Friday, June 27, 2008
WHEN AN INNOCENT person goes to prison, a guilty person roams our streets, free to victimize again.That is the practical reason we need to do all we reasonably can to make sure that the innocent aren’t convicted and that, if they are, those convictions are reversed and an investigation re-opened. The moral reason, of course, is that it’s wrong to imprison the innocent. We will never get those initial convictions correct 100 percent of the time, but there is a way we can improve our chance of identifying and correcting the errors. Our Legislature will have the opportunity to put it into place today.
A bill awaiting final approval by the House and Senate would add our state to the 44 others that allow people convicted of murder, rape and a handful of other violent crimes to have DNA testing done if they can convince a judge it would likely prove them innocent. That’s something that, in most cases, cannot happen today.
The testing wouldn’t be a new “right” for inmates; a judge would have to order it. And if the test confirmed a prisoner’s guilt, he would be subject to contempt of court, revocation of good-time credits and denial of parole requests. The legislation also requires that any new DNA samples be run through state and federal databases, to see whether the prisoner can be tied to unsolved crimes. That’s a strong disincentive for the guilty to tie up our courts seeking testing.
The bill also expands the state’s DNA database by requiring DNA samples be collected from everyone charged with a serious crime, rather than just those convicted. That makes sense, since DNA is the new fingerprint, but its inclusion worries some lawmakers who support the innocence testing, because Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed a similar bill last year.
Lawmakers would do well to find out whether Mr. Sanford will support this year’s expansion of the DNA database, and to strip it from the bill if he won’t. Better to get the more important law on the books than to see both of them defeated by a veto. [Mark Godsey]