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Published: Tuesday, 11/14/2000

Death-row inmates get chance for DNA test

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Some of Ohio's 201 death-row inmates will have a chance to get the state to pay for a DNA test that could prove their innocence under guidelines that Attorney General Betty Montgomery released yesterday.

She said she doesn't know how many death-row inmates will fit the criteria so their DNA can be compared with the evidence used in their trials.

But an attorney with the state public defender's office estimated that 15 to 20 inmates could be eligible.

Inmates can petition courts for DNA testing. But they face an uphill battle from the state, which controls the evidence. Under the program, the state will pick up the $400 tab per test.

DNA evidence has been used in U.S. courts since 1986. DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, molecules that contain the genetic “signature” of an individual.

Greg Meyers, chief counsel of the death penalty division in the state Public Defender's Office, said all convicted inmates should have the opportunity for testing, not just those on death row.

“A small step is better than no step at all. There are 46,000 men and women languishing in Ohio's prisons. It is a given that many of them were wrongfully convicted,” Mr. Meyers said.

Ms. Montgomery said she has “complete confidence” that the inmates on death row in Ohio are guilty. “We are not doing this because we believe there are failures in the system. However, we are obligated to use all available means in capital cases to continually build public faith and trust in our criminal justice system,” she added.

To be eligible for the program, death-row inmates must have consistently asserted their innocence, “credible and adequate biological evidence” must exist, and it can be determined that testing will result in exoneration or incrimination of the inmate.

Death-row inmates can apply either to a county prosecutor's office or the attorney general's office. The program is open only to inmates who have not had definitive DNA testing, Ms. Montgomery said.

If the DNA test results are favorable to the inmate, he or she can use the information to petition the courts for a post-conviction hearing, Ms. Montgomery said. The test results will not automatically result in an inmate being freed.

Ms. Montgomery said the program does not require legislation or any action by the judiciary.

But Mr. Meyers said legislation is needed, because Ohio has 960 law-enforcement agencies, and all have separate protocols on how to handle DNA evidence and how long to keep it.

Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said the “theory and purpose” of the DNA testing program is solid, but she said issues need to be “ironed out.”

“If we are going to do this, why would we limit it to capital defendants? Persons convicted of rape by force of a child under 13 face a life sentence. Why would we not allow that individual the same avenues?” she said.



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