Access to DNA Bill to Gov’s Desk

Wednesday was an eventful day on the House floor.  Early Tuesday evening, the BBA was notified that the Access to DNA bill (S 1987) would be taken up by the full House the very next day.  As we reported in Issue Spot last summer, the Senate unanimously passed the bill in July.  With yesterday’s passage in the House, the bill is now on its way to Governor Patrick’s desk.

Before the DNA bill was taken up, House Speaker Robert DeLeo gave his annual address to the full House (read text or watch video).  The Speaker used the opportunity to outline his agenda for the remainder of the session.  Shortly after the Speaker made his remarks, House Chairman of the Judiciary Committee Eugene O’Flaherty introduced the DNA bill.  Chairman O’Flaherty, who in past sessions actually sponsored the DNA bill, has always been a strong advocate of this legislation.  Chairman O’Flaherty described the legislation as “monumental,” and went on to say that “what is in front of you today is a piece of legislation all of us can be very proud of.”

O’Flaherty then introduced his Vice-Chairman, John Fernandes, who sponsored the bill this session in the House.  He described the story of Kenneth Waters who spent 18 years in jail for a crime he did not commit and then outlined the provisions of the bill.  Representative Fernandes noted that this bill has been around for several legislative sessions but it was the BBA’s Task Force (Issue Spot wrote about them here) that was able to carve out the objections and create a bill that was acceptable to everyone.  S 1987 has the support of the Massachusetts Attorney General, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and most of the District Attorneys.

As with any new legislation, people want to know “what’s it going to cost?”  Fortunately, this bill will cost the state very little.  The bill requires that any individual filing a motion for testing bear the cost – to the extent they are able to – and there is federal funding through the Department of Justice that specifically off-sets the costs of post-conviction DNA testing.

Rep. Fernandes said that whatever the members’ doubts have been about costs or impact, it has to be overcome by our obligation to get it right.  He gave a few quick stats:

  • There have been over 280 cases across the US in which post-conviction access to DNA testing has led to releases or reversals of decisions – some of which have led to the conviction of the actual perpetrator.
  • 17 cases involved persons on death row.
  • The average length of time served by those wrongfully convicted is 13 years.

Rep. Fernandes concluded by saying, “We hold freedom highest among the rights that we cherish.  One day, one week, one year, is too long for anybody [who is wrongfully convicted] to be held in prison.”

Following the remarks on the House floor, the DNA bill passed unanimously.  Since there were no changes from the version the Senate passed this summer, the bill goes directly to the Governor’s desk and he has 10 days to sign it.  Assuming the Governor signs it – and indications we have suggest he will – the legislation will become law after 90 days.

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association
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