Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Group Calls for Extension of Post-Conviction DNA Testing Law

The Innocence Project--a nationwide organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system--is calling on the Michigan Senate to extend Michigan's post-conviction DNA testing law. The extension has been passed in the Michigan House of Representatives but has stalled in the Senate.

The DNA testing law allows prisoners in Michigan access to DNA testing in order to prove their innocence. The law--which is set to expire on January 1, 2009--has exonerated two individuals who were wrongly convicted. Nathaniel Hatchett served ten years in prison for a rape that he did not commit, while another,Kenneth Wyniemko served nine years for a rape that he did not commit. Both were released after DNA testing proved their innocence.

In addition to seeking an extension of the sunset provision in Michigan's law--extending it to 2012--the bill would make additional changes to the DNA testing law including:

* Removing a restriction allowing only those serving a prison sentence to get testing, so that people on parole or people who have completed their sentences may file for DNA testing to clear their names (and be removed from parole or sex offender registries for crimes they did not commit).

* Allowing access to DNA testing for those who have pled guilty. Of the 220 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing nationwide, 25% of those resulted from false admissions.

* Clarifying that prosecutors can order retesting in a case only if the sample of evidence is large enough for additional testing to be conducted. (Currently, the law requires retesting without recognizing that the biological evidence sample is sometimes so small that only one round of testing can be conducted.)

In order to pressure the Michigan Senate, the Innocence Project has facilitated an online campaign to send letters to the Senate's Judiciary Committee asking that they move the legislation before the Senate's recess.

Nationwide, forty-three states have post-conviction DNA testing laws. Of those laws, only eight--including Michigan's--have sunset provisions. According to the Innocence Project, there have been 221 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States. The average length of time that the exonerated served was 12 years and 17 of the 221 were on death row. Reflecting the biased nature of the United States criminal justice system, 136 of those were African-Americans.

The Innocence Project also points out that these wrongful convictions are not just "mistakes," but rather, they are based on significant flaws in the criminal justice system. For example, "limited, unreliable or fraudulent forensic science" has played a role in 65% of wrongful convictions, while false confessions and incriminating statements play a role in 25% of cases. Testimony from jailhouse informants or "snitches" contributed to wrongful convictions in 15% of cases.

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