Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bill would require DNA info

Felons would have to be told if evidence is found in old forensic-lab files



A key lawmaker has introduced legislation that would require that felons be told that testable DNA has been discovered in their old state forensic-lab files.

Del. David B. Albo, R-Fairfax, chairman of the Virginia State Crime Commission, drafted a budget amendment requiring the Virginia Forensic Science Board to make sure 400 offenders with files found to hold human biological evidence are told it exists.

The department recently searched more than 530,000 old files from 1973 to 1988 -- before DNA testing was available -- looking for those containing testable evidence that might bear on guilt or innocence.

For the most part, however, if anyone is being notified, it is only authorities. Virginia law allows felons to request DNA testing if it can prove innocence.

The state Forensic Science Board this month voted down an effort that might have led to such notifications. Among other things, board members expressed concern about the burden that searching for the offenders might place on a state agency.

Albo does not think that is fair.

"I drafted this piece of legislation to make sure that convicted felons are made aware of newly discovered evidence in their cases," Albo said. "If just one person is innocent, we need to make sure he knows of this newly discovered evidence."

Albo said he does not care who does it as long as it is done. "I'm putting language in the budget to make somebody notify these people. Everybody's been pointing fingers, and no one's made them do it," he said.

Gordon Hickey, spokesman for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, said yesterday that the governor's office is setting up a protocol for the department of forensic science to notify convicted people.

The now two-year-old project has found 2,215 paper files that contain crime-scene biological material and that include a suspect's name.

Thus far, there are 400 cases in which there is both biological crime-scene evidence and a convicted defendant. Some 180 have been sent off for testing, and another 80 are being prepared for testing.

Five men wrongly convicted of rape have been cleared with evidence from the old files -- two of them when DNA testing was done on a sample of just 31 files. Both of those men had already been released from prison, and neither had requested DNA testing.

Peter Marone, director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, said yesterday that he had no position on Albo's proposal.

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