Texas provided inmates with a process for access to post-conviction testing of DNA evidence in 2001, in large measure due to a problematic case that received media attention. Even with the vehicle of a Chapter 64 motion for testing written in law, testing was not automatic. In situations where district attorneys opposed post-conviction testing, district judges routinely rejected those motions.
Texas has seen enough exonerations and problems, by now, that Texas law has been revised and attitudes have changed. Michael Morton's exoneration, after the district attorney fought DNA testing for six years, is one of many cases that contributed to those changes. This is one area where Texas' problems caused real change in Texas law and practices over the years.
"Lawyers, Saying DNA Cleared Inmate, Pursue Access to Data," is Ethan Bronner's report in today's New York Times showing that there needs to be widespread reform of state DNA testing laws.
Convicted of robbing and raping an 83-year-old woman, Joseph A. Buffey at 19 was no one’s idea of a choirboy. A marijuana smoker and high school dropout, he was out thieving on the night in question 11 years ago and broke into the Salvation Army near the woman’s home to steal the bell-ringing money.
He confessed to the rape and was sentenced to 70 years in the maximum security prison here in southern West Virginia where road names end in “Hollow” and “Creek” and coal is king. But for much of the past decade he has claimed that he was pressed into the confession and a plea deal by the police and his lawyer. He said he never entered the victim’s home, never touched her.
After years of being ignored, Mr. Buffey recently learned that DNA tests from intimate material at the crime scene establish with certainty the identity of the rapist: another man incarcerated at a different state prison who had a history of assaulting women.
If proceedings go as his lawyers hope, Mr. Buffey’s story will be one more in the several hundred exonerations nationwide brought about partly by new DNA techniques, many involving false confessions. But it took 18 months of litigation to get the state to test the DNA against its database of felons, and Mr. Buffey’s lawyers say his case is therefore something more: proof that laws are needed to remove the databases from the exclusive grip of prosecutors and law enforcement to make them available to defense lawyers.
“There is incredible exculpatory power in the databases that the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on over the years,” said Nina Morrison, a senior lawyer in the case. “But law enforcement runs the databases, and even when you go to court to force their hand, they throw up roadblocks. And judges say they don’t have the power to force them.”
Steven Benjamin, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said getting access to these databases was a major concern and one that is on the agenda of his group’s winter meeting next month in Washington.
“This is a national problem, a huge and recurring one,” he said. “Juries expect the defense to be able to prove that if your client didn’t do it, who did? Science doesn’t belong to the government, but they act like it does. Unless the defense is given access to this information, the playing field remains uneven in criminal justice.”
Almost every state has a law permitting some post-conviction DNA testing (although the Supreme Court has ruled that it is not a constitutional right). But only nine — Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas — have laws granting defendants access to the DNA databases, known as the Combined DNA Index System, or Codis.
Many legal experts, even some prosecutors, think that number needs to be greatly expanded as states and the federal government increase the size of the databases.
Related posts are in the DNA category index.