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Some Worry Law to Increase DNA Tests Will Create Delays

In some Texas counties, it takes six months or longer to get DNA test results from the Department of Public Safety, says William Lee Hon, the Polk County criminal district attorney.

Now, Hon and other prosecutors fear that come Sept. 1, when a new law takes effect requiring DNA analysis of all biological evidence in death penalty cases, the backlog, and the wait, could grow even longer. “We’re not sure that DPS has the resources currently to adequately comply with that legislation on top of everything else,” he said.

In Texas, there have been 54 exonerations based on DNA test results, including those of two inmates on death row, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Lawmakers this year approved Senate Bill 1292, written by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, which aims to prevent wrongful convictions and avert costly, time-consuming appeals. Many prosecutors say that the bill may go too far, and that the pursuit of testing in some cases could be used to try to delay a conviction.

Tom Vinger, a safety department spokesman, said it was too early to predict the law’s impact. Ellis, who is the board chairman of the Innocence Project, which is dedicated to using DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, said that if the state sought the death penalty, expedience should not take priority over certainty.

“If you’re going to ask for the death penalty,” he said, “you ought to be confident that you have the right person.”

The bill’s champions include Attorney General Greg Abbott, the leading Republican candidate for governor, who said the measure would save Texas years of appeals.

“There’s no reason to test these items more than a decade after the crime was committed,” Abbott said in March. “The family of the victim shouldn’t have to go through this time after time after time in order to get certainty.”

Abbott cited the case of Hank Skinner, a death row inmate who was convicted in 1995 of killing his girlfriend and her two adult sons. Skinner said he was unconscious from a cocktail of vodka and codeine at the time of the crime.

He started asking for DNA testing in 2000, and less than an hour before he was to be executed, in 2010, the United States Supreme Court delayed his punishment. Abbott’s office agreed in 2012 to the testing, which is still not complete.

Kathryn Kase, the executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents death row inmates, said the law would also help prevent “tunnel vision,” in which investigators home in on one suspect and inadvertently ignore evidence that could implicate others.

“It really helps us get across the idea that when a crime is being investigated, the most important search is the search for objective evidence,” Kase said.

While additional testing may require more time, Bobby D. Mims, the president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said that in the long term, certainty would improve the system and save taxpayer dollars.

“A rush to judgment is never good and beneficial to the justice system,” Mims said.

Hon said prosecutors agree that testing to verify the identity of a killer is worth the time and expense. But, he said, prosecutors worry that defense lawyers will ask for testing in cases where the killer’s identity is not in question.

He said that for rural communities like his that rely on the safety department’s labs, additional testing could delay trials and work on other cases. 

Overturned Texas Convictions

Since 1989, the convictions of 131 Texas inmates have been overturned, including those of 54 people who were exonerated based on DNA test results.

The figures below represent each of the former Texas prison inmates whose convictions were overturned. They are categorized based on the factors that contributed to the conviction being overturned. In some instances, multiple factors contributed to the wrongful conviction, and in those cases the inmate will be represented below more than once.

Click on a figure to see the name of and detailed information about each person whose conviction was overturned.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/08/18/prosecutors-worry-new-law-will-create-more-dna-del/.

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