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Science Is Evolving, and the Law May Be With It

The science of forensic DNA identification has improved exponentially in recent years. As increasing technological advances and growing databases have furthered the ability of law enforcement officers to identify perpetrators and eliminate suspects, so too has the number of DNA exonerations increased. This has led to the release of men and women who were wrongfully convicted of crimes, sometimes many years ago.

An overview compiled by the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization, shows that since the first DNA exoneration in 1989, there have been 310 additional post-DNA exonerations in 36 states. In 152 of those cases, the DNA evidence led to the identification of the true suspects and/or perpetrators.

This developing technology, along with the growing number of exonerations resulting from DNA evidence, has weakened the presumption that all verdicts are correct — which has, until now, been one of the underpinnings of restriction on post-conviction relief.

Some problematic legal issues do still exist, however. These types of post-conviction requests do not fit well into existing procedures or established constitutional doctrine. For a potential DNA exoneration to take place, the evidence must be discovered, the testing paid for by the state and the right to present the evidence in a judicial proceeding granted. All of these actions must first be petitioned by the inmate, and the current law in many jurisdictions is unclear as to what legal theory entitles a petitioner to have these requests approved.

As technology becomes even more accurate, there is a continuing push to resolve the legal uncertainty and make the process of post-conviction DNA testing more navigable. In the meantime, many prosecutors, defense attorneys and trial courts are working cooperatively to assess cases, seek evidence and arrange for DNA testing.

Exoneration based on DNA evidence is a real possibility for those who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes, and many states (including New York) offer compensation for those who have been wrongfully convicted. The first step in this process is to speak with a skilled criminal defense lawyer. 

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