News 03.13.13

Kentucky General Assembly Passes Major Improvements to Post-Conviction DNA Access Law; Bill Will Soon Make its Way to Governor’s Desk

Contact: David Dodge; ddodge@innocenceproject.org; 212-364-5371

(NEW YORK, NY; Tuesday, March 12, 2013)- By unanimous vote today, the Kentucky House voted for final passage of a bill to improve access to the state’s post-conviction DNA testing law. The legislation (HB 41) passed through the Senate last week, also unanimously, and will soon make its way to Governor Steve Beshear’s desk.

Under Kentucky’s current law, only those serving on death row have a statutory right to access post-conviction DNA testing. Of the 49 states with post-conviction DNA testing laws, only Kentucky and Alabama restrict access in this way. With the Governor’s signature, HB 41 will allow most Kentuckians convicted of violent crimes access to DNA testing if such testing can provide probative evidence of innocence.

HB 41 was sponsored by Representative Johnny Bell (D-Glasgow), who has long advocated for reform of Kentucky’s DNA testing laws. Though Representative Bell introduced similar pieces of legislation during previous sessions, the bills ultimately never progressed. This year’s efforts gained momentum with the support of Senator John Schickel (R-Union), who championed a similar post-conviction DNA testing bill (SB 23) in the Senate.

“Thanks to the bipartisan efforts of Representative Bell and Senator Schickel, wrongly convicted Kentuckians will soon have greater opportunity to prove their innocence through DNA testing,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “We owe them a great deal of gratitude. We also must thank Kentucky Public Advocate, Ed Monahan, who advocated tirelessly for the bill’s passage.”

HB 41 represents a major improvement to Kentucky’s post-conviction DNA access law. Prior to the bill’s passage, wrongly convicted Kentuckians in non-capital cases were forced to rely on judges and prosecutors to grant access to DNA testing, meaning testing was often granted in an inconsistent manner. For instance, a local judge recently granted access to testing to Kerry Porter, which ultimately exonerated him as the perpetrator of a 1996 murder.  Meanwhile, another local judge recently denied testing to Kentucky inmate, William Virgil, though such testing could exonerate him as the perpetrator of a 1987 rape and murder.

“HB 41 will ensure wrongly convicted Kentuckians have fairer access to DNA testing,” said Joe Blaney, Director of State Legislative Reform at the Innocence Project. Blaney also credited Kentucky’s leadership with helping win final approval of the bill. “This effort would not have succeeded without the support of Speaker Greg Stumbo and Senate President Robert Stivers and the strong support of Commonwealth Attorney Thomas Wine and former Commonwealth Attorney David Stengel. We also commend the Commonwealth Attorneys Association for its cooperation in finding a compromise that allowed this bill to pass.”

Though HB 41 is a major improvement over current law, the final bill was amended to exclude those who pled guilty from accessing testing. However, of the 303 people to be exonerated by DNA testing nationwide, just under 10 percent pled guilty to the crime of which they were convicted. “Though it might be hard to understand why an innocent person would plead guilty to a crime they did not commit, it isn’t all that uncommon,” Blaney said, noting innocent people pled guilty in many instances in order to avoid a harsher sentence. “We hope the legislature will revisit this issue in the future.”

Since the advent of DNA testing in forensic investigation in the late 1980s, DNA testing has evolved into a powerful tool for helping to establish guilt or innocence in criminal cases. Nationwide, 303 people have been exonerated through DNA testing. In about half of those instances, the real perpetrator was subsequently identified.  With the exception of Oklahoma, every state in the nation has passed laws allowing for post-conviction DNA testing.

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The Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law, is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustices. For more information on the Innocence Project, visit www.innocenceproject.org.
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