The continued lack of standard policies in the states for post-conviction DNA testing is troubling. It is time for states to act. With so many exonerations across the country proving that our criminal justice system is broken, post-conviction DNA testing offers the unique opportunity to correct mistakes and help make our criminal justice system more fair and reliable. Public safety is served when the correct person is held responsible for his or her crimes. Post-conviction DNA testing helps boost the public’s confidence in the accuracy and reliability of the criminal justice system. Yet, few states have adopted standards and prosecutors often fight to deny access to such testing.
In recent months, the discussion around the right to access to DNA testing has been heating up. In March, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of District Attorney's Office v. William G. Osborne, where the Court addresses the issue of whether a prisoner has a right to post-conviction DNA testing. In recent weeks, the New York Times and Boston Globe have highlighted cases in which prosecutors are resistant to allowing inmates access to DNA testing that may prove their innocence. Each of these cases represents an opportunity for states to step forward and adopt standardized procedures.
Only thirteen states follow the model laid out in the Innocence Protection Act (IPA), which provides federal funding to states that enact laws for access to testing and preservation of biological evidence. Passed in 2004, the IPA proposed a uniform national standard for access to DNA testing. If all states adopted the IPA model, which would standardize procedures for obtaining access to post-conviction DNA testing, the criminal justice system would be fairer and more reliable.
For example, The Justice Project recently released a report on thirty-nine DNA cases of wrongful conviction in Texas. Collectively, these thirty-nine innocent men served almost 500 years for crimes they did not commit. The report, Convicting the Innocent: Texas Justice Derailed, highlights their cases and in many cases shows the difficult process many of them had to navigate to obtain access to post-conviction DNA testing. Often times, it is through a series of miracles that innocent people have been able to obtain DNA testing. Standardized procedures contribute to a more accurate and fair criminal justice system.
Without the commitment of state leaders, the discussion about post-conviction DNA testing will simply remain a discussion. States need to recognize the value of post-conviction DNA testing in allowing the innocent a claim for relief. In 2004, the federal government passed the IPA to protect the innocent and help make the criminal justice system more fair and accurate. All states should follow suit.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.