An End to DNA Test Waivers?

The Washington Post reports the Justice Department is reviewing a Bush Administration policy that required some criminal defendants to agree to waive their right to DNA testing as a part of plea deals.

The practice of using DNA waivers began several years ago as a response to the Innocence Protection Act of 2004, which allowed federal inmates to seek post-conviction DNA tests to prove their innocence. More than 240 wrongly convicted people have been exonerated by such tests, including 17 on death row.

The waivers are filed only in guilty pleas and bar defendants from ever requesting DNA testing, even if new evidence emerges. Prosecutors who use them, including some of the nation’s most prominent U.S. attorneys, say people who have admitted guilt should not be able to file frivolous petitions for testing. They say the wave of DNA exonerations has little impact in federal court because all those found to be innocent were state prisoners, and the waivers apply only to federal charges. DNA evidence is used far more frequently in state courts.

But DNA experts say that’s about to change because more sophisticated testing will soon bring biological evidence into federal courtrooms for a wider variety of crimes. Defense lawyers who have worked on DNA appeals strongly oppose the waivers, saying that innocent people sometimes plead guilty — mainly to get lighter sentences — and that denying them the ability to prove their innocence violates a fundamental right. One quarter of the 243 people exonerated by DNA had falsely confessed to crimes they didn’t commit, and 16 of them pleaded guilty.

I had not been aware of this policy, and I am glad to see that it is under review.