DNA Testing Gets Mixed Support

drawing of DNA double helix
A bill to help catch rapists through more DNA testing received strong support at a House hearing Thursday, while another measure to increase testing of convicts claiming innocence was greeted with skepticism by the Justice Department.

The House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism, and homeland security is eyeing two measures that would increase federal funding for DNA testing. One bill, the Debbie Smith Act, is designed to clear a backlog of hundreds of thousands of sets of untested rape evidence.

The second, more contentious measure is a version of the Innocence Protection Act, aimed at ensuring DNA testing for convicts arguing new evidence will exonerate them, and also designed to provide effective legal counsel to suspects facing the death penalty.

Peter Neufeld, a criminal defense lawyer who founded the Innocence Project at the Benjamin Cardozo law school in New York, predicted passage of the Innocence Protection Act would double the number of prisoners cleared each year by DNA evidence.

There is wide support in Washington for helping local police departments reduce the backlog of untested rape kits, but the Justice Department is concerned giving inmates more access to DNA challenges could lead to a deluge of frivolous lawsuits from prisoners.

Neufeld argued both measures should be passed by Congress, because DNA testing varies widely state-to-state, and some prosecutors actively resist efforts to reopen old cases to new science.

Passing the Innocence Protection Act, "will certainly double the number of post-conviction exonerations," Neufeld said.

The bill's chief backer, Democratic Rep. William Delahunt of Massachusetts, a former prosecutor, said the nation "cannot tolerate a system in which chance plays such a profound role in determining whether a defendant lives or dies."

At least 132 Americans, twelve of them on death row, have been exonerated since DNA testing began. Last year, 20 people were exonerated based on DNA, Neufeld said.

Sarah Hart, a Justice Department official, cautioned that a new federal law encouraging more DNA testing of inmates could lead to a deluge of frivolous actions, forcing victims of rape and other crime to revisit the pain and fear of their experiences.

Neufeld said there was little danger of that, arguing, "most of the people in prison are guilty ... they know they're guilty and they don't want to go near the DNA test."

All sides voiced support for clearing out the backlog of untested rape kits, estimated to be as much as 350,000, scattered through police department storage shelves across the country.

The Bush administration has proposed a $1 billion, five-year program to reduce the backlog and boost crime lab capacity.

Debbie Smith, a rape victim whose attacker went unidentified for more than six years, said women should not have to wait in uncertainly while crucial case evidence sits untested for years.

The Debbie Smith Act would provide $300 million to states over five years to help clear the backlog.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., a proponent of the measure, noted the New York Police Department has managed to clear almost all of a 16,000-kit backlog, solving more than 150 cold cases in the process.

By Devlin Barrett