Inmates slow to seek DNA testing under new law
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Under a new state law, inmates in California who believe they were wrongfully convicted can use DNA testing to prove their innocence.
But the law went into effect Jan. 1, and prisoners have not exactly been knocking down the doors of the state’s crime labs.
Only 30 or so of the state’s 160,000 inmates have formally sought testing, according to the attorney general’s office. And none of those requests has yet been approved.
The low number may reflect the narrowness of the law, which is carefully worded to limit frivolous claims. It also could be due to a lack of awareness behind bars about the availability of testing.
Lawrence Brown, executive director of the California District Attorneys Association, said he wasn’t surprised by the initially low numbers.
”It was never anticipated that we’d have particularly large numbers of these motions filed at any given time,” he said. ”We’re going on the assumption this is an innocent person who has been incarcerated now seeking DNA testing. I don’t think there’s going to be large numbers of such inmates that exist.”
And advocates agree that proving one’s innocence with DNA testing is tougher than it sounds.
”DNA evidence is only available for use in cases where there was biological evidence left at the scene that was preserved,” said Kathleen Ridolfi, who runs the Northern California Innocence Project, which helps inmates maneuver through the state’s complicated legal system.
”Most are rape cases or maybe a homicide where there was a great struggle, and the occasional property crime where a cigarette butt may have been left,” she said. ”But, in most cases, biological evidence does not exist and those innocent people cannot be helped.”
Several hundred inmates have sent letters asking for help, she said.
”I would venture to say that (California) may have up to 1,000 inmates asking to be considered,” she said.
The law, authored by Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, requires inmates to show that the tests would raise a ”reasonable probability” of a different verdict had the DNA results been available at the time of conviction.
To get a judge to order the testing, inmates must demonstrate that the identity of the perpetrator was or should have been disputed during the trial. They also must explain why such testing could lead to exoneration.
In the past decade, 88 inmates have been freed from U.S. prisons after new DNA tests proved their innocence. Ten were on death row. Four were from California.
Many of those cases were brought by the Innocence Project, which was founded in 1992 by attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld to help free the wrongfully convicted. Scheck and Neufeld later used their expertise as part of the O.J. Simpson defense team.
About 20 states have laws giving inmates the right to request genetic tests that could prove their innocence. While it always has been possible to present new evidence that turns up after a conviction, these laws specifically acknowledge the value of DNA evidence and make testing more acccessible.
”Without this language, (testing) would have been possible under existing judicial doctrines dealing with new evidence,” said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. ”This established a whole new set of those rules.”
Despite the slow start, Lockyer’s office says it’s prepared for more requests with about $1.3 million in next year’s budget to handle paperwork and to pay for testing.
”We don’t know what to expect,” Barankin said. ”There are Innocence Projects out there that are working very hard to identify good cases and they tell us they plan to screen out bad cases. We don’t know what they’ll find.”
On the Net:
Northern California Innocence Project: http://www.truthinjustice.org/ips.htm
California District Attorneys Association: http://www.cdaa.org
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