The governor has signed a bill that would expand access to DNA testing for people hoping to prove they were wrongly convicted.
The new law no longer requires someone to be in prison to seek the testing and eases the standard that would allow for the DNA tests.
Oregon was one of the earliest states to adopt a post-conviction DNA testing law in 2001, but courts have granted only one request for the testing in the last 14 years.
"Oregon's statute had been one of the most restrictive. Now it's more consistent with what many other states have been doing,'' said Steve T. Wax, who has served as legal director of Oregon's Innocence Project since October after retiring from a 31-year career as Oregon's federal public defender.
Twenty-three of the nation's 330 wrongful convictions proven by DNA evidence involved people whose testing occurred after they served their time and were no longer locked up, according to Oregon's Innocence Project.
Oregon had no exonerations under the old law "because there just weren't any tests,'' Wax said.
Proponents of the new legislation testified that 36 other states don't require somebody to be incarcerated to be eligible for post-conviction DNA testing and showed that those states haven't reported a flood of litigation as a result.
The new law allows a court to grant post-conviction testing if a person can show there's a reasonable possibility that it would "lead to a finding of actual innocence,'' rather than the current requirement that the test itself would have to "establish actual innocence.''
Wax argued that the old requirement ignored the reality of crime investigations. Often DNA will lead to new avenues of investigation that may help point to other evidence that proves someone else was responsible for a crime, but may not in and of itself "establish actual innocence,'' he said.
In a federal case, Wax helped prove Lisa Marie Roberts, of Southeast Portland, was wrongly convicted of strangling another woman in a 2002 homicide and she was released from custody after having served 14 1/2 years of a 15-year sentence. In April 2014, U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh found that new DNA analysis and other evidence raised doubts about whether Roberts strangled the victim. He dismissed the conviction and Multnomah County decided not to retry her. Roberts was released from custody after having served 14 ½ years of a 15-year sentence.
The old law restricted post-conviction DNA testing to anyone imprisoned for a crime against a person or who had been convicted of murder or a sex crime. They were required to file an affidavit of innocence with the court and identify specific evidence that would establish their "actual innocence.''
Under the new law, the convicted person would still have to file an affidavit of innocence but would only have to identify evidence to be tested, with as much specificity as practical.
The Innocence Project, Oregon's attorney general, the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police and the ACLU of Oregon were among the groups that supported the legislation.
The Oregon District Attorneys Association approved of some of the changes made to the bill during the legislative session, but took a neutral stance.
In written testimony, Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill cited concerns about the standard allowed for DNA testing that included the phrase "lead to a finding'' of actual innocence. Underhill, speaking on behalf of state prosecutors, called the phrase "ambiguous.''
"This statute should not provide a right to relitigate guilt under the guise of an ambiguous term,'' Underhill said in his testimony.
While the prosecutors' association was neutral on the bill, some district attorneys were opposed to it.
Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis doesn't consider the current law on post-conviction DNA testing too restrictive.
"We all agree that DNA tests should be available to any defendant who is actually innocent regardless of what stage of the proceedings, but this bill will allow defendants who are still actually guilty to dredge up rape and even murder cases that may be decades old in order to simply mitigate their sentence not prove their innocence,'' Marquis said.
The bill signed into law also sets out for the petitioner a right to have an attorney at all stages of proceedings, and directs the state police lab to conduct the DNA tests, unless the court or the parties agree to have testing done elsewhere.
The new law also requires the court, when it denies a petition to test DNA post-conviction, to explain the reason for the denial. Since appeals of such denials were allowed in 2013, at least 18 defendants have asked the state public defenders office to help with the appeals. Proponents of the new law argued that having the court explain the reasons for the denial could reduce the number of appeals.
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