LANSING-Although old DNA evidence is often
spoiled, lost or further incriminates inmates law enforcement officials in
Oakland County are welcoming legislation that could use such evidence
Some lawmakers are trying to push back an end-of-the-year deadline for prisoners convicted before January 2001 to request new trials based on DNA evidence.
The proposed new deadline in 2009 would give more time to inmates, lawyers and advocacy groups to find biological evidence that could exonerate a number of prisoners.
Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca said he regularly receives requests for old DNA evidence, but retesting often only confirms the inmates’ guilt.
"Anything that enhances justice and prevents innocent people from being convicted, we support," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, the DNA usually incriminates them."
Gorcyca, vice president of the Prosecuting Attorney's Association of Michigan, added that evidence retention is a huge issue for law enforcement agencies - with police departments having to hold evidence another three years if the measure is passed.
But he said he and the association have been vocal proponents of the extended deadline if it means innocent people could be freed.
Oakland County now uses DNA testing in trials whenever is possible and necessary, but the technology has been advanced only since the early 1990s.
Lt. Carl Fuhs of the West Bloomfield Police Department said the proposal is necessary, but new testing most likely won't free many prisoners.
"If there are innocent I don't want to see them in jail. I want to see the truth be out,” Fuhs said. “Nobody wants to see innocent people in jail, but I think there's very few innocent people in jail."
Because some trials took place before adequate DNA testing became efficient or available, supporters of the bill want prisoners to get a chance to have critical evidence rechecked.
"We want obviously to convict guilty people and obviously people that did not commit a crime should not be convicted wrongfully," said co-sponsor Rep. David Law, R-West Bloomfield. "It's only been in the recent past that the use of DNA has really exploded in enhancing our ability to track down criminals."
Other sponsors include Reps. John Stakoe, R-Highland, Paul Condino, D-Southfield, John Garfield, R-Rochester Hills, Clarence Phillips, D-Pontiac, and Shelley Taub, R-Bloomfield Hills,
In most cases, the prisoners pay for the DNA testing, Law said. But if the inmate or the inmate's family can't pay, the state will foot the bill.
The House and Senate have passed the measure, which now goes to Gov. Jennifer Granholm for action.
Updating laws to fit with technological advances is something the Legislature will have to continually deal with, and this is one of the steps, said Sen. Michael Bishop, R-Rochester, vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
" This is going to have to be a wakeup call for all police agencies, " he said. "We as a country are now going to have to accept the fact that this DNA testing is here." DNA proved useful in 2003 for Macomb County resident
Kenneth Wyniemko, who was freed after serving nine years of a 40-to-60 year sentence for criminal sexual conduct. After a retesting of the evidence, the State Police concluded Wyniemko couldn't have been the attacker, and he was released.
Only one other prisoner in Michigan has been freed as a result of DNA testing since 2001.
Despite the small number of overturned convicionts, law enforcement officials called the proposal an important step toward making sure the right people have been convicted.
"There isn't anyone in the law enforcement community that doesn't value the weight of DNA evidence," said Lake Orion Police Chief Jerry Narsh. "We spend our lives seeking the truth, and DNA is a wonderful tool to help us."
But Narsh added that if more inmates request testing of old evidence and biological materials, then the state should pay for the increased demand on police time.
"If you had another 25,000 prisoners demand their stuff be done overnight - I'm sorry, but new cases take precedence," he said.
Fuhs also said cost is a concern, as finding and testing old evidence are time consuming and new police are unfamiliar with closed cases.
"Just reviewing the case is time consuming," he said. "The detectives that worked on it probably aren't around anymore."
A lack of resources and personnel is one reason it can take up to a year and a half to find and test evidence from closed cases, said David Fell, director of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School Innocence Project in Lansing.
That's is why the three-year deadline extension is so important, he added.
The Innocence Project is a clinic of law school faculty, professors and students that works to free wrongfully convicted inmates by finding DNA evidence and petitioning for retrials.
The group considers only closed cases in which all appeals and avenues to retrials have been exhausted, Fell said. The Innocence Project has received more than 25,000 cases to examine, but is now working on only 150 to 200. Between 15 and 25 new cases arrive each week.
Although only two Michigan inmates have been freed as a result of DNA testing, Fell said the program successfully exposed problems in the judicial system, including improper interrogation tactics, false confessions and problematic eyewitness accounts, he said.
"If there's one guy out there who gets out, then it's a success," Fell said.