Thursday, 17 July 2008

"Bitter Pill” Add-On Sinks Bill to Overturn Wrongful Convictions

Rhonda Fields, a DNA analyst with the State Law Enforcement Division, works with DNA samples from convicted criminals. Fields is based at SLED headquarters on Broad River Road in Columbia. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe


By Corey Hutchins

A bill that could help prisoners wrongly convicted in South Carolina overturn their convictions with help from new science and DNA analysis got the axe from Gov. Mark Sanford earlier this month.

Sanford vetoed the bill because of a last-minute “bitter pill amendment” to it, says Columbia lawyer Joe McCulloch, president of the Palmetto Innocence Project.

The project is an independent volunteer-based organization that works with the national Innocence Project in New York. Its focus is educating law enforcement and state legislatures about new science involving evidence gathering, the post-conviction process and using DNA to clear prisoners wrongly convicted of crimes, among other issues.

The original bill would have established statewide rules for evidence preservation and created a legal path to get prisoners who could prove their innocence through DNA back in front of a judge.

That legislation seemed to be on the fast track to passing but was torpedoed at the 11th hour by political maneuvering, McCulloch says.

At the end of the legislative session, lawmakers lifted language from a different and controversial DNA bill, which the governor had vetoed, and added it to the original legislation.

The tacked-on language, added on the last day of the legislative session, exploded any chance of the bill he supported passing, McCulloch says.

The amendment would have made it OK for police to take DNA swabs from people arrested for serious crimes before they were convicted, authority that critics say could open a door to Orwellian-style misuse by the government.

In his veto message, Sanford said he couldn’t live with that provision of the bill but lauded the original language.

“We applaud the first part of the bill because it provides those who may have been wrongly accused a chance to clear their names and we fully support the notion of due process in all cases,” Sanford wrote in a July 2 veto letter to Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who presides over the state Senate. “If this were the only provision of [the bill], we would have signed this legislation into law.”

Since 2005, the Palmetto Innocence Project has pushed for passage of legislation that would create a process to get wrongly convicted prisoners in front of a judge, if DNA could prove their innocence.

“We don’t have that path today,” McCulloch says. “Our system is not geared to recognize mistakes later on.”

By using DNA evidence to clear innocent prisoners of crimes they were convicted of, 218 exonerations have occurred nationwide, according to the national Innocence Project.

The issue is particularly crucial in death penalty convictions, which are coming under increasing scrutiny in parts of the country.

In 2000, Republican Illinois Gov. George Ryan put a moratorium on that state’s death penalty, saying in a CNN report, “There is a flaw in the system, without question, and it needs to be studied.”

McCulloch says he argued vigorously to keep the two DNA bills separate based on fears that Sanford wasn’t keen on the government collecting DNA merely on the basis of arrests.
But because lawmakers married the two bills — and the governor subsequently vetoed the hybrid legislation — McCulloch says that any chance of reforming the post-conviction relief process this year has been blocked.

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