DNA Testing Reform Legislation Long Overdue
NACDL Applauds Sen. Leahy’s Initiative
Washington, DC (February 11, 2000) -- Legislation designed to remedy wrongful convictions and reform the capital punishment justice system earned high marks from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).
The “Innocence Protection Act,” introduced today by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) offers long overdue changes that will pave the way for the vindication of some who have been wrongfully convicted and improve the quality of counsel for indigent defendants who make up the overwhelming majority of individuals facing the death penalty.
Senator Leahy’s bill would ensure that individuals who were wrongfully convicted of any crime have access to the DNA evidence that may exonerate them and to the courts so that their claims can be heard. The proposed legislation would require that biological evidence be preserved for a period of time sufficient to allow prisoners to request a DNA to be considered by a court. DNA testing facilities will also be subject to proficiency testing to prevent flawed or rigged results.
The American public is now learning that many men and women were sentenced to death after being represented by lawyers who were incompetent, some of whom literally slept during the trial or came to court drunk. Too often these gross injustices occur because states that impose capital punishment have no public defender and have failed to adopt qualification standards for appointed attorneys or pay for an adequate defense.
“Sen. Leahy is to be commended for this timely and critically needed legislation,” said NACDL president William B. Moffitt. “In this last decade, DNA tests proved that 69 people who were sent to prison and death row were in fact, innocent. Other wrongly convicted individuals have been victims of a flawed justice system that allowed attorneys to sleep through proceedings or otherwise bungle a case due to lack of experience or lack of funding to adequately prepare for a case,” he said.
Sen. Leahy’s legislation provides federal funding opportunities for states that establish a system of competent legal representation for indigents at every phase of criminal prosecution in which the death penalty has been sought or imposed. The federal monies will be available only if states adopt a program that ensures that defense lawyers meet performance standards, receive adequate compensation and have the tools to properly investigate their cases.
“There is no telling how many innocent people have already been executed in this country. But the disturbing pattern in states like Texas, which have taken a ‘devil-may-care,’ assembly-line approach to capital punishment, clearly underscores the need for judicial safeguards,” Moffitt said.
According to NACDL board member Barry Scheck, “For all the gigabytes of crime statistics kept in the United States, no account is taken of the innocent person, wrongfully convicted, ultimately exonerated. The moment has come to do so.”
Scheck is the author, along with Jim Dywer and Peter Neufeld, of Actual Innocence, a soon to be published, page-turning account of stories of wrongfully convicted individuals and needed reforms in the judicial system.