WASHINGTON – A law enacted five yeas ago to ensure that innocent people are not convicted of crimes has worked but could be better,legal experts told the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday.
Sen. Patrick Leahy,D-Vt.,who first introduced the bill,chaired the hearing on how the law has been used and whether it should be renewed.
“We will rededicate ourselves to doing what we must to ensure that we have a criminal justice system where the innocent remain free,the guilty parties are punished and all sides have the tools,resources and knowledge they need to advance the cause of justice,” Leahy said.
The Innocence Protection Act provided money to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits,but the witnesses said it wasn't enough. The law also provided grants to improve prosecutions and legal representation for defendants.
Patricia R. Lykos,district attorney of Harris County Texas,which includes Houston,said the local crime laboratory can't handle the demand for DNA and other forensic testing.
“Felons go undetected and undeterred because reliable forensic capabilities are either scarce or unavailable to the criminal justice system,” Lykos said.
She said there are 5,000 untested rape kits and she would like to create a crime lab that is independent of the police department to avoid backlogs.
Andre de Gruy,director of the Mississippi Office of Capital Defense Counsel in Jackson,was able to conduct two training programs for lawyers and investigators through the grants,but still faces funding and justice disparities.
Although his office handles 15 to 20 death penalty cases a year,about 40 other indigent defendants charged with death penalty cases have to look elsewhere for lawyers,he said.
Mississippi has executed 10 people since 1983 and overturned 11 death-penalty convictions due to ineffective counsel,de Gruy said. He cited a recent study in his state that shows funding for prosecution was about twice the funding for defense.
These disparities,de Gruy said,”call into question the constitutionality of the criminal justice system in Mississippi and risk the conviction and execution of innocent people.”
According to the Innocence Project,245 innocent people have been exonerated by DNA testing since 1989.
The Innocence Protection Act created a post-conviction DNA testing program,which Keith A. Findley,co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project,would like to see expanded.
Findley said it was 2008 before states got any money for post-conviction DNA testing. He recommended that funds immediately flow to states for DNA testing and to preserve biological evidence or to establish a national network to address proper preservation of biological evidence.
Barry D. Matson,deputy directory of the Alabama District Attorney's Association,said the law should focus more on training individuals in the criminal justice system to avoid wrongful convictions,rather than overturning already decided cases.
“By fully funding prosecutors' offices and supporting specialized training,you will ensure that prosecutorial charging decisions as well as litigation be handled in a manner consistent with professionalism and fairness,” Matson said.
This could have helped Dewey Bozella,50,who was recently exonerated and released from a New York prison after 26 years. His case was complicated because the biological evidence had been destroyed.
“Dewey's story exemplifies the need for states to pass preservations statues,” said Ross Firsenbaum,who represented Bozella at no charge.
“The police destroyed physical evidence for Dewey's case in 2003. Had they not done so,the Innocence Project could have taken the case in 2006 and could have exonerated Dewey perhaps three years earlier than we were able to,” said Firsenbaum,who is with the WilmerHale law firm.
Firsenbaum eventually found evidence proving Bozella's innocence in a file kept by a retired police detective. Bozella said that reauthorization of the Innocence Protection Act will protect many people.
“Now,at least you get the chance to hear the true story of who really committed the murder,” said Bozella,who was 18 when he was accused of murdering a 96-year-old woman. “DNA testing is not only important because it can save someone's life,but it can also get the real guy who did the murder.”