Monday, 24 March 2008

Are legislators up to the test?

Are legislators up to the test?

Monday, March 24, 2008

THE ISSUE: Alabama is one of only a handful of states without a law to help wrongly convicted people get access to DNA testing. Our Legislature should change that.

People convicted of crimes before DNA science had been developed ought to have access to testing now if it could prove their innocence.

Unfortunately, Alabama does not make it easy for them to do so.

It is one of only seven states without a law setting up a process for prisoners to get belated DNA testing of the evidence used to convict them.

For several years running, state Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, has introduced a bill that would establish a legal procedure for inmates to get DNA tests. This year is no exception. But as in past years, the measure doesn't appear to be a big priority for our lawmakers. That's a shame.

Providing inmates a forum to prove their innocence isn't a way to coddle criminals. It's a way to ensure the right people are locked up for the right crimes. If one person is wrongly convicted of a crime, it stands to reason that another person has wrongly escaped punishment for it.

Across the nation, more than 100 inmates have been cleared of crimes through DNA testing long after their trials. In a number of these cases, DNA testing not only cleared an innocent person, but implicated a repeat offender whose DNA already was on file.

It's such a win-win that people might think courts routinely order DNA testing in old cases even without a special law making it available. But that's not true. There are sometimes legal roadblocks to doing so, and prosecutors almost always resist letting inmates get DNA testing on old evidence.

Even in death penalty cases, there has been a reluctance to grant DNA tests. Gov. Bob Riley, who has special power to intervene in those cases, has shown no willingness whatsoever to consider condemned inmates' pleas for DNA testing.

In the case of Death Row inmate Thomas Arthur, for instance, Riley has seemed to run through a series of excuses not to order DNA testing - none of which hold up to close scrutiny.

Attorney General Troy King also routinely opposes such requests, usually arguing there's no doubt about a particular defendant's guilt. So why not do the test and confirm it?

The DNA law would at least somewhat remove the decision from politics and politicians who are always so fearful to appear soft on crime. If they are truly interested in seeing justice done, they should be leading the charge for the Legislature to pass a law clearing the way for DNA testing in old cases.

There would almost certainly be no crush of inmates demanding and getting DNA tests.

First of all, the law would have no effect on cases not involving biological evidence such as semen or blood. Second, inmates who want DNA testing would have to claim they are innocent and would be subject to perjury prosecution if they were found to be lying. Third, inmates would have to meet several other criteria to win court approval for DNA testing.

Judges don't have to grant DNA testing, for instance, if they determine there is no "reasonable possibility" the inmate would be exonerated.

The structure is sound on every measure, and the goal is an honorable one. Who knows? It might not result in a single exoneration. But at least Alabamians would have more confidence they're not paying to keep innocent people behind bars for want of a DNA test that could clear them.

The issue is in the hands of legislators. Let's hope they are up to the test.

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