News 05.28.13

Oklahoma Becomes 50th State to Guarantee Wrongly Convicted Access to DNA Testing to Prove Innocence

Contact: Paul Cates;

pcates@innocenceproject.org


David Dodge;

ddodge@innocenceproject.org


 

(NEW YORK, NY; May 28, 2013)- Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed a bill into law on May 24th that provides Oklahomans the right to DNA testing that could prove they were wrongly convicted. The legislation (HB 1068) passed unanimously through both chambers of the Oklahoma State Legislature. With the Governor’s signature, Oklahoma became the 50th and final state to pass a post-conviction DNA testing law. Since 1989 when DNA testing first became available as a forensic tool, 307 people who were wrongly convicted of crimes they didn’t commit have been exonerated by DNA evidence nationwide.

 

“Two decades ago, when we founded the Innocence Project, no state in the nation had a law on the books to help wrongfully convicted people access DNA testing to prove their innocence,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “Today every state in the country now has a law allowing wrongfully convicted people the legal means to request DNA testing.”

 

HB 1068 was sponsored by Representative Lee Denney (R-Cushing) and Senator Jim Halligan (R-Stillwater). The law was prompted by a recommendation issued by the Oklahoma Justice Commission in November 2013. The Justice Commission, which is an entity of the State Bar Association, is chaired by former State Attorney General Drew Edmondson. Under Edmondson’s leadership, the Justice Commission has issued several recommendations to help prevent wrongful convictions in Oklahoma.

 

Laws like the one recently passed in Oklahoma provide many wrongly convicted individuals an important avenue to gain access to DNA testing. Without such laws, prisoners have no statutory right to testing, which means wrongly convicted individuals must rely on judges and prosecutors to grant access. In 1989, for example, Larry Peterson was falsely convicted of murder and spent 16 years in a New Jersey prison. Peterson struggled unsuccessfully for 9 years to have DNA testing conducted on evidence collected in his case. With the passage of New Jersey’s DNA statute in 2002, Peterson was finally able to get testing, which ultimately proved his innocence and exonerated him as the perpetrator of the crime.

 

“We hope to see state legislatures begin taking steps to improve upon current post-conviction DNA testing laws,” said Stephen Saloom, Policy Director at the Innocence Project. “I encourage lawmakers to look to Oklahoma’s recently enacted law as an example of a statute that provides inclusive access.”

 

Oklahoma’s new law is one of the most comprehensive in the nation, allowing DNA testing in violent felony cases and in cases resulting in a sentence of 25 years or greater, if such testing could provide proof of innocence. Statutes in some other states, however, limit access to DNA testing in important ways. For instance, petitioners in some states exclude those who either pled guilty or confessed, even though more than a third of the 306 people exonerated by DNA either falsely confessed or pled guilty.

 

Many other states require petitioners to be incarcerated in order to apply for testing, meaning the wrongly convicted living on parole or as a registered sex offender are unable to gain access to the technology that could clear their names. Some states only grant access to only those convicted of a short list of violent felonies. In Alabama, for instance, only those sentenced to death have a statutory right to access post-conviction DNA testing.

 

A copy of an infographic with information about the nation’s DNA access laws is available at

http://www.innocenceproject.org/files/imported/dna_innocenceproject_website-4.pdf

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