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Bloodsworth's case sharpens DNA debate

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

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

As DNA technology becomes more sophisticated and better known, defenseattorneys and justice reform advocates pushing for guaranteed access to DNAtesting are finding themselves more at odds with prosecutors, who want tolimit it. Their struggle is playing out in courtrooms and statehouses acrossthe country.

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

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

Some lawmakers lean more toward a 2001 Florida law, which put a two-yeardeadline on inmates' post-conviction DNA requests. After the Oct. 1, 2003,deadline, police departments will be able to destroy evidence that might beused 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 himfrom prison in 1993, he had remained - unofficially - a suspect.

When Baltimore County prosecutors announced Friday that DNA evidence fromthat long-ago crime matched that of Maryland prison inmate Kimberly ShayRuffner, whose genetic profile was stored in the state's DNA database ofconvicted felons, Bloodsworth's supporters started asking what had taken solong. The state established its DNA database of convicted sex offenders in1994, a year after Bloodsworth was released from prison. Why didn't policetest it until last month?

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

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

"Sometimes they're much too slow because they're worried aboutembarrassment," he said. "This took entirely too long. There's no reason forit."

Defenders' mistrust

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

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

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

Josh Marquis, who is the district attorney in Astoria, Ore., and sits onthe board of directors of the National District Attorneys Association, saidhis organization opposed much of Leahy's legislation, the "InnocenceProtection Act" - and not because it did not want to see innocent people gofree.

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

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

In these situations, said Marquis, DNA testing drags out a case - somethingexpensive for taxpayers and devastating for victims' families. If there isunlimited access to DNA testing, he said, inmates will always come up withmore reasons to apply it to their cases.

"Guess how many times you can come up with a new claim of innocence?" hesaid. "You have to have some degree of finality."

Florida deadline

That was the thinking of the Florida Legislature, which in 2001 put atwo-year deadline on post-conviction requests for DNA testing. Prosecutors andlawmakers said that was a reasonable amount of time for inmates to ask fortesting. After that, police departments will be allowed to destroy evidence.

But Scheck and other defense attorneys have decried the Florida deadlineand seek to extend it. "There are hundreds of inmates who have contactedoverwhelmed Innocence Projects asking for help," Scheck said. "There's nomoney, no resources. It takes years to evaluate these cases. We won't be ableto do it in time."

Bloodsworth has gotten involved in the debate. As a consultant for theJustice Project, a nonprofit organization in Washington that pushes forjustice reforms, he is trying to promote passage of a new version of theInnocence Protection Act.

That legislation - which, among other measures, would have entitled inmatesto DNA testing and set requirements for representation and guidelines forinvestigations - was introduced during the past two sessions of Congress, butit did not move through committee.

This year, sponsors are working to revise the bill so it gets to a vote,said Mark Agrast, counsel and legislative director for Rep. Bill Delahunt, aMassachusetts Democrat who sponsored the act last year in the House ofRepresentatives.

National system urged

Bloodsworth and others said his case shows the need for a nationwide systemof DNA profiles and mandatory testing.

"I don't think there can be any better example of how the system can work,"said Wayne Smith, the executive director of the Justice Project. "We want toensure there is access to DNA testing, that when someone is exonerated thatlaw enforcement officials pursue those cold cases. Because when they try,without a great deal of effort, we can put guilty people behind bars."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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