Improved access to DNA testing, standards for capital representation addressed in Innocence Protection Act
Legislation is first step in addressing numerous flaws in criminal justice system
Washington, DC (October 3, 2003) -- The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyer (NACDL) commends the sponsors of the Innocence Protection Act of 2003 for their commitment to ensuring greater accuracy and fairness in our criminal justice system. This legislation, which was introduced Wednesday as part of a larger DNA-related legislative package, sets reasonable standards for access to DNA evidence by wrongly convicted prisoners and seeks to encourage states to improve the quality of representation in death penalty cases.
E.E. "Bo" Edwards, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, today issued the following statement in response to introduction of the Innocence Protection Act:
These overdue reform measures recognize that DNA testing is a valuable forensic tool that must be used to free the innocent just as it is used to convict the guilty. Although DNA testing is only available in a narrow class of cases, it has proven to be a useful lens through which system-wide problems can be examined. The Innocence Protection Act takes a small, first step toward correcting one of the most serious problems facing our justice system: inadequate representation of citizens without money to hire counsel. Many states are failing miserably in their constitutional obligation to provide competent defense counsel to poor defendants. The problem is particularly acute in death penalty cases, where political pressure and emotional considerations often impair the proper functioning of our justice system.
We regret that the Act does not go further to redress the gross imbalance that exists between resources available to prosecutors as compared to resources available to defense counsel. Although Congress already gives hundreds of millions of dollars to state and local prosecutors, the Act requires that the newly authorized funds be allocated equally between capital defense and capital prosecution improvement purposes. Additionally, while competent counsel is the principle bulwark against wrongful convictions, there are many other steps that must be taken to reduce the risk of imprisoning or executing an innocent person. The eyewitness identification procedures used in most jurisdictions are prone to error and, despite many troubling cases of false confessions, most jurisdictions do not require that police interrogations be videotaped. NACDL urges policy-makers to more fully address the systemic problems that underlie wrongful convictions.
We are troubled by a provision in the larger DNA-related bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations in certain cases. Statutes of limitations ensure that individuals do not face the impossible task of mounting a defense to decades-old accusations, when evidence of innocence may no longer be available. To override this protection, the bill only requires that DNA testing “implicates an identified person,” regardless whether the DNA was recovered within the statute of limitations. This provision is at odds with the Innocence Protection Act''s purpose of preventing wrongful convictions and should be removed. A much better approach -- used in Wisconsin, New York, and elsewhere -- is to obtain from a magistrate a “John Doe” arrest warrant containing a DNA profile as a description of the suspect.
Edwards is a criminal defense lawyer in Nashville. He can be reached at (615) 356-5037. For more information on the Innocence Protection Act, visit www.nacdl.org/public.nsf/legislation/IPA.