By Tim Welch
For prison inmates who are languishing in cells serving sentences for violent crimes they did not commit, a DNA test can be a harbinger of freedom. That is, if they can get one. State legislatures have begun to recognize the potential that DNA testing has for exonerating wrongfully-convicted prisoners. Forty-six states now have laws that enable convicted prison inmates to request a DNA test on evidence related to the crimes they were convicted of in court. But what sounds like an easy and effective way to reduce the number of wrongfully-convicted prisoners in the United States is meeting significant resistance from prosecutors.
Even though they are increasingly willing to allow DNA testing of an inmate, prosecutors are delaying these tests in some cases by years due to the scope of the applicable state laws. In reality, DNA tests have exonerated hundreds of wrongfully-convicted people in the United States. But many of the 46 state laws allowing this type of testing stipulate that the results must be able to prove the prisoners innocence. Prosecutors will argue that for many types of crimes, simply not finding a DNA match to the inmate is not enough to establish innocence. For example, in the event of a murder, the fact the blood collected from the scene does not match the perpetrator is not sufficient to prove that the perpetrator did not commit or aid in committing the murder. This is especially true when a jury had already convicted the perpetrator on the basis of testimony and identification.
Prosecutors are also arguing that allowing post-conviction DNA testing will undermine jury verdicts and cause a massive influx of requests for DNA tests. They claim that DNA evidence sometimes isn’t necessary when you have the testimony of witnesses who are under oath and a positive identification made by the victim. Defense lawyers will argue that DNA evidence can refute many other types of evidence, including eyewitness testimony and identification by the victim. But the problem with this is that DNA tests can produce incorrect results. DNA tests are not 100% right, 100% of the time.
DNA testing has the potential to provide justice for many people who were wronged by the criminal justice system. Prison inmates should have access to DNA tests, but DNA tests should not be treated like “Get out of Jail Free” cards. Tests should only be conducted in cases where favorable results for the inmate would be sufficient to show innocence. But requests for DNA tests should be examined and evaluated in a timely manner, so as not to leave an innocent person trapped in a cell and a guilty person out on the streets. One thing is clear. As DNA testing technology improves, every effort should be made to utilize this technology pre-conviction, so a person does not have to wait until they are a convicted murderer or rapist to have access to perhaps the best evidence supporting their innocence.