which was not widely available in any form before 1994, allow for testing of minute samples and for more accurate results, meaning that definitive results can now be obtained in cases where previous tests were inconclusive.
- That current federal and state time limits on newly discovered evidence make it difficult to get post-conviction DNA testing.
- That most states have not adopted post-conviction DNA testing procedures.
- That “constitutional error” results when incompetent defense lawyers fail to present evidence of innocence or that the death penalty is unwarranted.
- That “fundamental due process and the speedy final resolution of judicial proceedings” requires quality representation for citizens accused of serious crimes.
Congress’ action comes in the wake of not having passed the more-comprehensive proposed Innocence Protection Act of 2000--also known as the Delahunt-LaHood bill, for its sponsors in the House of Representatives, Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Ray LaHood (R-Ill.)--this session. That bill includes provisions which would make mandatory the post-conviction DNA testing and capital defense reforms favored by Congress in the current bill. It also calls for limits on reparations to the wrongfully convicted to be raised to $500,000 in death penalty cases and $250,000 in non-death penalty cases, among other provisions.
“The Innocence Protection Act is one of the key fairness reforms we’d like to see the new Congress pass,” said Mallett, a criminal defense lawyer in Houston. “We’re very pleased to see, at this time, such a strong indication that Congress is willing to guide the states toward these simple but necessary reforms.”
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