End the absurd bureaucracy around DNA testing

by admin 18. September 2014 20:43

Given the incredible power of DNA to exonerate the innocent and expose the guilty, it's alarming that a mountain of red tape still impedes its use.

This new forensic tool has been a game-changer for our criminal justice system, exonerating more than 300 people nationwide. One of them was New Jersey's own Gerard Richardson, an Elizabeth man who spent 19 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.

He finally won his freedom last year, and today, he'll be in Trenton with his lawyer from the Innocence Project, to tell Senate lawmakers why it's so crucial to pass a bill that fixes our state's DNA testing laws.

Two big problems continue to ruin innocent lives and let the guilty walk free: First, it's too difficult to use DNA test results from private laboratories to reveal the true perpetrator of a crime. Second, it's virtually impossible for an ex-con who still swears he's innocent to get DNA testing.

On the first issue, Richardson speaks from personal experience. Even after DNA evidence cleared him in a 1995 murder, he remained stuck in prison for months, as the prosecutor dragged his feet on admitting the mistake. Richardson's lawyer sought to hasten his release by demonstrating that DNA traces implicated a different person. But she was unable to run that DNA sample through law enforcement's forensic database to see if there was a hit.

Had she been able to name the real murderer, it would have sped up the exoneration process. But red tape surrounding the use of DNA tests from private laboratories made that impossible.

This is not only a problem for the wrongly imprisoned, it's a threat to public safety. In 153 of the nation’s 316 DNA exonerations, the true perpetrator was later identified, many times through this database -- and in most cases, that person had gone on to commit other crimes, including more than 30 murders and 70 sexual assaults.

We've got to catch guilty people immediately. This bill proposed in the Senate would help do that, by making it easier to enter DNA test results from private laboratories into the national DNA databank, to settle claims of innocence and reveal the true perpetrator of the crime.

The same bill would also fix the second serious problem with our state's DNA law -- that it prohibits testing for anyone who is not currently in custody. This means that if you've already done your prison time, you have no way to prove your innocence, even if you offer to pay for DNA testing yourself.

The crime scene evidence is in state custody, and will only be released to a defendant who is currently in prison. What sense does that make? Your prison time may be behind you, but your reputation is still ruined and your job prospects are dismal. This is particularly problematic for people who remain on the state's sex offender registry. If they have no way to prove their innocence, how can they move on with their lives?

Lawmakers should vote yes on this bill, because the costs of both fixes is minimal. If an in-person site inspection is necessary for a private laboratory, the defendant can pay the travel costs. And allowing ex-cons to get DNA testing affects only a small number of people -- after all, if you're no longer in custody, you have little incentive to seek DNA testing if you're guilty.

As Richardson will testify, the very least we owe the innocent is a fresh start.

Newark Star-Ledger Editorial


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