After Proven Guilty
Legislation would require DNA testing for death row inmates claiming innocence
Kellie A. Wagner
The Connecticut Law Tribune
April 25, 2001
In the wake of growing controversy about capital punishment, a federal Innocence Protection Act, which would improve the quality of representation for indigent defendants in capital cases and ensure federal and state inmates access to DNA testing, has garnered more support on its second appearance on Capitol Hill.
The proposed bill could affect Connecticut and other states by requiring that DNA testing be available to inmates in order for states to receive federal grants for DNA-related programs.
The bill would also prohibit states from denying applications for DNA testing by death row inmates, if the DNA technology has the potential to lead to new exculpatory evidence to support an inmate's claim of actual innocence.
Connecticut Executive Assistant State's Attorney Judith Rossi said she believed most state prosecutors would not oppose DNA testing if such methods were not available at the time of the crime.
"DNA is not an issue on death row in Connecticut," Rossi said of the seven inmates now facing execution in the state. "No death row inmate is claiming they could be exonerated by DNA testing."
The use of advanced technology, however, has encouraged attorneys on both sides to take advantage of such tools in many homicide cases, Rossi said.
Rossi said a section of the bill dealing with competent legal services, which calls for a national commission on capital representation to develop standards for providing adequate legal representation for the indigent, is also not a problem for the state of Connecticut. Rossi characterized established services here as "way ahead of the curve."
"Connecticut has one of the best capital defense units in the country," Rossi said of the Public Defender's Capital Defense and Trial Services Unit. "I don't think [the bill] infringes upon us at all."
Ronald Gold, senior assistant public defender for the Capital Defense Unit, said he was in favor of the concept behind the bill.
"We have an imperfect system," Gold said. "Innocent people do get convicted."
Danbury, Conn., criminal defense attorney Dom Chieffalo said the bill would "level the playing field" for the indigent, while attorney James Ruane, of Bridgeport's Gaston & Ruane, called the bill a "step in the right direction."
Sponsoring the House bill for a second time are Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Massachusetts, a former prosecutor who opposes capital punishment, and Rep. Ray LaHood, D-Illinois, a longtime death penalty supporter.
"Prosecutors have enormous power, and even the best make mistakes," Delahunt said in a press release. "We have the tools to make sure that innocent lives aren't lost. Whatever your view on the death penalty itself, we have a profound responsibility to put these tools to use."
Steve Schwadron, Delahunt's chief of staff, said that, as of last week, the bill had 175 cosponsors in the House.
"We are very focused on this project," Schwadron said. "We will work on it until it is [passed]. Whether it is this year, next year, or in years to come."
Schwadron said the three sections to the bill, one dealing with exonerating the innocent, the second ensuring competent legal services in capital cases, and a third section for miscellaneous provisions, were a reflection of teamwork from both proponents and opponents of capital punishment.