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Bill gives wrongfully convicted new chance at freedom

Model of DNA double helix

Arizonans who contend they were wrongfully convicted could get a new way of trying to exonerate themselves.

Without dissent, members of the House Committee on Criminal Justice Reform approved legislation Wednesday that sets up procedures by which an inmate can seek forensic examination of items that were not tested at the time of the trial because the technology was not available at the time. SB1469, already approved by the Senate, now goes to the full House.

There is precedent for the proposal by Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert.

In 2010 lawmakers agreed to allow someone who has been convicted to ask a court to conduct DNA testing of evidence from a crime scene. That same law also allows a judge to put that evidence into a national database to see if there are any “hits.”

But Timothy Sparling with the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice said that doesn’t cover a whole host of evidence that now can be examined with current technology, ranging from forensic analysis of fingerprints and hair to gunshot residue. And that, he told lawmakers, could provide new evidence that someone is wrongfully imprisoned.

The testing is not automatic.

First, an inmate would need to convince a court that there is a “reasonable probability” that the individual would not have been prosecuted or convicted if tests would have shown that person was not the guilty party. The court could appoint counsel for those who are indigent.

SB1469 also requires that the evidence still exists and is in a condition to allow the new forensic testing to be conducted.

Prosecutors would have an opportunity to object.

And if testing is ordered, who pays for it would be up to the court.

Hope DeLap of the Arizona Justice Project said the kind of testing that would be done here is the same that police already are using to solve “cold cases.” But in this situation, it could end up leading to someone’s exoneration.

She told lawmakers the change in law should not lead to a flood of requests.

DeLap estimated that her organization gets about 400 requests a year for help by inmates who say they were wrongfully convicted. That out of nearly 37,000 inmates behind bars in the state.

Beyond that, she said, the number of instances where the evidence remains available — and where it was not already examined — is even smaller.

Sparling is hoping for at least one change when the measure goes to the full House.

He pointed out that the bill, as worded, would allow testing only if the technology did not exist at the time. But Sparling said that leaves out cases where there was the technology but the testing was just not done.


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