Gov. Brown signs bill to expand prisoner DNA testing

Gov. Brown signs bill to expand prisoner DNA testing

brown signing water bondWrongly convicted prisoners received a glimmer of hope Thursday from a new law that could help prove their innocence.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 980, by state Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, which expands access to DNA testing for prisoners who are searching to prove their innocence.

Since 1989, 311 U.S. prisoners have received post-conviction exonerations with the help of DNA testing. Most of those convictions have occurred in the last 14 years as DNA science has improved.

“This new law will protect those for whom justice has fallen short,” Lieu said in a press release announcing the governor’s signature. “These DNA-exoneration cases have provided irrefutable proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events, but arise from systemic defects that can be precisely identified and addressed.”

SB980: More testing, more disclosure

Sponsored by the California Innocence Project and the Northern California Innocence Project, SB980 clarifies existing law to grant prisoners access to DNA testing, even when the testing would not definitely prove innocence. Beginning Jan. 1, law enforcement agencies will be required to disclose more information about the existence of biological evidence as well as give more notice before the destruction of evidence.

Alex Simpson, associate director of the California Innocence Project, said that the new law will help aid those in their quest for justice.

“Many of these people served decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit,” Simpson said. “SB980 would help ensure that innocent people get access to evidence that can prove their innocence.”

Innocence Project: Most cynical of all about wrongful convictions

The California Innocence Project, part of the California Western School of Law in San Diego, has helped secure the release of 11 inmates in California prisons. You might think such a project is staffed by naive bleeding hearts.

“I’m pretty darn cynical,” Justin Brooks, the project’s director, told UT San Diego columnist Steven Greenhut earlier this year.

The legal clinic goes through a systematic review process to find the few cases with credible claims of innocence.

“Of the thousands of cases his team reviews, they usually end up with one or two,” Greenhut wrote. “These are cases where he is 100-percent convinced of the inmate’s innocence. But even when the evidence is strong, it’s hard to get action on the cases.”

Public safety, taxpayer savings

Lieu, who is running for Congress, pointed out that wrongful convictions are also a matter of public safety because the real perpetrator remains on the streets.

“I want to thank Gov. Brown for his courage in signing legislation that promises to help correct the unspeakable offense of a wrongful conviction of an innocent person,” said Lieu, a former Air Force JAG prosecutor who remains in the reserves. “Compounding this heinous action is the fact the true perpetrator remains free to prey on all of us.”

Despite the expenditure on new tests, Lieu believes there may also be a potential savings to taxpayers.

“Because for the rest of their life, they won’t be in prison taking taxpayers’ money – they’ll be out,” Lieu told Government Technology earlier this year. “So we believe this bill’s costs will be offset by the amount we save.”

In the Assembly, only Assemblyman Steve Fox, D-Palmdale, opposed the bill. In the state Senate, three Republicans opposed the measure: Tom Berryhill of  Twain Harte, Mike Morrell of Rancho Cucamonga and Jim Nielsen of Gerber.

SB980: What it does

According to Lieu’s office, SB980 would:

  • Require law enforcement agencies to provide information and/or documentation about the existence of biological evidence, such as whether it has been destroyed or preserved. In addition, the bill would allow courts to order unknown DNA profiles to be run through the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System database to identify the true perpetrator, as long as such a search does not violate state or national rules.
  • Clarify that the standard to get DNA testing (1) does not require a showing that the DNA testing will prove innocence; and (2) in determining whether to grant testing, the court should not decide that the evidence, if exculpatory, would actually require that the person be released from prison.
  • Extend from 90 days to 180 days the notice period law enforcement agencies must give prior to destroying evidence; and also extend from six months to one year the time allowed for the filing of a request for DNA testing.

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