As prisoners continue to be freed based on DNA tests, and executions stayed pending DNA tests, should legislators consider implementing mandatory DNA testing when available? DNA tests are not cheap, but it is far cheaper than the cost of imprisoning innocent individuals.
Legislators can rewrite the current criminal codes to require DNA testing of individuals accused of felonies. Or should the law only require DNA testing for individuals prosecuted for certain higher level felonies? Only for murders? Only for sentences over 5 years? Drawing the line is an impossible task, and would force legislators to effectively say only certain crimes deserve the best possible evidence. Until DNA testing becomes a much cheaper procedure, it seems unlikely legislators will make it mandatory in all cases.
On the other hand, DNA tests are not always accurate (although they are widely considered some of the best evidence available). Other evidence can be used to establish an individual was at a crime scene, fingerprints on a murder weapon, etc.
The DNA Fingerprint Act of 2006 allows officials to collect DNA samples from individuals "arrested, facing charges, or convicted" of federal offenses. Seemingly, this allows for greater certainty moving forward in convictions – if DNA testing is actually used during the prosecution.
Perhaps the more troubling issue is the refusal of judges to consider petitions for DNA testing from current prisoners. Many prisoners are forced to petition multiple times, or even appeal the denial of a hearing regarding the test. It is expensive and unsettling to cast doubt on a conviction that was "beyond a reasonable doubt." But when the evidence is available, and it can eliminate any doubt whether a particular individual committed a crime, the price of justice far outweighs any other cost.
Randall Ryder is a consumer rights attorney in Minneapolis, Minnesota