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Lawmakers reach agreement on DNA testing bill
By Associated Press
Published: 10/01/2003

House and Senate lawmakers were completing final details Tuesday of an agreement on a five-year, $1 billion bill that would ensure DNA testing for death row inmates who claim innocence.
The bipartisan compromise, which would end five years of often-uphill battles over the proposal, is expected to be endorsed Wednesday by chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees. The bill would include the Bush administration's $755 million program for DNA testing to clear a backlog of rape cases and also would provide grants for DNA training.
Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., said Tuesday that leaders in the House and Senate have been involved in the compromise, and he is cautiously optimistic that a bill will pass both chambers this year.
"I think this is something of profound consequence," he said. "This is about protecting innocent people and ensuring that those who are culpable of capital crimes are held responsible."
Delahunt, a former prosecutor, said he would introduce the legislation today with a number of Republican leaders including House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., and Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Previously Sensenbrenner had been reluctant to back the bill.
Death penalty supporters and opponents are among co-sponsors, and Delahunt said the key to such universal backing is that widespread DNA testing will help guarantee that justice is served.
Initially called the Innocence Protection Act, Delahunt's bill would prohibit states from denying death row inmates access to DNA testing to try and prove their innocence, so long as certain criteria are met.
The proposal has triggered fears that easier access to DNA challenges would lead to a deluge of frivolous lawsuits from prisoners. Advocates of the legislation, including Peter Neufeld, who founded the Innocence Project at the Benjamin Cardozo law school in New York, have said passage of the bill would double the number of people in prison who would be exonerated.
The legislation scheduled to be introduced would combine the Delahunt bill with other initiatives including the Debbie Smith Act, which is designed to clear a backlog of hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits. Those are evidence folders containing DNA material from rape cases.
The bill also would provide money to help states defray costs of the DNA testing and authorize grants to improve the quality of legal representation provided to indigent defendants in capital cases.
Since 1976, when the Supreme Court allowed states to reinstate the death penalty, 111 people in 25 states have been cleared through DNA evidence and released after spending years on death row for crimes they did not commit.


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