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Texas bill would require DNA tests before death-penalty trials

by
DNA Strands, Photo by Steve Jurvetson (Flickr, Creative Commons)
DNA Strands, Photo by Steve Jurvetson (Flickr, Creative Commons)

By Corrie MacLaggan

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A law proposed in Texas would require all biological evidence collected in cases in which the state is seeking the death penalty to undergo DNA testing before trial, a change intended to reduce the risk of an innocent person being put to death.

Texas executes more prisoners than any other state. The bill's Democratic author, state Senator Rodney Ellis, said he was unaware of any other state having a similar law.

His proposal has also won the backing of the state's Republican attorney general.

"This law is a safeguard to help ensure no innocent person will be executed in Texas," said Attorney General Greg Abbott, who announced his support for the proposal at a press conference on Tuesday.

"If you're innocent, you're going to find out that your exoneration will come sooner," Abbott added. "If you are guilty, justice will be more swift and more certain. This law will also help prevent the seemingly endless appeals that do nothing more than game the system and delay justice."

Texas has executed 493 people since capital punishment was reinstated in the United States in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Virginia has had the second-largest number of executions, 110.

There have been 303 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, according to the Innocence Project. Of those exonerated, 18 served time on death row and an additional 16 were charged with capital crimes but did not receive a death sentence.

"We know that sometimes we get the wrong person," said Ellis, who represents parts of Houston. "There may be more men and women serving on death row today who did not commit a crime for which they were convicted."

Ellis pointed to the case of Michael Morton, an innocent man who spent nearly 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife before DNA evidence exonerated him. While Morton did not face the death penalty, Ellis said his case exemplifies the problem of wrongful conviction.

"Texas state government has been sensitized to the failures of its criminal justice system through the exoneration cases and particularly through the Michael Morton case," said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit that aims to improve the quality of representation afforded those facing the death penalty.

Abbott said conducting DNA testing before a trial rather than after would prevent people who have been convicted from asking for repeated tests of evidence.

Under the proposal, the state would pay for the DNA testing. Abbott and Ellis said they weren't yet sure how much that might cost.

Stephen Saloom, policy director at the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people, said Ellis' bill was a good idea, but that he was uncertain whether such legislation was necessary.

"This should already be happening as a matter of practice," he said.

All states except Oklahoma have laws allowing post-conviction access to DNA evidence, although the laws vary, according to the Innocence Project. Some of the laws don't allow access to DNA in cases in which the defendant confessed to the crime or don't require adequate preservation of DNA evidence, the Innocence Project says.

Abbott and Ellis both support the death penalty.

Abbott said he did not believe Texas has executed any innocent people, noting that the state has an exhaustive process in place to ensure that doesn't happen.

Ellis was not so sure.

"I just don't know," he said. "I worry about it."

(Reporting by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Gevirtz)

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