Civil Liberties

Songs of Innocence

DNA testing victory


The team at the Cardozo School of Law's Innocence Project, among other researchers, have used DNA evidence to exonerate 152 people convicted of crimes they didn't commit. Thousands more could still be behind bars, and some of them have just been granted new hope. The Justice for All Act of 2004, signed into law in October, grants federal convicts a right to have potentially exculpatory DNA evidence considered by courts.

Genetic evidence can be vital to establishing a suspect's innocence. Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld, who calls the new law "a major step forward," says that in 25 percent of cases the FBI handles, DNA testing excludes the person who was the primary suspect based on non-DNA evidence. Yet states and courts have been highly inconsistent when it comes to whether convicts are entitled to have access to those potentially exculpatory tests.

Now states will receive $5 million to help cover the costs of testing as part of the Kirk Bloodworth Program, named after the first death row inmate whose innocence was established by DNA evidence. State criminal forensics labs, plagued in recent years by charges of negligence and outright misconduct, will be required to undergo auditing every two years, and grants to fund DNA testing will be contingent upon preservation of DNA samples for post-conviction testing.

The act also provides $775 million to clear a massive backlog of 350,000 samples, which could help to identify guilty rapists and exculpate innocents accused of their crimes; provides money for better representation for indigent defendants in capital cases; and raises the cap on damage awards for the unjustly imprisoned from $5,000 to $50,000 in most cases and $100,000 in capital cases.?