EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Project DNA: Pennsylvania Update

I noted in a prior post that Pennsylvania is among the states in which pleading defendants are not allowed to seek postconviction DNA testing. I also noted that the was legislation in the works that might get rid of this pleading defendant prohibition. Well, that legislation is now one step away from passing, and you can help get it across the finish line. Yesterday, the Pennsylvania House approved Senate Bills 915 and 916.

"SB 915 extends the time period to one year for bringing a petition based on one of the exceptions. A person convicted of a crime who several years later becomes aware of new evidence, for example, that quite possibly would have changed the outcome of his trial would have one year from the discovery of the new evidence to file the petition." 

SB 916, meanwhile, does several things (here's the full language of the bill):

  • Remove the supervision requirementCurrently only people serving a sentence can apply for DNA testing. Dozens of citizens have been denied the ability to prove their innocence because their sentence expired. Twenty-nine other states have no incarceration or supervision requirement in their DNA law.
  • Allow those who plead guilty to access testingNationally, ten percent of DNA-based exonerees initially pleaded guilty to the charges even though they were innocent.
  • Require the Commonwealth to identify all physical evidence in a caseCurrently, petitioners for testing must identify all evidence to be tested, but they are often unaware of all the physical evidence collected by the Commonwealth during the investigation.
  • Allow testing when new DNA testing technology becomes availableCurrently, DNA testing is only available when the testing technology being requested was not available at the time of trial. The statutory language has caused confusion in the courts. In addition, many testing laboratories reach “inconclusive” results when there are multiple persons’ DNA in a sample, but newer technologies exist to separately identify the DNA of multiple persons.
  • Matching with DNA profiles in CODISA court must currently consider whether DNA testing will yield “exculpatory results” when deciding whether to grant testing. My bill will clarify that courts may also consider whether DNA testing will be exculpatory for someone other than the petitioner. This is because the testing results will be added to the FBI’s DNA database, called CODIS.

All of these reforms are much needed and will greatly improve the postconviction DNA process in Pennsylvania, but obviously the one that I've been covering for the past few months on this blog and in my work-in-progress (A Right to Prove Innocence after Pleading Guilty). As I noted in work-in-progress:

The first DNA exoneree in this country was a man with a sub-70 IQ who pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty, and a total of 139 out of 315 (44.1%) DNA and non-DNA exonerees in 2015 and 2016 had been convicted after guilty pleas. Nonetheless, a number of states have pleading defendant prohibitions in their postconviction statutes that preclude defendants who pleaded guilty from (1) seeking DNA testing; and/or (2) presenting freestanding claims of actual innocence based on non-DNA evidence.

Senate Bill 916 addresses both of these issues. It states in pertinent part:

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 11.32.50 AM

So, how can you help? It's now all up to Governor Tom Wolf to sign Senate Bills 915 and 916. If you live in Pennsylvania, you can contact him using this information:

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 11.31.52 AM

And, if you know someone who lives in Pennsylvania, please reach out to them and ask them to contact Governor Wolf about signing these bills.



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Thank you for spreading the word on this! I've only been in PA a year and would never have known about this. Email sent.

Posted by: Michelle | Oct 18, 2018 5:36:19 PM

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