"Senate Passes DNA Bill," is the title of Jordan Smith's post for the Austin Chronicle.
The Texas Senate today passed a measure to increase access to post-conviction DNA testing.
The bill, Senate Bill 122, by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, was among the measures recommended by the Tim Cole Advisory Panel, convened after the last session to look at improvements to Texas' criminal justice system that might prevent future wrongful convictions like that of Tim Cole, who was convicted of a rape he did not commit and died in prison before he could clear his name.
Current law allows for post-conviction DNA testing but confines such testing to cases only where testing wasn't previously available; if the evidence was previously tested the statute would allow additional testing, but only in certain circumstances, like that the failure to test was "no fault of the convicted person" – a legal term of art that is directly implicated in the Hank Skinner death case that recently went to the Supreme Court. (More on that case can be found here.)
Ellis' measure would require post-conviction DNA testing if the evidence wasn't previously tested or if it was but newer testing techniques give rise to a likelihood that testing it again would provide results that are "more accurate and probative than the previous test results." Moreover, the bill would require courts to order any unidentified DNA profile to be compared to DNA databases maintained by the FBI and by the Department of Public Safety.
"Under current law, innocence is often being left to chance," Ellis said in a press release. "Strengthening Texas' post-conviction DNA law is an essential measure to improve justice in Texas."
"DNA testing bill advances," by Mike Ward for the Austin American-Statesman.
Under existing law, post-conviction DNA testing is often not performed if the issue was not raised at trial. Post-conviction DNA tests can be granted only if testing was not available at trial, if testing was not technologically capable of proving guilt or innocence, or was not tested through no fault of the convicted person.
Ellis said that based on Texas’ many wrongful convictions, discovered through DNA tests, evidence should be tested in any case where there is any doubt “in the interests of justice.”
Recent court decisions and an exoneration in Houston involving Ricardo Rachell have demonstrated the flaws in Texas’ DNA law, Ellis said.
Rachell was exonerated in Houston in 2008 after six years in prison for a child sexual assault that DNA tests later showed he did not commit.
The bill requires post-conviction DNA testing if the biological evidence was not previously tested or if the biological evidence was previously tested but can be subjected to newer testing techniques that provide a reasonable likelihood that the results will be more accurate and probative than the previous test results.
Christy Hoppe writes, "Senate bill makes DNA tests easier for inmates to obtain," for the Dallas Morning News.
Convicted offenders would have a clearer ability to seek testing of DNA material in their cases to prove their innocence under a bill passed by the full Senate on Wednesday.
Under currently law, the courts can deny post-conviction testing if the offenders at the time of their trials had an opportunity to test DNA but chose not to. Sometimes defense attorneys are hesitant to seek DNA tests because they fear it could lead to more evidence against their clients.
After the conviction, the concern has been that there's nothing for the offender to lose in seeking the testing, and such requests could lead to wasted time and expense.
In the San Antonio Express-News Bobby Cervantes writes, "Changes to post-conviction DNA win Senate approval."
Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, filed a companion bill in the House, and it was left pending after a committee hearing in February.
"Senate Approves Easing Restrictions on DNA Testing," by Becca Aaronson for the Texas Tribune.
If DNA testing is used to exonerate a prisoner, the bill also has a provision requiring the DNA profile to be compared to the federal CODIS DNA database to help find the actual perpetrator.
The bill could have serious implications for prisoners who claim DNA evidence could prove their innocence, such as with Hank Skinner, a death row inmate who recently won a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing him to pursue post-conviction DNA testing in federal court. Ellis said DNA testing would help Texas identify innocent death row inmates before they are executed.
Senate Bill122 is one of the recommendations of the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions. It's report is in Adobe .pdf format.
Earlier coverage of the package of legislation designed to minimize the risk of wrongful convictions begins at the link.