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Lawyers ask high court for inmate DNA access

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- Florida lawyers, uncertain of whether the Legislature will give inmates access to DNA tests, are appealing directly to the state Supreme Court.

The Florida Bar Association filed an emergency petition with the court Thursday, asking justices to speed their review of a proposed rule granting inmates the right to DNA tests that could prove their innocence.

Despite pending legislation that essentially would do the same, Bar executive director John F. Harkness told justices the matter is an emergency "because there is presently no mechanism for a person convicted of a crime ... to apply for DNA testing to establish that he or she is actually innocent of the offense."

Bar spokeswoman Francine Walker said Thursday the proposal would extend to any criminal case involving DNA evidence.

Under the proposal, and in bills pending before the state House and Senate, inmates would have two years to request the DNA test.

They must swear they are innocent and must state that, if a DNA test already was completed, that improved technology would yield a more accurate result.

The Bar's proposed rule deviates from the House bill, though not the Senate bill, in that it would extend the DNA access even to inmates who have pleaded guilty or confessed to a crime.

The sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Randy Ball, R-Mims, amended his bill earlier this month to exclude people who pleaded guilty. Opponents of the amendment have said some people plead guilty, even when they are not, to get a lesser sentence.

Walker said the Bar decided to file its petition in case the Legislature fails to approve the bills.

"You never know with legislation," Walker said.

Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said Chief Justice Charles Wells now must decide when to hear the case.

As a result of DNA testing, there have been about 80 post-conviction exonerations in the United States, with at least 10 of them for death row inmates. New York, Illinois and California have adopted laws requiring DNA testing in cases where it could determine guilt or innocence.

The death penalty reform that state lawmakers approved last year failed to make any specific provision for access to DNA testing for inmates who might be innocent.

Gov. Jeb Bush supported the reform, which the Florida Supreme Court later declared unconstitutional.

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