Expand rights to DNA testing; Limiting to Death Row inmates unfair

January 17, 2013 

Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, pre-filed a bill for this legislative session that would extend the right to DNA testing for people convicted of serious violent crimes.

In an era that often seems dominated by political pigeonholing, it might seem surprising that Schickel, a conservative former U.S. marshal and former Boone County jailer, would take on this cause.

His co-sponsor on the bill is Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, perhaps the most liberal member of that body.

That's probably a rare partnership, but Schickel doesn't see this as a liberal or conservative issue but as one of fairness and trust in our legal system.

"It's kind of strange," he told a symposium on criminal-law reform at Northern Kentucky University, that DNA testing is available to Death Row inmates but no one else.

Schickel also said that, unlike many people, he thinks our criminal justice system doesn't make many mistakes. "But we have a responsibility to address any mistakes that do happen."

We know mistakes happen.

In Louisville in 2011 Kerry Porter was released from prison after serving 14 years for a murder he didn't commit. DNA and other evidence allowed by a Jefferson County judge cleared him.

Porter might still be in prison if he'd had the bad luck to come before a different judge.

William Virgil continues serving a 70-year sentence for murder in La Grange. He claims that DNA evidence would clear him, but his request for DNA testing was denied by a Campbell County judge.

Schickel and Stein's bill (SB 23) and a similar one filed in the House by Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, would eliminate this random unfairness by allowing DNA testing for people convicted of the most serious felonies.

It stands to reason that, if people are imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit, the people who did commit those serious crimes have not been caught.

That's why some prosecutors in Kentucky have championed similar legislation in the past.

Kentucky is one of only two states, Alabama is the other, that restricts DNA testing only to those who have received a death sentence.

Previous efforts to right this wrong have failed to make it to the floor of the House.

Advocates are hopeful that, with bipartisan support and efforts afoot in both houses of the General Assembly, this year will be different.

Let's hope they're right. This policy is unfair, undermines faith in our criminal-justice system and allows people who have committed violent crimes to remain free. It's time to change it.

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