For Kirk Bloodsworth and his family, it was pure relief Friday when prosecutors announced a new suspect in the 1984 rape and murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton.

But amid the hugs and congratulatory phone calls, and the joy that suspicions about Bloodsworth's role in the killing had been put to rest, there lingered serious questions - queries that fit into a growing national debate about the use of DNA evidence to convict and exonerate.

As DNA technology becomes more sophisticated and better known, defense attorneys and justice reform advocates pushing for guaranteed access to DNA testing are finding themselves more at odds with prosecutors, who want to limit it. Their struggle is playing out in courtrooms and statehouses across the country.

Legislation is expected in Congress this year that would guarantee inmates access to DNA testing and force police departments to preserve evidence.

"This is fresh evidence for our drive to enact reforms to make post-conviction DNA testing more readily available," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who has sponsored DNA legislation, said Friday after learning of the new suspect in Dawn's murder. "Who at this point can argue against the importance of preserving DNA evidence and making it available to help make sure we convict the truly guilty and exonerate the truly innocent?"

Some lawmakers lean more toward a 2001 Florida law, which put a two-year deadline on inmates' post-conviction DNA requests. After the Oct. 1, 2003, deadline, police departments will be able to destroy evidence that might be used for DNA testing.

In Bloodsworth's case, the questions are about timing.

He was convicted of Dawn's murder in 1985. Although DNA evidence freed him from prison in 1993, he had remained - unofficially - a suspect.

When Baltimore County prosecutors announced Friday that DNA evidence from that long-ago crime matched that of Maryland prison inmate Kimberly Shay Ruffner, whose genetic profile was stored in the state's DNA database of convicted felons, Bloodsworth's supporters started asking what had taken so long. The state established its DNA database of convicted sex offenders in 1994, a year after Bloodsworth was released from prison. Why didn't police test it until last month?

Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor referred that question to the Baltimore County Police Department. Police spokesman Bill Toohey said technological advances and the department's new focus on old cases prompted personnel to look for testable evidence.

Attorney Barry Scheck, who helped exonerate Bloodsworth and who is the co-founder of the Innocence Project, which attempts to free the wrongly convicted, sees it differently.

"Sometimes they're much too slow because they're worried about embarrassment," he said. "This took entirely too long. There's no reason for it."

Defenders' mistrust

The nine-year wait shows just how long DNA-related steps can take. And the questions themselves show the mistrust some defense attorneys have of prosecutors' treatment of DNA evidence - especially when it reveals mistakes in the justice system.

Defense attorneys, who are trying to use DNA in more and older cases, said cases such as Bloodsworth's show why evidence should be preserved indefinitely. Advocates and legislators are pushing for laws that would demand such preservation, and guarantee inmates' access to testing.

Prosecutors facing a slew of seemingly never-ending appeals, as well as some lawmakers, have a different perspective.

Josh Marquis, who is the district attorney in Astoria, Ore., and sits on the board of directors of the National District Attorneys Association, said his organization opposed much of Leahy's legislation, the "Innocence Protection Act" - and not because it did not want to see innocent people go free.

"I don't know of any prosecutor who, in good conscience, if presented with evidence that this person did not do it, would not want a DNA test," Marquis said. He added that his organization agrees DNA testing should be available to inmates if it will prove guilt or innocence. But often, he said, DNA is a small part of a large picture of evidence.

In June in Baltimore County, for instance, DNA evidence showed that hairs used to connect a man named Chris Conover to a 1984 double murder were not his. But prosecutors have maintained Conover's guilt, saying that while the new revelation voided his conviction, it did not prove his innocence. They said they would not try to match that DNA to profiles stored in the state's database.