Wednesday, March 19, 2008

SC Lawmakers to Consider Easier DNA Testing for Convicts

By Meg Kinnard, The Associated Press

The Orangeburg Times Democrat-Orangeburg, SC

COLUMBIA, S.C. - DNA tests would be available to South Carolina prisoners who claim they have been wrongly convicted under a bill a Senate panel was to discuss Wednesday.

The co-founder of a group that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners said he will urge South Carolina senators to bring the state in line with much of the rest of the country.

“This kind of legislation has demonstrated again and again that it doesn’t just protect the innocent, it helps law enforcement identify the person who really committed the crime — often somebody who is a serial rapist or a serial murderer,” said Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, which is based in New York. “South Carolina knows this law is long overdue.”

South Carolina and six other states — Alabama, Alaska, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Dakota — don’t have a DNA testing law for convicts. A few of those states are considering legislation similar to South Carolina’s bill, and a law recently signed by Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal goes into effect July 1.

The sponsor of the South Carolina bill said the measure would give the convicts’ greater access to evidence.

“What we’re trying to do is bring South Carolina up to where the rest of the country is,” said Sen. Gerald Malloy, a Hartsville Democrat and attorney. “The great fear that most of us have is that we incarcerate someone unlawfully.”

Under Malloy’s bill, the state would pay for the DNA tests, which can cost thousands of dollars, if the convict can’t afford it. That could lead to annual costs of up to $10 million, said Mark Plowden, a spokesman for state Attorney General Henry McMaster.

Federal funding could defray some of those costs. The Innocence Protection Act, signed by President Bush in 2004, authorized $25 million over five years to help states pay for post-conviction DNA testing.

DNA evidence already has been used to exonerate at least one South Carolina man. Perry Mitchell, who had served nearly half of a 30-year-rape sentence, was released in 1998 after court-ordered DNA tests proved he didn’t rape a 17-year-old girl.

Mitchell, who lived in Lexington at the time, is one of 214 people across the nation who have been exonerated by DNA testing since 1989, according to the Innocence Project.

If Malloy’s bill is adopted, more people could be freed from South Carolina’s prisons, said Scheck, a former defense attorney for O.J. Simpson.

“How can anybody sanction an innocent person spending decades in prison or being executed?” said Scheck. “We really do need the opportunity to prove them innocent, and without this kind of post-conviction statute, they just can’t get into court and they can’t get access to the evidence.”

The Senate Judiciary subcommittee is scheduled to hear testimony from Scheck on Wednesday. The panel is scheduled to consider legislation that would create an eight-member commission to evaluate claims by convicts who say that they are innocent.

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