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Court extends deadline for DNA testing

The state Supreme Court will consider eliminating a deadline altogether for inmates who want to challenge their convictions.

By CHRIS TISCH
Published September 29, 2005


The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday extended the opportunity for Florida's prison inmates to challenge their convictions through DNA testing.

The extension came just two days before a deadline could have barred courts from hearing requests from inmates trying to prove their innocence through DNA testing. The court extended the deadline until July 1.

Meanwhile, the court will consider whether to eliminate the deadline altogether, which the Florida Bar Association recommended in a petition filed last week.

"People have realized that you can't really put a limit on innocence," said George Tragos, a Clearwater attorney who is chairman of the bar's criminal procedure rules committee. "Why would anyone want to keep an innocent man in jail just because he missed a deadline?"

The issue of eliminating the deadline also will be taken up in a Senate bill, said Michelle Fontaine, assistant director of the Florida Innocence Initiative in Tallahassee.

"We have always wanted there to be unfettered time for individuals to file these claims," Fontaine said. "The deadline serves no purpose."

The Florida Legislature in 2001 gave prison inmates two years to ask that evidence in their cases be tested for DNA. Many of the inmates were convicted of crimes that occurred years before DNA became a common tool in crime-solving.

Defense attorneys suggested it wasn't enough time. What if innocent inmates didn't learn about the opportunity for DNA testing until it was too late? What if the requests for testing were backlogged at a lab?

The Supreme Court extended the deadline by two years despite opposition from critics who said it would cost too much to store evidence, would clog state labs with unnecessary requests and would deny finality to victims' family members.

Since then, DNA testing has helped to exonerate two men of crimes they didn't commit.

Last year, Wilton Dedge was released from a Florida prison after DNA testing exonerated him of rape. Dedge had served 22 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

In August, Luis Diaz walked out of a Florida prison after DNA testing helped exonerate him of several south Florida rapes. Diaz was behind bars for 26 years.

Two days after Diaz was released, Gov. Jeb Bush signed an executive order requiring prosecutors to preserve physical evidence so it could be tested by state prisoners. The order was a reprieve to inmates because it prohibited prosecutors from throwing away evidence, which they could have done beginning Oct. 1.

Fontaine, whose office receives about 25 requests for DNA testing a week, said opposition to eliminating the deadline has dissolved in the last two years, primarily because of the Dedge and Diaz exonerations, which received widespread media coverage.

"There's a human face to it this time around," Fontaine said. "I think the climate has changed and I don't know that there's going to be any opposition to this right now."

Fontaine said more Florida exonerations may be announced in the next month. Nationwide, about 160 prison inmates have been exonerated by DNA testing.

"It's never made any sense to me to have a deadline," said Martin McClain, who is known for his work defending Florida inmates on death row. "It seems to me if the person is innocent, that's more important than any issue of finality."

McClain won't get an argument from the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

"If someone is innocent and DNA will show that, then we want that testing to be done," said Doug Crow, an executive assistant state attorney. "We don't want anyone to be wrongly convicted or wrongly incarcerated.

"I think that's one of the greatest advantages of DNA testing. It not only can incriminate people, it can exonerate them as well," Crow said. "It's very powerful in doing both."

-- Chris Tisch can be reached at 727 892-2359 or tisch@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 29, 2005, 19:05:44]


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