Innocence Project advocates, Rep. Tedd Nesbit (R-Mercer), and Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery) today called for improved DNA testing laws at a press conference in the East Wing Rotunda.
Michelle Feldman, state policy advocate for Innocence Project, said 13 people have been exonerated in Pennsylvania with DNA evidence with eight of the 13 real perpetrators being found. Feldman explained Pennsylvania was one of the earlier states to pass a DNA testing law to help the wrongfully convicted, but it has not been updated since 2002. She said legislation needs to remove the bar from DNA testing if someone has pleaded guilty and the restriction on people who are no longer incarcerated or on parole. Feldman said 11 percent of DNA-based exonerees pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit.
Rep. Nesbit said as a former district attorney he sees the importance in revisiting legislation so technology and the court system can be in sync. He said it is critical that we allow people that have pled guilty to have DNA testing for a number of reasons. It would from a public safety perspective allow the right people to be convicted of crimes and Pennsylvania to match DNA profiles with the FBI DNA database, according to Rep. Nesbit. Rep. Nesbit said the commonwealth should be required to identify all physical evidence in the case. He said legislation should remove the provision currently under the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition that someone must be incarcerated or under supervision to get DNA testing.
“There are a lot of important things that we need to revamp out system, make it fairer for defendants, fairer for the citizens and make sure that we have the right people incarcerated,” Rep. Nesbit said.
Exonoree Anthony Wright said his case shows how important it is for the law to help the wrongfully convicted get DNA testing. Wright was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in 1991 of Louise Talley and was exonerated in 2016. He said if the law had been clearer he would not have had to fight for five years for DNA testing with the case making it the whole way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
“DNA testing is the best evidence in the world,” Wright said. “It says two things: yes or no, guilty or not guilty.”
Wright explained the real perpetrator, Ronnie Byrd, might have been brought to justice if Wright had not had to go through years of legal battles. Wright said the delay caused him more time away from his son. He said he understands the pressure to plead guilty because he was facing the death penalty. Wright said after spending 25 years in prison he knows there are more innocent people in jail that he hopes can get DNA evidence to prove their innocence.
Shannon Coleman, niece of Louise Talley, said a wrongful conviction is no solace. She said her family did not get justice for her aunt as the real murderer was free to commit other crimes and die before he could be charged.
Sen. Greenleaf said there should be no restrictions on proving innocence. He said the founding fathers believed that it is better to acquit guilty people than convict one innocent person.
“It is not OK to convict an innocent person and we have done that,” Sen. Greenleaf said. “That’s what changed my view of how we should approach this law.”
Sen. Greenleaf said some people do confess to things they did not do to get out of the pressure that is put on them and hope to negotiate later. Sen. Greenleaf said it is not acceptable to convict even one innocent person and this legislation will try to address that.
Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said it is very telling that two former law enforcement members are behind this legislation.
“In the past 15 years Pennsylvania has fallen far behind our sister states with keeping up with technology as well as the needs of justice,” Bluestine said.
The legislation will help to address the issue with post-conviction DNA testing, to allow people who have served their sentence get DNA testing and to extend time period for pleading innocence with the court, according to Bluestine.
“We are not asking to open the floodgates, we are only asking for justice,” Bluestine said.