Proposal a step in the right direction, says attorney who helped free a Venice man wrongfully convicted of murder
By Gary Walker
Lawyers representing California prison inmates who are contesting their convictions would gain greater access to scientific tools in the fight to clear their names under newly proposed legislation by state Sen. Ted Lieu (D- Torrance).
Lieu’s Senate Bill 980 would compel police departments to allow inmate defense teams to conduct DNA testing on biological case evidence and allow courts to act against law enforcement officials who destroy DNA evidence in violation of state code.
Law enforcement agencies are currently allowed to destroy biological evidence six months after a conviction, but Lieu’s proposal would extend the timeline to a full year. It would also mandate that DNA evidence be run through the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System in cases where DNA evidence is found not to match a suspect or inmate.
“I think one of the greatest injustices that a government and a society can commit is to wrongly convict an innocent person,” said Lieu, a former Air Force Judge Advocate General prosecutor.
Since 2000, there have been 244 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, including eight in California, according to the California Innocence Project, which is co-sponsoring the bill with the Northern California Innocence Project.
“One of the good things about this bill is that it makes clear certain misinterpretations of the current law. Under [SB 980], defendants would not have to prove their innocence in order to ask for a DNA test,” said Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project and a professor at California Western School of Law in San Diego.
Brooks represented Timothy Atkins, a Venice man who was convicted of murder and armed robbery in 1987, in Atkins’ quest to have his conviction overturned. Atkins was freed from prison in February 2007—a full 10 years after his arrest.
“These DNA exoneration cases have provided irrefutable proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events, but arise from systemic defects that can be precisely identified and addressed,” Lieu said.
Lieu’s bill would also clarify standards for DNA testing.
California was the first state to use DNA at the trial level and enact a set of DNA laws, said Brooks.
Lara Bazelon, director of the Project for the Innocent at Loyola Law School, said Lieu’s bill to expand inmates’ ability to obtain and test DNA evidence would be “a huge breakthrough” for those who have been falsely convicted.
“It has the potential to allow for things to move much more quickly,” she said. “This could be the biggest advancement in what I consider to be a very progressive law.”
Bazelon and her group of attorneys helped free Kash Delano Register, a 53-year-old man who was convicted of killing 78-year-old Jack Sasson in Santa Monica in 1979 but had that conviction overturned on Nov. 8.
Attorneys for Register had to work without DNA evidence, which had been destroyed by the time he obtained new counsel.
“Once evidence is destroyed, the burden shifts to the defendant to prove his or her innocence, and often after six months they don’t have [legal] counsel anymore,” said Bazelon. “While a year is still not ideal, it is certainly better than 180 days.”
Lieu’s bill is set for a hearing in the Senate’s Public Safety Committee on April 22.
“I’ve always believed that it is horrific to convict an innocent person. It’s something that I have been very passionate about for a very long time,” Lieu said.