The criminal justice system in Utah works, but that doesn’t mean that the system is perfect. One area of the criminal justice system that has changed dramatically over the past 30 years has been the use of DNA evidence it convict or acquit individuals based on the relatively new technological advancement.
But even DNA evidence isn’t perfect. The Innocence Project has successfully overturned 348 cases due to new or better DNA testing of evidence; roughly 30 cases a year since DNA evidence was first used in 1986.
[pullquote]Hillyard’s bill allows justice to better be served through the use of more sophisticated DNA technology post-conviction, and for that reason alone it should be supported. Though such reforms probably could have come sooner, the simple fact is that they are here now and innocent people should never have roadblocks to justice.[/pullquote]As testing has become more sophisticated and less expensive, prosecutors and defendants alike are requesting the tests be done both before and after a conviction has taken place.
Currently, a convicted felon can only request DNA testing if it would yield new evidence “that will establish the person’s factual innocence.” Furthermore, Utah law prohibits DNA testing post-conviction if the accused did not request DNA testing or did not present DNA evidence due to tactical reasons at the time of trial. These provisions made sense when DNA tests were costly and fallibility was not as widely known about – to allow testing in any and all situations was simply a cost-prohibitive measure that required more tactical use (and why should the state pay for it if it “probably” won’t work).
It is a horrible conclusion, but one that was made out of the cost/benefit analysis of the time.
But times change and DNA testing is not the financial burden it once was. Enter Logan Republican, Senator Lyle Hillyard’s SB 76 – Post-Conviction DNA Testing Amendments.
The legislation would remove the requirement that the potential new evidence to be tested must be able to establish innocence before a test can take – instead adding the requirement that the new evidence would provide a “reasonable probability” that the defendant would have either not been convicted or would have received a lesser sentence if the evidence was available at the time. Hillyard’s bill would also allow DNA testing even if the defendant did not originally request or present DNA evidence at trial.
Though these changes may not be drastic, they allow justice to better be served, and for that reason alone it should be supported. Though such reforms probably could have come sooner, the simple fact is that they are here now. Unfortunately there is the practical reality that the passage of this law would create new stresses on the criminal justice system – namely an already overburdened Division of Forensic Services, which has come under fire for not being able to process current DNA requests (particularly rape-kit testing requests) in a timely manner – an issue that could be resolved if and when the state opts to provide the division with more resources.
No doubt this legislation will slow things down in the courts as lawyers debate what actually constitutes “reasonable probability.” However, what also isn’t in doubt is the fact that innocent people should never have roadblocks to justice and all efforts should be made to convict the proper people. SB 76 is one piece of legislation that will better secure this right.
To contact Senator Hillyard, click here or call 435-753-0043.
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