Some Worry Over a Law to Increase DNA Testing

by jeeg 19. August 2013 22:05

In some Texas counties, it takes six months or longer to get DNA test results from the Department of Public Safety, says William Lee Hon, the Polk County criminal district attorney.

Now, Mr. Hon and other prosecutors fear that come Sept. 1, when a new law takes effect requiring DNA analysis of all biological evidence in death penalty cases, the wait could grow longer. “We’re not sure that D.P.S. has the resources currently to adequately comply with that legislation,” he said.

In Texas, there have been 54 exonerations based on DNA test results, including those of two inmates on death row, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Lawmakers this year approved Senate Bill 1292, written by Senator Rodney Ellis, Democrat of Houston, which aims to prevent wrongful convictions. Many prosecutors say that the bill may go too far, and that the pursuit of testing in some cases could be used to delay a conviction.

Tom Vinger, a safety department spokesman, said it was too early to predict the law’s impact. Mr. Ellis, who is the board chairman of the Innocence Project, which is dedicated to using DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, said that if the state sought the death penalty, expedience should not take priority over certainty.

“If you’re going to ask for the death penalty,” he said, “you ought to be confident that you have the right person.”

The bill’s champions include Attorney General Greg Abbott, the leading Republican candidate for governor, who said the measure would save Texas years of appeals.

“There’s no reason to test these items more than a decade after the crime was committed,” Mr. Abbott said in March. “The family of the victim shouldn’t have to go through this time after time.”

Mr. Abbott cited the case of Hank Skinner, a death row inmate who was convicted in 1995 of killing his girlfriend and her two adult sons. Mr. Skinner said he was unconscious at the time of the crime.

He started asking for DNA testing in 2000. Less than an hour before he was to be executed, in 2010, the United States Supreme Court delayed his punishment. Mr. Abbott’s office agreed in 2012 to the testing, which is still not complete.

Kathryn Kase, the executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents death row inmates, said the law would help prevent investigators from homing in on one suspect and inadvertently ignoring evidence that could implicate others.

“When a crime is being investigated, the most important search is the search for objective evidence,” Ms. Kase said.

While additional testing may require more time, Bobby D. Mims, the president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said certainty would improve the system.

“A rush to judgment is never good and beneficial to the justice system,” Mr. Mims said.

Mr. Hon said prosecutors agree that testing to verify the identity of a killer is worth the time and expense. But, he said, prosecutors worry that defense lawyers will ask for testing in cases where the killer’s identity is not in question.

He said that for rural communities like his that rely on the safety department’s labs, additional testing could delay trials.


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