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Johnson, Mainor, Wilson & Wimberly Bill to Expand Access to DNA Testing & Exonerate the Wrongfully Convicted Gains Final Legislative Approval

Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Gordon Johnson, Charles Mainor, Whip Wilson and Benjie Wimberly to help clear the wrongfully convicted by allowing anyone convicted of a crime to request DNA testing gained final legislative approval on Monday.

New Jersey is one of 14 states with an incarceration requirement in their post-conviction DNA testing statutes, meaning only those who are currently incarcerated can file a motion for DNA testing. The bill (A-1678) would allow any person who has been convicted of a crime to make such a motion.

“Thanks to DNA testing, we have seen a number of individuals exonerated after years, sometimes decades, spent behind bars for crimes they did not commit,” said Johnson (D-Bergen). “Sadly, under current state law, an innocent person who is on probation or parole does not have the same access to the technology that can help clear their name and restore their dignity. This bill would open access to DNA testing to these individuals so they can stop living under the shadow of guilt and finally be free.”

The bill also authorizes the court to order law enforcement officials to submit DNA evidence from a crime scene to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) for testing, and to order the State Police laboratory to evaluate private laboratories for compliance with certain FBI standards.

CODIS is the national DNA database. It is used to match a known suspect to crime or find an unknown suspect who may have entered into the system years earlier. In 153 of the nation’s 316 DNA exonerations, the real perpetrator was subsequently identified, many times through the use of CODIS.

“Last year, two half-brothers from North Carolina were released after spending 30 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Whether their wrongful imprisonment was the result of human error or prosecutorial overzealousness, those are 30 years the brothers will never get back,” said Mainor (D-Hudson). “This is an injustice to them and to the young victim whose killer remains free. Our goal should be not only to free those who have been wrongfully imprisoned, but also to get justice for them and the victims by finding the real perpetrators and preventing them from harming others.”

“We have the technology and ability to clear the wrongfully convicted,” said Wilson (D-Camden/Gloucester). “It would be wrong not to allow it. This is, quite simply, the right and proper thing to do to protect civil rights and ensure justice.”

“Hundreds of post-conviction DNA exonerations in this country have proven that our justice system isn’t always perfect, but there are actions we can take to improve it,” said Wimberly (D-Bergen/Passaic). “This legislation will help ensure that individuals have the proper opportunity to prove their innocence instead of going to prison for a crime they didn’t commit.”

The bill would affect the use of DNA testing in New Jersey the following ways:

Motion by Person Convicted of a Crime: Under current law, any person who has been convicted of a crime and is currently serving a term of imprisonment may make a motion before the court for forensic DNA testing. The bill provides that any person who has been convicted of a crime may make such a motion, whether or not the person currently is imprisoned.

Forensic DNA Testing and CODIS: Current law allows the court to order forensic DNA testing at the request of an incarcerated individual, but does not specifically authorize the court to order law enforcement officials to submit crime scene evidence to CODIS for a search to determine whether the evidence matches another person. This bill would provide the court with that specific authority.

Private Laboratories: The bill contains a provision intended to facilitate the use of accredited private labs for forensic DNA analysis. Under federal law, forensic DNA analysis may be conducted by either a National DNA Index System (NDIS) lab or an accredited private lab; however, the private lab must comply with certain additional requirements if the samples are to be uploaded to CODIS for a search for potential DNA matches. Since private labs do not have direct access to the CODIS database, any DNA profiles they produce can be uploaded to the system only with the assistance of an NDIS lab.

In addition, before testing any samples in a particular case, the private lab must be evaluated by an NDIS lab and receive pre-approval in order for samples to be eligible for uploading to CODIS for a search for potential matches. Currently, if DNA samples are tested by an accredited lab but the lab has not been pre-approved by an NDIS lab, the results of the testing may be used in court, but may not be uploaded to CODIS for a search for potential matches. The bill provides that if a party seeks to conduct DNA analysis at a private lab that otherwise meets the accreditation requirements set forth by current law, that party may request the court to order the NDIS lab to evaluate the private lab.

Lastly, the bill amends the DNA Database and Databank Act of 1994, which requires persons convicted or arrested for certain crimes to submit blood or other biological samples for DNA testing. DNA test results are used for various purposes, including law enforcement identification; research and protocol development of forensic DNA analysis methods; and criminal defenses. The bill would clarify that test results could also be used for defense purposes on behalf of a defendant convicted of a crime, and for the purpose of identifying a match between DNA profile information obtained from crime scene evidence and the DNA profile of a known person or the DNA profile from an unsolved crime.

The bill now goes to the governor’s desk.