A Race to Avoid Being Dead Last: MA Needs Access to DNA Now

In less than two weeks, the Judiciary Committee will be holding a public hearing on the BBA’s bill on access to DNA evidence.  Sponsored by Senator Cynthia Creem and Representative John Fernandes, S 753 and H 2165 are on the June 8th agenda in Gardner Auditorium.  Massachusetts likes to think of itself as cutting edge and as an innovator of ideas and practices.  But the sad truth is that Massachusetts is one of only two states that does not guarantee access to DNA testing.  Oklahoma is the other.

The hearing is just the next step in a process that began in the fall of 2008 when then BBA President Kathy Weinman formed a task force to study reforms needed in Massachusetts to reduce the risk of convicting innocent people.   After fourteen months of work, the Task Force released its report titled Getting it Right: Improving the Accuracy and Reliability of the Criminal Justice System in Massachusetts.  Guiding the work of this Task Force was the understanding that for every person wrongfully convicted, a criminal is free to commit more crimes.

This Report, an impressive achievement, did not just sit on a shelf gathering dust after it was published.  Instead it has been a critical part of the conversations we’ve had with members of the legislature and our partners in public safety.  We’ve discussed the process that led to the Report and described how it’s more than just undoing a wrongful conviction, but bringing justice to victims by convicting the guilty.  In all of our meetings there has been a shared understanding of the importance of having a statute like this in Massachusetts.  Often we’ve been met with enthusiasm to help get this done in Massachusetts, and also questions as to why this hasn’t been done before.

An access to DNA statute is important because it is not uncommon for a person to exhaust all possible appeals without being allowed access to DNA evidence from the case.  Sometimes the DNA evidence that was available at the time of the defendant’s trial was never tested or the methods of DNA testing used at the time of the trial were inexact, yielding unreliable results.

In practice, Massachusetts does much of what this bill proposes.  In many cases, access to DNA is granted to the defendant.  The Massachusetts State Police Crime Lab maintains all DNA evidence indefinitely and their facilities meet the highest standards of the field.  To his credit, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley has been doing this for years.  The problem is that none of this is required by law.

Massachusetts has to pass this bill now.  The Oklahoma Bar Association passed a resolution last September establishing a commission to address the reliability and accuracy of convictions in their state.  This comes two years after we created our Task Force and nearly one year after Getting it Right was released.  Massachusetts could end up being the only state in the country without post-conviction access to DNA.  Wouldn’t that be embarrassing?

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

BostonBar Association

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