News 04.29.15

Governor Signs Law Improving Access to DNA Testing for Wrongfully Convicted Montanans




Gov. Bullock signs bill that will provide wrongfully convicted meaningful access to DNA testing that could prove innocence


Contact:  Nick Moroni, 

nmoroni@innocenceproject.org


Michelle Feldman,

mfeldman@innocenceproject.org

(Helena, MT – April 29, 2015) – Governor Steve Bullock this week signed into law a measure (HB 516) that will strengthen Montana’s post-conviction DNA testing statute by creating a more reasonable standard for the wrongfully convicted to access DNA testing, enhancing the use of the state’s DNA database to identify actual perpetrators, and expanding eligibility to individuals who are no longer in prison. There have been three DNA exonerations in Montana, all of which occurred before the post-conviction DNA testing statute was enacted in 2003.

“Innocent unless proven guilty is a key constitutional tenet. House Bill 516 will strengthen the use of DNA evidence and help ensure justice is served,” said Gov. Bullock.

“I want to thank Gov. Bullock for signing this important bill. While our state was one of the first to enact a post-conviction DNA testing statute in 2003, not a single Montanan has been granted testing under the current law. These improvements will ensure that the law works as it was intended—to provide meaningful access to justice for the wrongfully convicted,” said Rep. Margie MacDonald, the bill’s lead sponsor.

“The Montana Innocence Project will be in a better position to obtain justice for the wrongfully convicted thanks to this law,” said Keegan Flaherty, executive director of the Montana Innocence Project. “It will help more Montanans like Jimmy Ray Bromgard, who spent nearly 15 years in prison for a rape he did not commit until DNA evidence proved his innocence.”

“With the passage of this law, Montana now has one of the strongest post-conviction DNA testing statutes in the country. I applaud Rep. Margie MacDonald, Governor Bullock and the legislature for strengthening DNA testing and the use of DNA technology in the great state of Montana,” said Michelle Feldman, Innocence Project State Policy Advocate.

HB 516 strengthens Montana’s post-conviction DNA testing statute in the following ways:

  • Creates a fairer standard for a court to grant testing if “there is a reasonable probability that the petitioner would not have been convicted” had favorable results been obtained prior to trial, which is the standard in 23 states.
  • Allows a court to order a DNA profile generated from a crime scene sample to be submitted to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) to possibly identify the real perpetrator. The federal DNA database has helped to identify 104 real perpetrators connected to 161 cases in the nation’s 329 wrongful convictions proven by DNA.
  • Removes the requirement that the person seeking testing be in prison to be eligible for DNA testing.
  • Creates a more reasonable standard for a defendant to be granted a new trial if test results are favorable.
  • Reactivates victims’ services if a wrongful conviction is revealed through DNA testing.

     

In 2003, Montana was one of the first states to pass a law designed to provide a clear legal avenue for wrongfully convicted individuals to prove their innocence through DNA technology. However, courts have not granted a single request for DNA testing since the original law was enacted. The amended statute fulfills the legislature’s original intent to provide justice to the wrongfully convicted, crime victims and the general public.

Under the original law, a defendant was essentially required to prove his or her innocence before testing could be conducted, a standard that often cannot be met unless testing is conducted. The amended statute offers a fairer standard for DNA testing. The new law will also give courts the power to order DNA evidence from a crime scene to be submitted to the federal DNA database, which has millions of profiles and could identify the real perpetrator. Nationally, 141 real perpetrators have been identified in the 329 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence. Those real perpetrators went on to commit 145 additional crimes, among them 77 rapes, 34 murders and 34 other crimes.

Additionally, with the removal of the incarceration requirement for DNA testing, a wrongfully convicted person who is no longer in prison will now be able to access the testing that will allow him to move on with his life. A criminal record brings with it immense challenges to housing, employment and everyday life. And finally, the statute will provide counseling and social services for victims, should a wrongful conviction be proven.

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