California lawmakers are considering legislation that gives wrongfully convicted prisoners a better shot at proving their innocence and being exonerated.
Senate Bill 980 allows inmates convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony or means other than biological evidence to have improved access to DNA testing. Introduced by Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Redondo Beach, the measure clarifies testing standards and procedures so inmates can benefit from advancements in DNA technology.
“Right now for a state prisoner to request to have biological evidence tested, the proof has to show that there is a reasonable likelihood that [the evidence] will change basically the outcome of the trial, and that can be a pretty high standard,” Lieu said. “We changed the standard to simply say that a prisoner can have the biological material tested if it’s relevant to show who the perpetrator was.”
Lieu explained that there have been more than 300 exonerations based on DNA evidence in the U.S., with at least eight in California. He called the possibility that there are hundreds of people likely still wrongfully convicted “just not acceptable,” and thinks SB 980 will help address the issue.
The bill is sponsored by the California Innocence Project and the Northern California Innocence Project, organizations that work to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners through case review and legal reform. It is co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of California and the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation.
Alex Simpson, associate director of the California Innocence Project, thinks the time is right for California’s DNA testing law to be reformed. He explained that since the statute was enacted in 2000, DNA testing has made many advancements that could potentially crack open cases once thought closed. For example, touch DNA – microscopic samples from human contact with an object – is now widely used in investigation, whereas 14 years ago it wasn’t nearly as routine.
“The techniques have gotten so sophisticated that a lot of the exonerations have been occurring across the country through swabbing of particular areas of clothing we suspect the perpetrator must have touched,” Simpson said. “And we’ve been getting results.”
The modifications to state law would require additional effort on the part of law enforcement agencies, and Lieu said there would be a cost associated with the bill. But he thinks any extra expenditures the bill generates would be covered by freeing inmates who have been wrongly convicted.
Lieu noted that it costs $50,000 per year to house state prisoners. If that figure is multiplied over 13 years – the amount of time that Lieu said is the average a person sits in prison before being exonerated through DNA testing – it results in a considerable windfall for the state.
“Because for the rest of their life, they won’t be in prison taking taxpayers’ money – they’ll be out,” Lieu said. “So we believe this bill’s costs will be offset by the amount we save.”
Not every state has DNA testing laws, but for those that do, the details can vary. For example, Simpson said Oklahoma had a sunset provision in its statute that enabled a prisoner and his or her counsel access to DNA evidence, but unless a post-conviction notice for DNA testing was filed before June 1, 2005, the material wasn’t eligible for testing. He added that Oklahoma’s law is no longer on the books.
California’s current DNA testing statute isn’t as restrictive as Oklahoma’s was, but Simpson stated that 16 states have more relaxed versions of its law. He said SB 980’s changes would make California a national leader in post-conviction DNA testing.
“[The legislation] reflects that DNA technology is really still in its infancy,” Simpson said. “We’ve got to make sure the law changes to reflect the newest developments so that at the end of the day, we’re not talking about denying somebody DNA testing because we don’t know whether or not you’re actually going to get a profile. What we’ve seen is that previously unsolvable cases are now within our reach.”
SB 980 is scheduled for a hearing with the California Senate Public Safety Committee on April 22.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.