Tuesday, November 14, 2000

Death row DNA tests OK'd

Prisoners get shot to prove innocence

By Debra Jasper
Columbus Enquirer Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Prosecutors Monday announced a program to help some of the 201 inmates on Ohio's death row prove their innocence.

        Attorney General Betty Montgomery said she is implementing the Capital Justice Initiative to ensure inmates who have repeatedly claimed their innocence have a last opportunity to establish they are telling the truth.

        Ms. Montgomery said she and the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association developed the program because people need to have more confidence in the criminal justice system. She emphasized they do not think innocent people are on Ohio's death row.

        The program sets up a process that allows eligible inmates to ask the state or a county prosecutor's office to conduct the DNA tests, which cost about $1,500 each.

        In the past, inmates who wanted DNA testing had to work through their attorneys to petition a judge to allow the tests. The state sometimes opposed such petitions.

        Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen, who was at Ms. Montgomery's side on Monday when she revealed details about the program, said he backs such testing because “it's important to insure that no one who is truly innocent be incarcerated.”

        Mr. Allen said Hamilton County is confident its prosecutors have done their jobs

        well and only the guilty are on death row.

        “This protocol should bolster confidence in the criminal justice system,” he said.

        He added, however, “If this helps free one individual wrongly convicted, it's worth it.”

        Hamilton County has sent 48 people to death row — more than any other county in Ohio.

        Ohio has executed one person in the past 19 years, in 1999, and that was because Wilford Berry demanded that all appeals cease. The other inmates are pursuing their appeals.

        To be eligible for the state-paid DNA testing, an inmate must have maintained innocence and must have a case with credible and adequate biological evidence that could definitely result in exoneration or incrimination.

        In addition, applicants must have a sufficient quantity and quality of DNA evidence available for testing. A result favorable to the applicant, by itself, must be able to exonerate the inmate.

        If inmates meet those and other criteria, and the results turn out favorable, they can use the tests to establish grounds for a new court hearing.

        Ms. Montgomery noted that many of the inmates on death row do not have cases involving DNA evidence and will not be eligible. Some were put on death row before DNA was even collected or used in 1986.

        Others, however, had just rudi mentary DNA testing performed and might be eligible for new, more sophisticated tests, she said.

        Officials said they had no idea how many eligible inmates would ask for the tests, but Mr. Allen said his office will lean toward granting such requests.

        “I don't care if it costs us $500 or $5,000,” Mr. Allen said. “It's the right thing to do.”

        Ms. Montgomery said conducting such tests is more risky for the inmate than the state because tests that confirm guilt can be used against an inmate during the appeals process.

        “We'd like to think the justice system knows that every person on death row is guilty,” she said. Still, she said, “It's more of a crapshoot, if you will, for the defendant.”

        Gregory Meyers, chief of the Ohio Public Defender Commission's death penalty division, called the DNA initiative “a small but important step forward.”

        If the program works well with death row inmates, Ms. Montgomery said, it may be expanded to include inmates convicted of sexual assault or other crimes more likely to involve DNA evidence.

        “Clearly, where DNA works the most miracles is in sexual assault cases,” she said.

        The Capital Justice Initiative announced Monday by state prosecutors allows Ohio's death row inmates to apply to have their DNA compared with evidence used in the trials that resulted in their conviction.

        • DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, are molecules that contain the unique “signature” of an individual. All cells in the body contain DNA; it does not change over the course of one's lifetime and no two people — except identical twins — have the same DNA.

        • DNA evidence has been used in the United States since 1986 and is accepted as evidence in every U.S. jurisdiction.

        • Identifying a suspect's DNA at a crime scene does not necessarily mean the person is guilty of a crime. It may be only one part of the evidence that ultimately implicates or exonerates a suspect.

        • Ohio's Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation opened its DNA lab in 1998 at a cost of $2.5 million. The program employs 14 scientists and uses DNA technology that yields exclusionary results as accurate as one in 29 quadrillion. In 1999 BCI ran more than 1,400 tests, at a cost of approximately $1,500 per test.

        • DNA testing is open to any of Ohio's death row inmates under the new program, but it's anticipated only a small number will meet the criteria.


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