B'ham News, New DNA law is a mixed bag!
OUR VIEW: Alabama has a new law expanding the state's DNA database and setting up a process for Death Row inmates to get DNA tests on old evidence
Posted by bblalock June 01, 2009 02:01AM
One bill that survived this past legislative session allows the state to collect DNA samples from people at the point of a felony arrest rather than upon conviction -- and provides a way for those convicted of capital crimes to get old evidence tested for DNA.
Gov. Bob Riley signed the legislation, so it's official. But the law is a mixed bag.
It's good lawmakers saw fit to offer relief to those who were convicted of at least some crimes before DNA testing was adapted for law enforcement uses. Alabama was one of the very last states in the country to adopt a law that provides after-the-fact DNA testing in criminal cases.
But not all DNA access laws are equal, a fact noted by the Innocence Project, which has used the scientific method to exonerate more than 200 people across the country.
Whether or not you put stock in the Innocence Project's standards, Alabama's law is limited on several fronts.
First, it applies only to inmates who were convicted of capital offenses, a group that includes those on Death Row. The Department of Forensic Sciences, which pushed for the passage of this bill, argued it couldn't handle all the old cases at one time. Its preference was to start with those convicted of the most serious crimes and later expand the law to those convicted of other crimes.
The argument makes sense on some levels, but not so much if you put yourself in the place of someone sitting in prison for, say, a rape he didn't commit. Who among us would be happy to wait to clear our names until the "more serious" injustices were rectified?
Even for those with capital convictions, the law includes a number of caveats that some experts believe will make it too hard for inmates to get DNA tests. "You have a better chance of getting it now," said Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which represents a number of people on Death Row.
Some of those limitations are necessary. It doesn't serve anyone's interests, for instance, to have someone whose case didn't even involve biological evidence gumming up the process. But the law shouldn't put up unreasonable barriers to DNA testing, either.
Alabama's law, among other things, requires petitioners to show the identity of the guilty party was "at issue in the trial that resulted in the conviction." Which sounds fine, until you remember DNA technology has been used to clear people in a wide range of circumstances, including those who confessed and/or pleaded guilty to crimes.
The goal shouldn't be to restrict testing, but to make it available in every case in which it could prove innocence or guilt. After all, if an innocent person is being held responsible for a crime, a guilty person is getting away scot-free.
The hope is that will be less likely to happen with this law than without it. All the same, the Legislature should be prepared and willing to make revisions to ensure those who are innocent are able to prove it.