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Exonerations stir bids to expand DNA testing

A cautiously watched measure seeks to allow DNA tests even for those who pleaded guilty.

Published January 30, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Florida lawmakers have a fresh and vivid example of the power of DNA technology in freeing the wrongly convicted: Alan Crotzer.

But less than a week after the St. Petersburg man's release after nearly 24 years in prison, a question is emerging in Tallahassee about how widely available DNA testing should be.

At issue is an expiring state law that has limited testing to cases like Crotzer's, in which the inmate seeking the test was convicted at trial before DNA-testing technology was available.

Now, a powerful state lawmaker and former prosecutor is pushing to allow any person - including those who plead guilty - to request a DNA test. The proposal would also eliminate the time limit inmates have in seeking a review.

"The truth is whatever it is," said state Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami. "You can't mold it to your point of view. If it says you did it, then you did. But if it says you didn't, you didn't."

Villalobos sponsored the original bill in 2001 that created a window for convicts claiming innocence to seek DNA testing. The window closed in October, but the state Supreme Court extended it to July, setting the stage for this year's debate.

Initially, Villalobos said, it was hard to persuade other lawmakers that biological testing was the future. "But now the public has a better understanding of how accurate the tests are," he said.

His desire to make the test widely available to all convicts is molded by his experience as a lawyer and prosecutor. He saw an overburdened justice system that encourages quick resolutions over jury trials. The innocent, he said, get swept up in that tide.

Consider the case of Chris Ochoa.

In 1988, when he was 22, Ochoa pleaded guilty to raping and murdering a woman at a Pizza Hut in Austin, Texas, and was sentenced to life in prison. He was exonerated through DNA evidence in 2001.

"When the police detectives said that I would die in the death chamber if I did not cooperate, I believed them," Ochoa wrote in a letter supporting Villalobos' effort. "The threat of the death penalty was reinforced by the district attorney when he offered the plea bargain to me."

Ochoa, now in law school in Wisconsin, plans to be in Tallahassee next month when debate on the bill (and its companion in the House) resumes, according to the Florida Innocence Initiative, a nonprofit group that worked to free Crotzer. The group and other advocates stress that DNA not only illuminates the innocent but determines the guilty, too. They also note that private funding can be used for the tests, which cost about $1,000.

So far, the major focus of DNA testing has been on wrongful convictions. But of the 174 exonerations nationwide, seven have involved guilty pleas; the rest of the people were convicted at trial.

Despite those numbers, some lawmakers and state officials are hesitant to broaden the scope to all inmates, Villalobos said.

During a House committee meeting last week, lawmakers discussed that aspect but no one forcefully opposed it. It was only a workshop, however, and an upcoming vote could draw out more distinct points of view.

Gov. Jeb Bush, when asked if he had concerns about extending testing to defendants who accepted plea bargains, was noncommittal.

"We're looking at it," Bush said. "... It's just a new part of the bill that we've not fully analyzed."

State Rep. Dick Kravitz, R-Jacksonville, oversaw the discussion last week in the House Criminal Justice Committee. He said he began to realize the value of expanding the law but understands why some people might not.

"There's that assumption among some people who aren't close to the system that people who plead guilty are guilty," he said. Others, he said, think some truly guilty criminals would use DNA testing as a ploy.

"The confession is the gold standard of evidence," said Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at Williams College in Massachusetts. Yet he said police interrogations are profoundly flawed because they can employ trickery - for example, tossing a blank audio cassette before defendants and saying someone else implicated them - or relentless questioning.

"It essentially breaks a person down to the state of despair," Kassin said. "Certainly there is no reason to believe the false confessors who go to trial are the only false confessors out there. The only question is, How many more are there?"

--Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Joni James contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at 850 224-7263 or

[Last modified January 30, 2006, 00:32:10]

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