Bill would expand DNA testing in criminal cases

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(Host) A key U.S. Senate committee has given its approval to legislation sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy that expands the use of DNA testing in rape and death penalty cases. Leahy says the bill is needed to protect individuals who are wrongly accused of these crimes and to help convict people who are guilty of committing them.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) By a vote of 11 to seven, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee has given its approval to a bill that gives people charged with rape and capital crimes much greater access to DNA testing. The legislation also allows individuals who have already been convicted of these crimes to seek DNA tests to prove their innocence.

The bill allocates a billion dollars over a five-year period to expand the DNA testing process and it provides an additional $100 million to help states improve public defender representation of indigent individuals charged in death penalty crimes.

Opponents of the measure are concerned that the proposal will make it more difficult for states to prosecute death penalty cases. Leahy says the legislation will help ensure that the right person is sent to jail:

(Leahy) “If you’re somebody whose family has been destroyed by a serial rapist or murderer, you’d like to see these DNA testing, you like to see the money get out there for them. If you’re somebody who’s on death row for a crime you didn’t commit, you want to make sure that things are done better so they catch the right person and you’re exonerated.”

(Kinzel) One person who’s been supporting Leahy’s effort is Kirk Bloodsworth of Maryland. Bloodsworth was convicted of rape and murder in 1984 and given the death penalty. He served nine years in prison, including two on death row, before a DNA test cleared him of the crime.

Leahy says the Bloodsworth case is a compelling reason to pass this legislation:

(Leahy) “As we’ve seen with over 100 people who are on death row then being exonerated, many times there’s a rush to put somebody behind bars and say, Okay we’ve got the murderer, everybody’s safe now. One, you’ve got an innocent person behind bars but the murderer is still loose. I want to make sure that the person who committed the crime is caught, is convicted, is locked up to keep society safe but that we don’t make the mistake of locking up the wrong person.”

(Kinzel) The legislation has already been approved by the U.S. House. Leahy is hoping that the full Senate will consider the measure before it adjourns in several weeks.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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