DNA Legislation Hits Snags

by on September 13th, 2004

Efforts to pass the so-called Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology Act have hit roadblocks: despite significant bipartisan support for the bill in both the House and the Senate, it appears caught in political wrangling over issues of compensating those wrongly convicted of crimes, possible frivolous appeals, and the chance that it might – horror of horrors – somehow “undermine” the death penalty system.

Here’s the skinny on the bill itself:

The bill includes provisions to authorize $755 million toward testing the backlog of more than 300,000 rape kits and other crime scene evidence currently awaiting analysis. The bill also would provide $500 million in grants to help make federal, state and local crime laboratories more efficient in conducting DNA analysis. These funds would also be used to train examiners and promote the use of DNA technology to identify missing persons.

Another section of the bill would allow for the authorization of $25 million over five years to help states pay the costs of post-conviction DNA testing.

Interesting note: according to the Innocence Project, 151 death row inmates have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA evidence. In a society that at least professes the belief that it is better for the guilty to go free than for the innocent to be punished, that’s a lot of mistakes and lost years. Clearly, DNA evidence appears highly probative, if not conclusive (nothing, as they say, is 100% accurate). It hardly seems controversial to suggest that DNA testing should be utilized whenever appropriate to help prove guilt, especially where the other evidence is largely circumstantial or contested.

States have clearly been a bit lax in funding broad-based DNA testing initiatives; one would think that the state level would be where funding would be most appropriate. After all, the individual states are responsible for prosecuting the majority of DNA-related crimes (such as rape, for example). There are times when federal legislation like this bothers me simply because it seems as though it expands the national government’s role into yet another area which had been intended to be handled by the states themselves.

That said, necessity is frequently the mother of invention, or at the very least, of legislation. One woman lobbying for passage of the bill said she had to wait six years for DNA testing of her “rape kit,” which meant six years of turmoil before her attacker was identified and convicted (please note, however, that DNA testing still requires some possible “target” in order to verify a match: there’s still no centralized database of everybody’s DNA, no matter what John Ashcroft or victim’s rights advocates might want). The point, however, is that the money isn’t there on a state level, and it is perhaps easier for the federal government to supply the funds.

The problem seems to be in the details. For example, there are two sticky areas: one which allows for convicted offenders to prove their innocence through DNA testing, and the other which calls for “compensation” of those who are in fact able to clear their names. I’m not certain about the compensation angle: while I understand the motivation, that seems a bit open-ended and makes me somewhat leery. And while I understand that prisons are full of innocent men, I really wonder how many would leap at the chance to have their guilt or innocence “verified” by DNA testing: it might make the protestations of innocence a bit more difficult for some.

Perhaps my biggest issue with the “objections” to the bill comes in this statement:

“[P]roponents of capital punishment believe it may undermine the death penalty system.”

What a crock. The death penalty system in this country is fundamentally flawed right now for two principal reasons. First, because prosecutorial discretion and other potential bias indicators mean that a disproportionate number of indigent or minority defendants end up on death row, while wealthier defendants (or white defendants) are able to escape the death penalty (or prison all together, if they’re able to hire the right legal team). Second, the system does not provide a fail-safe: as has been demonstrated time and again, it is inherently possible for innocent people to be executed for crimes they did not commit. I personally don’t believe capital punishment is “cruel and unusual punishment” per se, but unless these two problem areas are addressed I don’t believe it is an appropriate remedy. DNA testing wouldn’t “undermine” the death penalty system; instead, it might actually offer a measure of certainty that we’re punishing the guilty, rather than the innocent.

Bill Wallo