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Landmark Session for Aiding the Wrongly Convicted

Lawmakers pass DNA testing bill two days after approving eyewitness ID reform.
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It’s been a rough session: A massive budget deficit, talk of closing schools and nursing homes, and divisive debates over sanctuary cities and voter ID. 

But there’s at least one policy area in which lawmakers are coming together to make meaningful reforms—criminal justice. 

The latest feel-good bill passed earlier today when Senate Bill 122 flew through the House uncontested. The legislation, authored by Sen. Rodney Ellis, will make it much easier for prisoners to access DNA testing. It could help wrongly convicted men prove their innocence and speed their release.  

The bill has already passed the Senate and now heads to the governor. 

“SB 122 will ensure that if there is DNA evidence available to prove someone’s innocence, it can and will be tested,” Ellis said in a statement.  “No longer will the door to justice be shut just because of a procedural error.”

A number of recent exonerees testified in support of the bill at committee hearings, arguing it could help free many wrongly convicted people still in prison. Under current law, prisoners who claim they’re innocent can request post-conviction DNA testing, but the testing is sometimes not granted. Under current law, DNA testing can be granted only if the evidence wasn’t available at trial. 

In several recent cases, including the famous Hank Skinner case, possibly innocent men had trouble accessing DNA evidence that was available at trial, but, for a variety of reasons, wasn’t tested. (In some instances, incompetent defense attorneys simply ignored DNA evidence at trial.) 

SB 122 would require post-conviction DNA testing if the evidence was either never examined or if newer testing techniques have emerged since the original trial. 

The passage of the DNA bill comes two days after lawmakers approved legislation to reform police lineups and reduce witness misidentifications that are the leading cause of wrongful convictions. 

Meanwhile, another Ellis bill—SB 1686 that would allow exonerees to receive health insurance from the state after their release—is close to final passage. 

In all, this is shaping up as a landmark session for preventing and rectifying (at least to the extent possible) the injustice of wrongful convictions.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.