Monday, February 2, 2009

South Dakota Post-Conviction DNA Testing - But What About Plea Bargains?

According to the Argus Leader, South Dakota may soon get post-conviction DNA testing.

Some inmates in the state prison system could have DNA evidence tested to determine whether they were wrongly convicted if a bill in the Legislature becomes law. House Bill 1166, introduced Wednesday, has four Republican sponsors in the House and two Republicans and one Democrat in the Senate. The bill would let felony convicts petition for DNA testing if the evidence exists and if there were questions about identity in their prosecutions.

The bill has the backing of the local chapter of the Innocence Project, a national group that has pushed to expand post-conviction DNA testing at the state and federal level. Evidence lockers across the nation contain evidence of rapes and murders that were committed before science enabled investigators to use DNA to identify perpetrators.

DNA testing has enabled law enforcement agencies across the nation to solve old cases. But the tests also have helped those who were wrongly convicted. More than 230 people nationwide have been exonerated because of post-conviction DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project.

Forty-four states already have similar legislation, according to University of South Dakota law professor Chris Hutton. Hutton is the faculty adviser for the local chapter of the Innocence Project, which includes law students and volunteer lawyers.


An interesting post by the Innocence Project of Florida notes, however, that the South Dakota bill excludes DNA testing for individuals who plead guilty to a crime. This type of exclusion from post-conviction DNA testing statutes has been fairly common in recent years.

The only worry in South Dakota appears to be that convicts who pled to their crimes will be denied access to testing. This is troubling because, as we know, people often plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. The only criterion for access to post-conviction DNA testing should be an inmate's ability to inject a reasonable doubt into their prior conviction.

Chris Hutton, the faculty advisor for the South Dakota chapter of the Innocence Project commented, "Everybody from the attorney general on down realizes mistakes can be made."

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