Testing for Justice

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The clock is running out for inmates convicted before sophisticated DNA testing was available to pursue claims of innocence.

Gov. Jeb Bush has ordered evidence that could have been destroyed after October 1, preserved indefinitely, but even if the evidence is kept, there is no guarantee it will ever be tested.

The letters arrive daily. The letters are sent by the hundreds from prison inmates across the state to the Florida Innocence Initiative’s ramshackle office.

With a backlog of 1,000 cases and a staff of two, it is the initiative’s job to pick which cases have merit, and DNA evidence that could lead to a release of an innocent person. The initiative’s lone lawyers calls it a crisis.

Jennifer Greenberg of Innocence Initiative says, “It’s a crisis because we know we have many innocent people in prison and we know we can find and free some of them through DNA testing, and yet we have only until October first to do that."

Beginning October 1, local prosecutors and police could have destroyed old evidence containing untested DNA, but Jeb Bush stepped in preventing the destruction indefinitely.

“My hope is that the lawyers who are working on this on a pro-Bono basis will continue their work. I hope they will accelerate it to see if there are people who could be exonerated.”

The governor’s action is a step in the right direction because it keeps DNA evidence preserved, but the catch-22 is that come October 1, inmates lose the right to have that old evidence tested.

The initiative has two dozen cases in the pipeline that could lead to the release of innocent people. It wants lawmakers to address the issue in a special session.

Nationwide, DNA has reversed 160 convictions. In Florida there have been only two, but many more releases are expected if inmates are allowed to ask for new DNA tests on old evidence.