DNA testing bill hopes to end wrongful conviction

DNA testing of defendants prior to trial may soon be required if Senate bill 1292 gets passed.

SB 1292 was recently written and introduced by Democratic Senator Rodney Ellis (TX, District 13). SB 1292 requires the DNA testing of defendants who are accused of committing certain capital cases prior to being tried, in an attempt to avoid wrongful conviction.

Currently, the bill has support from both partiesùwritten by a democrat and approved by the republican attorney general.

According to the Director of the Sam Houston State University Student Legal & Mediation Services, Ralph Roberts Jr., support from both ends of the spectrum gives the bill a good chance of becoming a law.

“The fundamental purpose of our criminal justice system is to seek justice,” Roberts said. “If this bill provides prosecutors and defense attorneys with a tool that can be used to make sure that justice is being servedùthat is, only the guilty are convictedùthen I cannot think of a reason why this bill should not be passed, especially given the bipartisan support it is recieving.”

According to Roberts, this bill is not just an option, but it is a vital necessity to upholding the integrity of the United States criminal justice system.

“The death penalty is the only punishment that, if a mistake is made, nothing can be done to make the wrongfully accused whole,” he said. “That’s why the attorneys in death penalty-eligible cases have to meet stringent criteria and why the court system makes every effort to review these convictions in the appellate process. The sponsors of the bill say that it will help to make sure that those who are guilty of crimes are convicted and that the innocent are not subject to deprivation of their liberty.”

According to Roberts, although the passage of this bill will affect the entire country, it will also present the community of Huntsville, as well as SHSU, with a unique opportunity to continue its leadership in the Texas criminal justice system.

“If this bill becomes law, I suspect that we will need individuals who are uniquely trained to test and make conclusions about DNA and other biological evidence,” Roberts said. “The state will need these individuals, as will defense counsel. I believe that Sam Houston will continue to lead the state in training individuals who will have the education, training and insight to make sure that our criminal justice system not only seeks justice, but is just.”

Assistant Professor of the philosophy dept. Diana Buccafurni-Huber said she is still undecided about her vote on this bill due to some vagueness it holds.

“This bill seems to be motivated by good intentions,” she said. “Conviction of the innocent is certainly something we want to avoid. However, it is not clear that the crimes for which the bill is proposed are the kinds of crimes for which DNA ought to be requiredùsuch as forgery. But, if conviction of the innocent is something we want to avoid, then I suppose it can be the case that DNA samples are justified.”

Although she agrees that DNA testing is a reliable resource, Buccafurni-Huber said she is not so keen to claim its applicability to all crimes.
“I think requiring DNA evidence is certainly required for criminal homicide like capital murder,” Buccafurni-Huber said. “I think such evidence is better in terms of quality versus some of the other evidence that is called uponùevidence that has shown to be unreliable such as false confessions and mistaken eyewitness testimonies. Expanding the scope of crimes for which DNA is required, though, I am not yet convinced is justified.”

Thirty-five of the 50 states allow capital punishment with Texas being the leader in death penalty executions with 492. According to The Bureau of Justice Statistics, a total of 1,226 executions have occurred in the U.S. since 1976. Additionally, 130 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.

Roberts said with the advances in science and technology today, the justice system has an obligation to its citizens to use these tools to their full-advantage.

“We now have the technology to test biological samples that are found at crime scenes, and just as fingerprints were once new science, but generally speaking widely accepted today, I think that DNA testing will be widely accepted, if it’s not already,” Roberts said.

Not only will the bill help in preserving the innocence of those who truly are guilt-free, but according to Roberts, if passed, it may also save time and money, the average cost of a death penalty case is $2.4 million according to the Bureau of Justice.

“This bill may also help save the court system from costly and time-consuming appeals because DNA testing will take place early in the justice process and not as an appeal point later in the process,” he said. “But most importantly, it can help to increase the likelihood that the guilty are punished and the innocent are free.”

However perfect this bill may seem, Roberts said there are also a few concerns it raises.

“One item that needs to be carefully examined is the quality and integrity of the DNA testing labs,” Roberts said. “Unfortunately, we’ve heard several stories recently of labs where tests were either falsified or not undertaken. We need to make sure that processes are in place so that Texas doesn’t experience what’s recently happened in Massachusetts.”
A recent scandal recently reported in Massachusetts involved a crime lab technician was found falsifying test results and tampering with evidence. As a result, several of the prosecutions were thrown out due to the unreliable results and the lab technician is now being accused of falsifying test results in as many as 34,000 cases.

The bill was filed March 7 and came out of the Senate Committee of Criminal Justice on April 11 with four affirmative votes, three absentees and zero opposing votes. However, the bill still needs to go through 5 stages before it can become a law: voted on by senate, out of house committee, voted on by house, governor action, becomes a law.

Ellis did not reply by press time.

If passed, the bill will take effect Sept. 1, 2013.

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