The compromise Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology Act pending in Congress would revive a “critically important measure to prevent erroneous convictions in death penalty cases,” the Washington Post editorializes. The measure marries legislation sponsored by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) with President Bush’s initiative to reduce the backlog of evidence awaiting DNA testing.
The law would ensure that evidence in federal criminal cases is preserved for post-conviction testing, and would create financial incentives for states to adopt rules on such testing and also improve defense representation in death penalty cases. The incentives would be powerful if funding is adequate. States accepting the money would be bound by standards and subject to review by the Justice Department’s inspector general. For states that opt in, the bill would mean fewer wrongful convictions in death penalty cases and fewer obstacles in the way of convicts’ using DNA to correct errors when they do happen.
The Post is concerned that the bill “is all carrot and no stick.” A state willing to forgo the new money could do so and continue providing bad defense lawyers. The newspaper also worries “that the states most in need of reform are least likely to subject themselves to federal oversight.” Still, enacctment of the bill “would mean recognition by Congress that America’s death penalty poses unacceptable risks to innocent people, and a start at lessening those risks,” the Post believes.