NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 19, 2008

Since the early 1990s, DNA testing has exonerated 220 people in the United States who were convicted of crimes they didn't commit and as the science of DNA testing improves, labs can go further and further back in time to test even damaged and partially decomposed DNA evidence.  Even partial tests -- which can identify just a few genetic markers -- which aren't effective for establishing guilt, are useful in establishing innocence.

In fact, in jurisdictions where lawmakers and public officials are cooperating with innocence advocates and not blocking DNA testing, they're finding disturbingly high numbers of wrongful convictions, says Reason Magazine:

  • Dallas County, Texas, has traditionally maintained strict evidence preservation guidelines, and voters there recently elected a district attorney who supports post-conviction DNA testing; the county leads the country with 17 exonerations since 2001.
  • Yet half the states still don't have laws requiring the preservation of DNA evidence in rape and murder cases.
  • Criminal defense lawyers continue to find old cases where there may be real questions about guilt, and where DNA testing could establish innocence, but where testing is impossible because prosecutors either destroyed or failed to properly preserve biological evidence.
  • While lawmakers profess concern about wrongful convictions and willingness to fund further DNA testing, such proposals often get attached to broader criminal justice bills with more objectionable provisions.

Nor is legislation always implemented appropriately, says Reason.  In 2004, Congress passed the Justice for All Act, which appropriated $14 million to the Justice Department for distribution to the states to pay for DNA testing in possible cases of wrongful convictions.  As of January 2008, the Justice Department hadn't distributed a dime. 

Source: Radley Balko, "Innocence Denied," Reason, December 2008.

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