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On DNA rules for convicts, Massachusetts lags behind

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  March 30, 2011 11:49 AM

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Massachusetts has seen its share of wrongful convictions. But when it comes to keeping the innocent out of jail, advocates say, the Commonwealth lags far behind.

In response to hundreds of cases nationwide of prisoners winning exoneration after spending years in prison, virtually every state has passed laws guaranteeing convicts access to DNA testing that might prove their innocence. The quality of DNA tests is constantly improving, so about half of states go a step futher, requiring officials to keep evidence indefinitely for future testing.

Massachusetts, however, does neither.

In fact, according to the Innocence Project's state-by-state comparison, Massachusetts has some of the poorest safeguards against wrongful conviction in the nation. Officials aren't required to keep evidence indefinitely, and the Commonwealth is one of only two states that doesn't guarantee access to DNA testing (Oklahoma is the other).

As a practical matter, convicts in Massachusetts get access to tests anyway, as the Globe noted in a 2009 editorial. And evidence is supposed to be preserved.

But to advocates of DNA testing, assurances aren't good enough.

Getting access to DNA tests in the Massachusetts system, said Brandon L. Garrett, professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law and author of Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, "depends on prosecutors volunteering to do it." Instead, Garrett recommends a law with teeth, requiring the preservation of evidence for a wide variety of crimes, and imposing penalties if evidence is destroyed.

The importance of DNA testing was underscored in Garrett's article in this week's Ideas section, which documented widespread problems in traditional eyewitness testimony that often contributes to wrongful convictions. Massachusetts has hardly been immune from such problems — which suggests it shouldn't be so reluctant to embrace solutions.

Globe file photo: Anthony Powell leaves Suffolk Superior Court in 2004 after new DNA evidence cleared him of a rape conviction.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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