DNA testing needs a federal boost

After reading this article, I think the Senator needs to be contacted by people from around the world by email, telephone, faxes, letters and/or letters to the editors of your local newspapers to let "your" voice be heard, don't you?  If you are lost for words, you can always use the stats listed in the article below to belie the Senator's notion that proper funding for DNA testing in cases of wrongful convictions is not what it seems to be and therefore unimportant.  Well, unless you prefer his spin-doctoring to take hold as truth.

Sherry Swiney

To contact Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, click here:

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions is concerned about portions of a $1.2 billion bill to help forensics labs process evidence in serious crimes. However, the Alabama Republican's intemperate language about the bill undermines his arguments.

Four years ago, Sessions, a former prosecutor, led efforts to increase federal funding for forensics labs. Yet he's upset that a bill expected to be considered today in the Senate Judiciary Committee puts  too much emphasis on DNA testing. He complains that it would offer no  help for state forensics labs backlogged on other kinds of work, such as  drug tests.

A provision of the bill that provides money to states to secure qualified attorneys to work on DNA appeals came in for special criticism.

"This bill would take $100 million in federal taxpayer funds and give it to anti-death penalty groups for the defense of murderers and 
terrorists," Sessions said.

That borders on a knee-jerk reaction. The fact is, DNA technology has seen the recent release of three men in less than a month who were wrongly convicted of rape in Southern states. They spent a total of 61 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Since 1992, DNA technology has helped determine the innocence of 151 people nationwide wrongly convicted of rapes and murders. They include 14 death row inmates, the most recently freed of who was a Louisiana man exonerated of a murder charge last month.

The bill in Congress, which has the ponderous title of "Advancing Justice through DNA Technology Act," would provide $755 million toward DNA resting on a backlog of more than 300,000 rape kits and other crime scene evidence.

Despite Sessions' argument that more money is needed for drug testing, the director of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences says DNA tests are paramount. That's because they are central in cases involving violent crime.

There is a backlog of about 2,000 DNA tests in the state labs, he said. Most of the work is for prosecutors -- another irony in Sessions'

There is a strong moral argument to be made for shoring up DNA testing. We cannot in good conscience send people to their deaths when there is a possibility that DNA tests would prove their innocence.

If anything, DNA tests strengthen the argument for capital punishment, for they can be used to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The fact that prosecutors use them far more than defense attorneys illustrates the point.

Unfortunately, if the bill passes it will not have a significant impact for defendants in Alabama. Unlike virtually every other state in the 
country, this state does not have a public defender's office. The bill prevents funds for being used by nonprofit groups like the Equal Justice Initiative, which is the largest death-penalty defense organization in Alabama.

That shortcoming is one of many reasons why the state needs to take a hard look at how it administers capital punishment.

In any event, the Congress needs to bolster DNA testing. Though the bill it is considering may not be perfect, its recognition that the tests are vital to the criminal justice system is long overdue.

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