Justice must always take precedence

Published 9:44 am Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The rapid evolution of DNA technology has changed the landscape of our criminal justice system, helping to catch those who are guilty of crimes and give prosecutors new tools to locate criminals who have escaped conviction for years.

On the flip side, DNA has also been used in rare instances to exonerate men and women who were imprisoned for a crime they did not commit.

Many of you may have heard the story of Clarence Elkins, who was wrongly convicted of murdering his mother-in-law and raping his 6-year-old niece in the summer of 1998.

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Thanks to the work of the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati, Mr. Elkins was eventually cleared of this heinous crime after DNA from a cigarette butt was used to identify one of his fellow inmates, Earl Mann, as the real perpetrator.

I met Mr. Elkins when he came to the Statehouse a few years ago. It was a terrible thing that happened to him and his family, and his wrongful conviction was also very costly for the state.

He was rightly compensated for the more than seven years he spent in a prison cell at the Mansfield Correctional Institute.

There is also the case of Robert McClendon, a Columbus man who was freed from prison in 2008 after spending 18 years behind bars for a rape he did not commit. A DNA test proved his innocence.

Just as it is important to exercise due diligence to prosecute the guilty, the state must also use the most up-to-date means available to help protect the innocent.

This is the spirit behind legislation that was recently approved by the Ohio House and Senate.

Senate Bill 77, which was sponsored by State Sen. David Goodman (R-New Albany), establishes statewide standards for biological evidence retention and seeks to expand the availability of DNA testing.

The bill was introduced in response to a series of articles in the Columbus Dispatch titled Test of Convictions, which uncovered several problems with Ohio’s DNA testing laws.

SB 77 requires law enforcement agencies to retain biological evidence for up to 30 years in murder and sexual assault cases and five years when a defendant pleads guilty.

The proposal also opens DNA testing to post-conviction offenders who are on probation or parole, are under supervised judicial release, are under post-release control or community control or are on the sex offender registry.

However, SB 77 also helps to expand resources for law enforcement investigating new and old crimes by requiring that DNA samples be collected from anyone arrested on a felony charge.

This will allow police to compare DNA evidence found at the scene of a crime with an extensive database of DNA samples from offenders.

In addition, in an effort to help prevent faulty identifications, SB 77 mandates blind suspect lineups, in which the presiding officer either does not know the identity of the true suspect or uses a photo-lineup procedure where only the witness can see pictures placed in folders.

SB 77 is about preserving the integrity of our justice system, protecting the innocent and strengthening the safety of our local communities by working to ensure that the true criminals are caught and locked away.

John A. Carey is a member of the Ohio Senate and represents the 17th District. He can be reached at the Ohio Senate, Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio 43215 or by phone at (614) 466-8156. You can also visit his Ohio Senate Web site at www.ohiosenate.gov/john-carey.