Good Government Spending

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Congress finally passed a bill yesterday authorizing $1 billion to cover the costs for post-conviction DNA testing of inmates. It's shocking that there is a backlog of some 300,000 untested rape kits. Post-conviction DNA testing has exonerated 138 inmates so far and confirmed the guilt of many others. As I wrote in Reason in January 2000: "The federal and state governments should be eager to pay for DNA testing and analysis to be sure that no innocent person has been wrongfully imprisoned. After all, if the government isn't about rendering justice, what is it about?"

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  1. “The compromise package would give federal inmates access to DNA testing…The legislation would provide financial incentives for states to participate in the program. ”

    I agree, this looks like money well spent. Still, some state courts are working like hell to prevent convicted murderers from getting access to the DNA evidence. I’m wondering how many evidence kits will be burned the day before this one is signed.

  2. For prosecutors, the government is about zealously defending your conviction ration at all costs–including the cost of suppressing evidence that might free a wrongfully convicted man, if necessary.

  3. I would note that not every rape kit needs to be tested — of that 300,000, I would expect that only a small fraction relate to cases in which there is a serious question about the accused’s guilt. (Which is all the more reason to get underway testing that smaller number, of course.)

  4. Alkali, I don’t know the number of convicts who want DNA tests performed, but I’d guess that it’s a very high percentage. I know that if I were doing time, especially if I were on death row, I’d demand DNA testing whether I was innocent or guilty. If I were guilty, I’d want the tests done on the off chance that an error is made which leads to my exoneration. The worst that could happen would be for me to stay in prison.

    But I still favor testing on demand wherever it’s possible; certainly there will be a lot of money wasted on guilty people, but the few innocents who are freed are worth the cost.

  5. Leaving the decision to test to the courts or DAs is way too much of a conflict for my taste.

  6. This develoment makes me wonder. For convicts who have DNA testing done, can the DNA samples be used as evidence in future trials?

  7. I think it would hardly seem necessary to note that the government is mostly about coercing people into doing things that they dont want to do, so I dont really know why it was necessary to ask.

  8. alkali,

    So who’s to determine in what cases there’s a serious doubt of guilt? The prosecutors?

  9. One of the OJ lawyers runs a project for finding inmates who might be exonerated by DNA evidence. I was under the impression that the lawyers for the inmate would need to convince a judge that DNA testing is warranted. But I suppose there’re a number of legal hurdles to jump, and convincing the police to retrieve the samples and have them tested is difficult.

    Thankfully, this is all a one-shot deal, since anyone prosecuted recently probably will have already had the testing performed… so there’s a definite limit to the possible number of tests to be performed.

  10. I wrote:

    … I would expect that only a small fraction [of rape kits] relate to cases in which there is a serious question about the accused’s guilt.

    Kevin Carson wrote:

    So who’s to determine in what cases there’s a serious doubt of guilt? The prosecutors?

    I am not proposing some procedural barrier to DNA testing; I’m just pointing out that there are many, many cases in which a convicted defendant can be certain that a DNA test will not clear him, and probably would not seriously pursue DNA testing. I’m thinking primarily of cases where the defendant accepted a plea bargain and confessed guilt in light of other evidence (though there will be a few such cases in which a defendant would seek to retract his plea), but you could also include cases where consent was the only issue in dispute (in which case the DNA would prove nothing). That suggests to me that opening the door wide to DNA testing does not mean we have to test all 300,000 rape kits.

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