Legislation to expand Illinois’ post-conviction DNA testing access law to inmates that have pleaded guilty was signed by the governor on Friday, acknowledging that innocent defendants sometimes plead guilty to avoid a severe punishment.
reported that the expanded DNA access law, which is sponsored by Senator Kwame Raoul, will give defendants who plead guilty a chance to use DNA evidence to clear their name if the evidence was not available at the time they took the plea. Defendants will get that chance after a judge finds there would have been a reasonable probability of being acquitted had the evidence been available when the case went to court. The
“It’s an important element to make sure that we recognize the fact that, even when somebody implicates themselves and there’s a lack of other compelling evidence, there’s a possibility that they didn’t commit the crime,” Raoul said. “We don’t know all influencing circumstances that leads one to plead guilty to a crime they did not commit. Sometimes it’s coercion, sometimes it’s fear of … intimidation from a prosecutor that they’ll get a very stiff penalty” if they go to court and lose.
“It is well known that this happens. So in a case where someone can provide some additional evidence that DNA testing can prove them innocent, I think it’s absolutely the right thing to conduct the test,” Raoul said.
Although Raoul gave no indication whether the new law will overturn existing convictions, it’s a step toward strengthening the criminal justice system of Illinois, which has the second highest exoneration rate in the country with 43. Texas leads with 48.
Senator Raoul told the
, “I’ve always believed that — given the mistakes that we have documented in the state — (lawmakers should) give the state a sense that we are doing everything in our power to get it right. Nobody expects the criminal justice system to be perfect, but it should always strive for perfection.”
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a little more than 10 percent of the 1,378 exonerations recorded to the database involved prisoners who had pleaded guilty. Of those 145 exonerations, DNA evidence played a role in 29 of them, four of which took place in Cook County.
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