Bill Would Provide for DNA Testing of Evidence

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

A bill was introduced in the Senate and House of Representatives today to provide that an incarcerated person may ask a court for DNA testing of biological evidence relating to his or her case.  The two measures, Senate Bill 5896 and House bill 1889, also provide that a sample of biological evidence secured in a criminal case be retained so that it may be available if future testing proves necessary or a newly developed testing procedure becomes available.  Senator Dow Constantine is the prime sponsor of the Senate bill, and Representative John Lovick is the prime sponsor of the House bill.

"The increasing examples of people found to be innocent by DNA evidence present a compelling reason to enact this legislation," said Jerry Sheehan, Legislative Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

In the past decade, more than 65 people in the United States and Canada have been exonerated by DNA testing after they had been convicted.  At least eight individuals sentenced to death have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing - some within days of their scheduled execution.  The two states which have established statutory procedures for post-conviction testing not just for death penalty cases, Illinois and New York, so far have 14 and 7 DNA exonerations, respectively.

The advent of DNA testing raises serious concerns about the prevalence of wrongful convictions, especially those coming from mistaken eyewitness identification testimony.  According to a 1996 Department of Justice study, in approximately 20 to 30 percent of the cases referred for DNA testing, the results excluded the primary suspect.

Senate Bill 5896 and House Bill 1889 establish judicial standards for granting requests for testing of DNA evidence in cases of people convicted of a felony and currently serving a prison term. Last year the Washington Legislature passed an inadequate measure (SHB 2491) providing for post-conviction DNA testing, but only for persons on death row.  Further, that measure placed decisions about whether a DNA test would be allowed in the hands of prosecutors and the Attorney General, rather than the judiciary, and had no provision for retaining a sample of biological evidence.

The legislation is needed because, while DNA testing is increasingly commonplace in pre-trial investigations today, it was not widely available in cases tried prior to 1994.  Moreover, new forensic DNA testing procedures have made it possible to get results from minute samples that could not previously be tested, and to obtain more accurate results than earlier forms of forensic DNA testing could produce.